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We’re so excited to be hosting our weight discrimination workshop at Living Large Chicago. And, we’re not sure if you have heard, but we’re hosting our VERY OWN career/networking weekend in February for plus women! For those who don’t know what weight discrimination is or how it can impact you, we thought we’d write an article on how it can make a major impact in your career! It’s a long one, but it’s worth the read. Be bold!

Weight discrimination is one of the most prevalent forms of employment discrimination in the United States, rivaling that of gender and race discrimination (Puhl, Andreyeva, & Brownell, 2008). From hiring through discharge, weight discrimination is visible throughout the entire employment process (Roehling, Roehling, & Odland, 2008). It is especially visible during selection, but can affect the salaries and promotions of already hired employees (Haskins & Ransford, 1999). And, it is not limited to any one industry or job type (McEvoy, 1992).  This was further supported by Rudolph et. al. (2009).

There is one consistent moderating variable that continues to affect the overweight throughout employment and that is gender. Overweight women are discriminated against far more than men. This translates into a more prominent glass ceiling for female executives who cannot earn promotions and raises as their careers progress (Henlon & Roehling, 2009).  However, most of the cases of weight discrimination towards females are simply categorized as gender bias (Roehling, 2002). This is one reason, among many, that the overweight have not been categorized as their own protected class. However, researchers and lawmakers are constantly challenging that mindset.

Throughout this paper, we will follow the instances of weight discrimination throughout the hiring process, especially during hiring. We will also examine the most common moderator of weight discrimination in gender. Overweight women are discriminated far more than overweight men. Lastly, we will address why the overweight are not a protected class, despite a plethora of court cases citing weight discrimination. We will also discuss what is currently being done as well as best ethical practices to keep the overweight safe and comfortable at work.


Weight Discrimination Throughout the Employment Process

There are a number of pivotal employment events in which weight discrimination can occur, from hiring and placement to compensation, promotion, discipline and even discharge and career counseling (Roehling, Roehling, & Pichler, 2007; Roehling, 1999). This could be due to a number of weight-related stereotypes that exist when assessing overweight candidates including their extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism. While these stereotypes are not actually grounded in science, they do exist throughout the employment process. Grant and Mizzi (2014) found that employability ratings (questions that would accompany the hiring process) were negatively correlated with obesity stereotypes and positively correlated with physical attractiveness stereotypes. Obesity stereotypes included being lazy, self-indulgent, undisciplined, gluttonous, unhealthy, sluggish, lacking willpower, and being unclean while those who are physically attractive are stereotyped as more sociable, more dominant, sexually warmer, mentally healthier, more intelligent, and more sociable. These stereotypes are amplified when the overweight or obese are in sales or customer facing roles and also make the overweight employees less desirable to work with.

The obesity stereotypes discussed above are have been challenged by multiple studies (Roehling, Roehling, & Odland, 2008). Prior to performing their two studies regarding weight discrimination and stereotypes, Roehling et. al. cited over ten studies that unsuccessfully sought to prove true the stereotypes about the overweight including agreeableness, neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Even during their own studies, the findings were not significant in most cases, and unsupported. The reason they are so heavily weighted is because of the perception that they have a significant effect on work tasks (Roehling, 2002).  But, so many stereotypes are not grounded in reality. For example, the overweight are said to look guiltier than the non-overweight (Schvey et al., 2013). This is untrue. In many countries, increased weight is associated with lower education levels , which is also untrue (Brewis et. al, 2011).

Weight discrimination is especially prevalent during the hiring process (Roehling, M. V., Roehling, P. V., & Pichler, S. 2007). A heavier employee, for example, being hired in the airline industry, might still be discriminated against even after the weight and size requirements at an airline are waved or eradicated (McEvoy, 1992). Major concerns among employers include a higher risk in insuring these employees and the potential issues that may occur due to health related absences. While heavier employees are discriminated against during the hiring process, consistently, industry and type of job have either minimal or non-significant results on the hiring of overweight employees (Grant & Mizzi, 2014).

Model Chrysinthia “D.N.A” Leggett

Weight Discrimination also occurs during training. Such was the case during Donoghue v. County of Orange when Deputy Sheriff discriminated against based on her size. Although she was able to be hired, the discrimination was much more subtle, in the form of bullying and a hostile work environment during her training. The same happened during Shelton v. Brunson when Officer Shelton was denied promotion after two years of training because his weight had fluctuated and he was considered obese. He was not treated fairly during or after his training and had no other recourse other than to leave the Air Force (McEvoy, 1992).

The administration of employee benefits can also be effected by weight discrimination. During the 1990s, employers like U-Haul also put pressure on the overweight by charging them an extra insurance premium of $120.00 in order to stay insured by the company health insurance program. This is the same charge that was accrued by smokers during that time. Health care costs are a legitimate potential concern for employers. However,  employers and hiring managers are not using that information for hiring. In a recent study on employability ratings, it was found that employers who rate potential employees based on their weight do not focus on special employment needs and therefore do not consider the cost to their organization. Instead they focused on biases on physical attractiveness. (Grant & Mizzi, 2014)

Weight discrimination also occurs throughout the promotion process. This can have a lasting effect on salaries of employees already hired. In a study by Frieze, Olson, and Good (1990), a number of physical appearance factors were found to contribute to the promotion process as well as salaries of managers. This includes, but is not limited to weight and height and a combination of the two. This was found to be prevalent in both men and women. Additionally, in both court cases listed above, weight discrimination not only played a large role in the hostile training of the employees, but also became a huge barrier to those employees becoming promoted by the agencies they had worked for (McEvoy, 1992).

While weight discrimination can occur on record during specific employment events like the selection, training, or promotion process, there are other subtle ways in which the overweight can be mistreated. Workplace hostility, especially workplace harassment, is a common theme discussed by the overweight in the workplace, in general (Johnson, 1995). The overweight have reported bullying and name-calling at the office, specifically due to their weight (Wolkinson & Roehling, 2008). Empirical evidence suggests that the overweight commonly face this type of mistreatment due to weight/height and that the prevalence can occur in some cases were more than gender and race discrimination (Puhl, Andreyeva, & Brownell, 2008). One such case involved denigrating written materials as a company employee distributed a calendar containing obese people to other employees (Wolkinson & Roehling, 2007).


Weight Discrimination: A Gender Issue

Portrait of cute obese woman standing against mirror in gym and measuring waist size with tape after workout, looking upset and confused

Women face an exorbitant amount of discrimination, in the workplace in general. Our society places a huge emphasis on thinness and attractiveness on women, which tends to make its way into the workforce. This is because women, and especially their attractiveness, are valued based on their appearance. Men, on the other hand are thought of as being attractive based on appearance, personality, occupational success, and intelligence (Haskins & Ransford, 1999). The reason this is relevant is that physical appearance is often cited as a hiring factor (Frieze, Olson, & Good 1990). Even without the workplace setting, women’s weight plays a much more impactful role than males in their every day lives. For example, obese undergraduate women have been found to date less than obese males of the same age. Obese women are married less often than non-obese women, while these have little to no effect on males. And, men rated obese women as being less attractive than those with STDs, physical disabilities, or severe mental illness  (Roehling, 2012).

This is why being an overweight woman may be more limiting than being an overweight male in the workplace (Haskins & Ransford, 1999). Obese and overweight women are less likely to be selected and will receive lower starting salaries than those with lower body weights (Obrien, et. al., 2013). Sixteen percent of hiring managers would not consider hiring an obese woman at all (Kristen, 2002). In Roehling’s study (1999), where he identified multiple phases of employment events in which the overweight were discriminated against, also identified one very eye-opening factor. In some cases, men were either unaffected or moderately affected by weight stigmas. The relationship between weight and discrimination was much more prevalent in women. Moreover, women are sixteen times more likely to experience weight discrimination than men are (Roehling et. al, 2007).

Weight can also contribute to the glass ceiling effect in women, as they look for promotions and higher salaries after selection (Henlon & Roehling, 2009). This gender and weight interaction was found to be limiting in the case of Donoghue v. County of Orange, in which a newly appointed Deputy Sheriff Donoghue was required to do more cardiovascular exercises and weight training than other trainees due to her size (McEvoy, 1992). What was even more unsettling was that there were males in the same training class who had been categorized as overweight, but were not required to do these extra exercises. They were also not spoken to as harshly as Sheriff Donoghue. The treatment ultimately prevented Donoghue from being promoted and earning more. Empirically, this is also supported Haskins and Ransford (1999). The results of this study indicated that female weight did significantly affect salary, especially in certain occupations within a specific industry. The study also indicated that overweight women in entry level and managerial positions earned significantly less than non-overweight women.

Gender and Weight also interact to create major barriers throughout the work environment, in general. Compared with female participants in a study on stereotypes, male participants wanted to work with obese female targets significantly less than if those roles were reversed (Grant & Mizzi, 2014). The study by Grant and Mizzi focused on stereotypes of overweight female employees. A significant relationship between obesity and negative stereotypes was found, regardless of job type. This had a significant effect on employability ratings, as well, which leads employees to be less desirable. Although, this is in direct contradiction with Haskins and Ransford (1999), who did see certain occupations affect overweight females more directly. The caveat not previously discussed is that those occupations were male-dominated and females in those industries were not valued as much based on their job skills, but on their appearance. The same can be said of a female dominated industry, the airline industry, where women have been historically discriminated against due to their size, regardless of actual size and weight requirements (Lynch, 1996).

Workplace hostility involving overweight females is blind to industry, job type, or level of management. The above studies and cases are really isolated incidents. These stereotypes and low desirability ratings exist at all levels of employment and in all industries, specifically for female employees (Callis, 1974). Stereotyping and lower desirability ratings will often lead to a hostile work environment, including but not limited to harassment, name calling, and exclusion from social events, specifically for overweight females  (Roehling, Roehling, & Wagstaff, 2013). The result of such mindsets and workplace hostility is that over 62% of court cases involving weight discrimination are filed by female employees and job candidates (Wolkinson & Roehling, 2007). This is typically why so many weight discrimination cases are categorized improperly as gender cases (Roehling, 2002).

Should the Overweight be Protected?

Regarding the filing of lawsuits, there are a few ways this can happen in order for an overweight employee to seek justice. Right now, an overweight applicant or employee who has been discriminated against has three courses of action they can take: The first is to find out if they live in one of six major cities or the one state that protects the overweight as its own class (Minnesota Department of Human Rights, 2014; Roehling, 2002). These cities and state include San Francisco, CA, Santa Cruz, CA, Madison, WI, Urbana, IL, Binghamton, NY, and Washington, DC. The only state that recognizes the overweight as a protected class is Michigan. There are many who think that the overweight should be a protected class federally, however. Especially since those cases not tied to protected classes could fall through the cracks. Another reason these cases may not hold is that the ones tied to protected classes may not have enough substantial evidence that the class was discriminated against without weight considerations (Reaves, 1983). If the applicant or employee does not live in one of these areas, they must take one of two routes to ensure protection. The only way they can file a lawsuit or earn rights as a protected class is if they have a disability caused by severe obesity or they can prove that their case is gender based (Kristen, 2002).

The issue of whether or not the overweight should be protected is tied to gender, because that is where the majority of the discrimination takes place. In the ruling of Donoghue v. County of Orange, Donoghue did not win her case because she was overweight, but because she was an overweight female. In fact, while there was a clear case of weight discrimination, the plaintiff plead that her employer was discriminating against her due to her gender, only (McEvoy, 1992) Because of the injustice that overweight women face, there is a need to be heard. And, overweight females, who belong to two minority categories, might choose the latter, which is a protected class, to fight their battle (Kristen, 2002).

While obesity may lead to a number of disabilities, and a number of weight discrimination cases involve protected classes like females, weight itself is not a protected class. The overweight would actually be denied employment over protected classes like the disabled or other classes liked ex-convicts (Roehling, 1999). Title VII of the CRA of 1991 does not identify weight as a protected class, which is why any case won by an overweight employee would have to be based on another type of discrimination like gender, for example.  The overweight have been tied to the disabled ever since the ADA was passed in 1991. It saw much “heat” and controversy throughout the early and mid-1990s when court precedents and rulings were still being set and the law could be interpreted to accommodate the obese and overweight (Johnson & Wilson, 1995). However, what was ultimately found was that only the severely obese can be considered disabled, and that is typically looked at on a case-by-case basis (Johnson, 1995). And, while many who are overweight or obese do not consider it to be a disability, there are a number of weight discrimination cases that have been won on the basis of disability discrimination (McEvoy, 1992).

Despite not being a protected class, the overweight are one of the largest minority groups in the country, and they continue to grow in size. Currently, more than one-third (34.9%) of U.S. adults are obese, and that does not count those who are simply overweight. Counting those who are simply overweight, More than two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2014). This is the result of a 100% increase over the past thirty years. That number will continue to rise as the CDC reports that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years (CDC Statistics on Obesity, n.d.). As those children and adolescents age, they will enter the workforce as the most overweight employed population we’ve ever seen in 2030, with those same two thirds of overweight adults being obese (Begley, 2012).

If the overweight population continues to increase, measures should be taken to protect them throughout the employment process (Roehling, 2002). Currently, there are six cities and one state (Michigan) that have protected the overweight and obese (Reaves, 1983). But, the protection is inconsistent, leaving researchers and lawmakers wondering if enough is being done to protect the overweight. There has also been much debate about the current protection expanding to a federal designation (Schallenkamp, DeBaurmont, & Houy, 2012). As this discussion continues, there a number of hurdles and barriers that advocates will face, including health concerns, company costs, and stereotypes surrounding the overweight and obese (McEvoy 1992). While employer concerns are founded, those who are obese are in an unfortunate situation, facing disparate treatment, but no protection like the disabled (Roehling, 2002).

One reason that the overweight are not yet considered a protected class is because there are so many factors to consider in the weight of an applicant including diet, genetics, variations of overweight/obese people, and the debate as whether or not being overweight is as unhealthy as we think it is (Kristen, 2002). It is not as easy to define and recognize when weight discrimination is even occurring. It is easier to obtain height and weight requirements or variables, and their linkages to gender specifically, when there is a BFOQ associated with these restrictions (Callis, 1974; Roehling, 2002). As the overweight vary in size and cause of weight gain, it is difficult to categorize them properly. An obese an

Another major reason that the overweight are not protected is that there is still much debate as to whether or not there are legitimate costs associated with hiring heavier employees. Despite empirical evidence showing that the overweight do not perform at a lower level than other employees, this stigma still exists in the employment world. There is also an expected higher cost associated with hiring heavier employees. This includes health care costs and the costs of plus sized furniture and facility accommodations. Other major factors include pressure from others to conform to anti-fat thinking and blameworthiness, asserting that it is the overweight’s fault that they are overweight (Roehling, 2002). