Obesity is well-recognized as a risk factor for various illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, being overweight or obese could also have negative implications on a person’s career. Several studies indicate that there is appearance-based discrimination in the workplace.
So, does being overweight hurt your chances of employment? Yes. Being overweight can make the process of landing a job more difficult, especially for women. Studies show that some employers perceive obese individuals as “lazy” or “unprofessional” and are therefore less likely to hire them.
If you’re currently overweight and looking for a job, this may be a subject of interest to you. It helps to know what goes through your potential employer’s mind when they look at you and how that affects your chances of employment. In this article, you’ll learn what researchers have to say about this topic and the ways you can improve your chances of employment without your appearance getting in the way.
Does Being Overweight Hurt Your Chances of Employment?
You’re over the moon after your phone interview. You do not doubt that you aced it and the job is yours. Then, you have an in-person interview. Before the recruiter takes a look at your resume or asks you any questions, they apologize and tell you that the position has been filled.
What did you do wrong? Did they all of a sudden remember something you said in your phone interview that removed you from the race?
This scenario is all too familiar for many overweight individuals who have fallen victim to workplace discrimination. And based on a gender bias survey done by Fairygodboss – an employer review site for women – the situation may be worse than it seems.
The survey included 500 hiring professionals who showed different biases that could affect women’s employability. One of the notable findings was that weight could affect your chances of employment.
In one of the studies, the focus group was shown images of women with different body types and asked questions based on the photos. 21% of hiring professionals described overweight women as “lazy.” This description wasn’t selected as frequently for women with different body types.
Another 21% described the heavy women as “unprofessional,” while 18% said they had “leadership potential.” From the study, only 15.6% said they would hire the heaviest looking woman.
Being Overweight Doesn’t Just Affect Your Chances of Landing a Job
According to Mark Roehling, Michigan State University associate professor, weight-based discrimination doesn’t end at the recruitment stage. Those who manage to get through the first stage and into employment also face discrimination based on their appearance.
Roehling’s work shows that weight-based discrimination affects all aspects of employment from pay allocation, hiring and firing, career counseling, promotions, and discipline. However, further research shows that overweight white women experience this bias more compared to other women because they’re battling both being overweight and trying to get through the “glass ceiling.”
A study by Cornell University Associate Professor John Cawley found that when an average white woman gains 64 pounds, her salary drops by 9%.
According to Roehling, overweight white women are also evaluated more harshly compared to obese African American women. His findings also revealed that African American recruiters tend to be more accepting of overweight individuals compared to whites.
Charles Baum, of Middle Tennessee State University, also reported that obesity could lower a man’s annual salary by 2.3% and by as much as 6.2% for a woman.
Why Do Employers Discriminate Because of Weight?
There’s no doubt that employers know that they should hire people based on their skills, experience, and ability to handle the task at hand. So it’s surprising that most of them would judge a potential candidate based solely on their physical appearance. But why is this?
There are several reasons why an employer may dismiss you based on your weight. These include:
Employers are humans. So, they can easily fall into the same patterns as the rest of us. Some people perceive overweight and obese individuals as unmotivated, lazy, unhealthy, emotionally unstable, and irresponsible.
Employers are no different. They stereotype employees in the same way. A study by Rebecca Puhl and Kelly D. Brownell on Bias, Discrimination, and Obesity found that employers consider overweight applicants to be less competent, less disciplined, lazy, and emotionally unstable.
The same study also found that obese individuals were less likely to get a salary increase or be promoted. Not to mention, some individuals cited being terminated or suspended due to their weight.
It’s a Risky Move for Employers
Some recruiters believe hiring an overweight individual can be risky for their business. One of the explanations for this way of thinking is the fact that obese individuals are at high risk of diseases and health issues such as strokes, heart attacks, cancer, and other cardiovascular diseases.
For this reason, some employers believe that if they hire an overweight person, they might have to go through the entire recruitment process again sooner or later. Recruiters also feel that they’re justified to pass on obese individuals because the productivity losses stemming from obesity-related absenteeism is quite high.
