A weighty issue: Does being obese damage your chances of promotion?
As I reported in my last blog, a person’s outer/physical image is not necessarily the most influential factor when choosing candidates for promotion – based on a recent study. However, you wouldn’t have to trawl the internet for long to find examples of discrimination against employees based on their physical appearance, and cases where workers have been passed over for promotion because of how they look.
So, how much does our appearance affect our careers? From the way we dress, our tattoos and piercings, even our gender and how attractive we’re perceived to be – all have been grounds for discrimination in people’s careers. In this post, however, I’m going to address obesity, and how it’s perceived in the workplace.
Obesity discrimination does happen
A 2012 study, led by The University of Manchester and Monash University, Melbourne, found that prejudice against people’s weight did indeed exist. Said Dr Kerry O’Brien, “We found that strong obesity discrimination was displayed across all job selection criteria, such as starting salary, leadership potential, and the likelihood of selecting an obese candidate for a job.”
Dr Boris Baites, a psychology professor at Wayne State, confirms that obese employees are victims of stereotyping. His research showed that weight based bias is stronger than that for race or gender, and speculated that this is because obesity is generally considered to be within a person’s self-control. One UK manager even admitted, “Whatever else you know, there’s a gnawing feeling at the back of your mind that fat people are lazy, greedy and undisciplined.”
Even if an overweight or obese candidate was in perfect health, assumptions that they would not be capable of carrying out certain roles could limit their career prospects, such as professions that require sustained mobility or a degree of physical exertion. There’s also the very real assumption that obese employees need more time off work than their slimmer colleagues, due to weight-related complications and illnesses.
Weight and gender
If prejudice indeed exists against the obese, is it experienced proportionately by both male and female executives?
A study by Michigan State University suggested that women are viewed far more negatively than men, and are held to harsher weight standards.
Is obesity a scapegoat, or a justifiable decisive factor?
A UK survey in 2007 for Personnel Today magazine revealed 93% of human resources professionals would give the job to the thinner person when choosing between two candidates of equal ability.
Is this wholly shocking? Ask yourself the same question: if ability was resolutely equal between two promising candidates, what factors would you apply to decide between them? What other elements could separate two identical candidates, and what benefits would you imagine an obese or overweight person would bring to the role that are attributable to their size?
Whether you’re in agreement that obesity is a legitimate decisive factor when promoting or hiring, or not, it’s clear many think it’s justifiable to turn someone down or pass someone over because of their size. Around a third of HR professionals, in the same survey, believe obesity is a valid medical reason for not employing a person, and 15% agree they would be less likely to promote an obese employee.
Is obesity a disability?
In July 2014 EU advice suggested that obesity should be treated as a disability. With the average clothing size of UK women as 16, and given that almost one in four of the UK population is obese, the impact of such a recommendation surely affects almost every organisation. Though the Advocate General ruled that only those with a BMI of 40 or more should legally be classed as disabled, companies that choose to ignore or discriminate against their obese and overweight employees may find themselves at risk of compensation claims.
How much is society to blame?
Dr Viren Swami, evolutionary psychologist at Liverpool University’s Department of Public Health, says, “We are bombarded on a daily basis with the idea that only attractive people can be successful, and that to be attractive means to be thin.” There’s little wonder, with this mind-set promoted all around us, in the media and society itself, that obesity is seen so negatively.
What’s the answer? More support towards society’s ‘ideal’, i.e. help for the obese to be thinner, and, in turn, more ‘successful’? Or greater acceptance of the obese in the workplace, eradicating discrimination on the grounds of their weight?
But, if we accept obesity, are we supporting more long-term, costly problems, such as reinforced chairs and toilets/facilities, in the workplace? What other benefits does acceptance bring? I’d love to hear your views on this topic.
A New Year is upon us, and if there are any aspects holding your career back, please do contact me for a no-obligation chat on 01302 220021, or contact me via email@example.com.
Thanks to vorakorn at freedigitalphotos.net for use of the image.