Overweight workers face bias in hiring

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Bias toward overweight workers is especially strong in hiring, according to recent studies, which found that overweight applicants with the same qualifications often suffer from negative stereotypes and are perceived as unfit for jobs involving face-to-face interactions.  The current emphasis on wellness and lifestyles in the ongoing health care reform discussion may be contributing to even greater bias against overweight job seekers, because they are now perceived as likely to have health problems.

Prospective employers did not hesitate to say that good health and appearance were needed to land the jobs that Andrea Mucci Bjorklund, 35, was applying for at a job fair in Michigan, the only state to have laws protecting workers against weight-related discrimination. When Bjorklund, who went from 130 pounds in her 20s to 260 pounds after years of night school, bad eating and little exercise, did not receive an offer, she said that her weight was to blame, according to workforce.com. “I never experienced this kind of turn-away when I was less experienced and thinner. I think there is some discrimination against me being heavy, though it could all be perception.”

The Cleveland Clinic’s CEO, Toby Cosgrove, a frequent speaker on health care reform, raised the issue of Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA) protection for obese workers in a recent Wall Street Journal conversation.  Cosgrove said that the clinic doesn’t hire smokers — part of its effort to “walk the talk” about healthy lifestyles.  But apparently finding obesity a comparable lifestyle issue, he said that “it would be illegal to apply a similar standard to people who are obese, because they’re protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I can’t decide that I’m not going to hire somebody because they’re 400 pounds,” he said. “We don’t hire smokers, and that’s perfectly legal.” 

There is no federal law that protects a worker against discrimination based on obesity. Morbid obesity is considered a disability under provisions of the ADA when it “substantially limits a major life activity, substantially limited a major life activity in the past, or is regarded as substantially limiting,” the Journal article reports. Morbid obesity is defined as being twice the normal weight for a given height.

In his study of bias against overweight and obese employees at Wayne State University in Detroit, doctoral candidate Cort Rudolph found that “a lot of [negative stereotypes] transfer into the workplace in terms of people’s judgment about others’ abilities and appearance in relation to job performance,” ehstoday.com reports. But Rudolph found that these stereotypes were more likely to affect individuals when they were applying for a job and “less likely to affect overweight employees during performance evaluations or when under consideration for promotions. The bias is stronger, however, when the job entails frequent face-to-face interaction with customers or others.”

Common stereotypes cited in Rudolf’s study included laziness, sloppiness and a lack of self-discipline and control. He also found that employers are more likely to believe that overweight workers have increased health problems.  

A brief published in 2009 by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and based on numerous studies found similar stereotypes. The Rudd study also found some discrimination among those already employed and cited a source that said that some companies are planning to penalize employees for being overweight through company benefits programs. 

The Rudd Center is active in recommending a tax on sugary soft drinks.

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