According to Yale News, productivity loss due to obesity-related absenteeism is at an estimated $8.65 billion a year. Granted, no employer wants to be on the losing side. For this reason, they go above and beyond to ensure they only make profits – even if it means discriminating against overweight individuals along the way.
Apart from the stigma and risk associated with hiring overweight people, some employers also choose not to hire an obese person due to insurance restrictions. Gallop Poll reported that the majority of Americans do not support the idea of giving high insurance premiums to overweight individuals.
Therefore, if the employers see an individual as a possible “additional cost” they won’t have to spend on someone else, they’d rather continue the recruitment process.
The Alternative to Weight-Based Discrimination for Employers
Employers should provide equal opportunities to all their employees regardless of their body weight. Harvard Business Review shows that rewarding good behavior is more effective than punishment.
So what are some of the ways that employers can fight obesity in the workplace and improve overall employee productivity?
1. Encourage a Healthy Work Environment.
According to Kimi Sokhi, a holistic nutritionist and hypnotherapist, good intentions are not enough when you want to make long-lasting changes in the workplace. You need to have an action plan. For things to turn around, you need to incorporate a healthy workplace culture into the fabric of your company.
Sohki suggests, “If you want a healthy workforce, you have to make it a priority. Have a wellness strategy that’s written down and shared with the entire company. Make sure you have buy-in from your C-suite. Get them on board by showing them the ROI of investing in workplace wellness.”
Sokhi also encourages employers to tackle the pressing health issues in their company by educating, empowering, and supporting their employees to make positive changes that are in line with the company policy.
This approach is bound to yield very positive results because instead of attacking and offering few opportunities to the overweight and obese, you’re maintaining equal opportunities and encouraging them to prioritize their health without punishing them.
2. Stop Supplying Unhealthy Foods at Work.
It’s unrealistic to expect that every slim employee you hire will maintain their body throughout the time they work for you. People change due to different circumstances. An employee may gain weight after pregnancy, depression, or even begin a cycle of bad eating habits without exercising because they must sit at a desk all day.
Instead of firing everyone or lowering their wages because they gained weight, a better alternative is to phase out unhealthy foods from the workplace. It’s easy for someone to overindulge in unhealthy food when they are sitting at their desk, crunching on different snacks without paying attention.
Therefore, if your workplace cafeteria has been serving unhealthy food and possibly encouraging an unhealthy lifestyle, it may be time to start making some changes. Incorporate healthy food options and see what difference it makes.
However, if you decide to do this, don’t change everything all at once. Start by replacing certain foods one at a time until the employees get accustomed to the changes. The changes will encourage them to make better food decisions even at home.
3. Change Your Reward Tactics.
Many employers show their appreciation and affection for employees with sweet treats. Often, this includes providing high carbohydrate and sugary treats like doughnuts, muffins, and chocolate.
This workplace culture can lead to unhealthy eating habits. Think about it. If you’re continually rewarding the same employee with doughnuts every few days, what will that do to their weight if they are not keen on watching their diet or exercising?
Instead of rewarding them with food, think of giving them non-edible rewards like gift cards. Gift cards may sound more expensive than the occasional doughnuts, but with the right approach, it should work.
For instance, if you’re used to handing over rewards every week for five people, you can change the reward system to be every two weeks for the same five people. This way, you’ll get to spend almost the same amount of money while avoiding encouraging bad eating habits in the workplace.
4. Get Your Workers Moving.
One of the causes of obesity is a sedentary lifestyle. If your employees get home and sit on the couch snacking on something and come to work and sit all day, there’s a high chance they’ll start gaining weight. It’s even worse if they’ve spent the entire day eating all the wonderful workplace treats that keep going round.
John Paul Titlow explains the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle in his article “Sitting All Day Will Kill You, But a 2-Minute Walk Can Change That.” Scheduling a few minutes of walking or working out can make all the difference. Sokhi recommends giving all your employees 15 minutes of walking breaks in addition to their lunch break.
“Studies have shown that taking a break every 30-45 minutes and walking around the office is much healthier than sitting all day and then going to the gym at the end of the day,” says Sokhi.
However, the occasional walk isn’t just right for your employees’ blood pressure and waistline. It’s also good for their productivity. Our brains can only focus on about 45 to 60 minutes. Therefore, the occasional breaks ensure every employee gets a chance to be refreshed and ready to continue working.
Apart from taking breaks at work, you should also plan team building activities for your employees once in a while. These activities take them out of the typical job setting, and they get a chance to work out and interact. It is not only good for maintaining a healthy lifestyle but also encourages teamwork.
5. Use Technology to Your Advantage
Thanks to technology, you don’t have to do much to encourage healthy living in the workplace. Today, we have things like treadmill workstations that allow employees to get a workout as they work and standing workstations that reduce the amount of time they’re spending sitting.
And if you’re worried about the costs you’ll incur, you don’t have to get one for everyone. You can set up a treadmill or biking workstations in different parts of the working area and encourage everyone to use them at least once during the day.
By doing this, you’ll encourage your employees to keep moving without losing any work hours. However, you should not replace this with breaks. Your employees still need to take occasional breaks to reset before they get back to work.
6. Maintain a Healthy Working Environment.
Encouraging healthy living isn’t just about helping your employees to eat healthier and walk more, and getting them fancy gadgets. You also need to ensure that the workplace is a peaceful environment for everyone.
Don’t be a drill sergeant that’s always looking down on your employees and making them feel inferior. Create a workplace where people are free to share their ideas and work with each other. You should also establish peaceful methods of conflict resolution to maintain peace.
This way, none of your employees will fall into depression or other cycles that may encourage unhealthy eating habits.
How Can Overweight Individuals Deal with Discrimination That Affects Their Career?
If you’re a victim of weight-based discrimination, you may be tempted to give up trying to land your dream job. Some people also go into unhealthy weight loss patterns to try and lose weight to get a job. However, there are healthier ways to deal with this situation.
Don’t Hold Yourself Back
After facing one too many rejections due to your weight, you may give up searching for a job altogether. Don’t lose hope. Although it’s a reality that employers discriminate based on weight, not all of them do it. Some employers are open-minded and will consider your skills without considering your physical appearance.
It may take some time to get an employer who looks past your weight but trying improves your chances. So, don’t let your weight be a hindrance when you are trying to land your dream job.
Take Legal Action
In the state of Michigan and some isolated cities, it’s illegal to discriminate against an employee based on their weight. According to HG.org, a victim of weight-based discrimination can file a lawsuit if an employer discriminates against them in a manner provided by law. By doing so, they’ll receive “remedies available under the relevant state statutes or city ordinances.”
However, you should know that taking legal action isn’t an option for most people in the US because weight-based discrimination is not considered a legal offense in many states.
Nonetheless, it’s advisable to seek legal advice if you believe you’re a victim of workplace discrimination based on your weight. Working with a lawyer will help you understand your options.
If you’ve tried everything and still can’t get a job due to your weight, it may be time to try making your own success. If you’ve been considering starting your own business, this may be the best time to do it. It may even be a better opportunity than employment because you get to make the rules and enjoy all the profits.
Does being overweight hurt your chances of employment? Yes, as you can see, there’s plenty of research that proves the existence of weight-related bias in the workplace. For this unfortunate stigma to come to an end, we need significant shifts in societal attitudes and mindsets.
National actions should also be taken to include weight discrimination in legislation to ensure that overweight and obese individuals get the equitable treatment they deserve. In the meantime, employers should be open to hiring overweight and obese individuals and come up with ways to encourage a healthy lifestyle without discriminating and punishing them.
Remember that some businesses will not discriminate against weight when it comes to employment. Being overweight may make your job search more difficult, but it is not impossible to find success even if you’ve gained some extra weight!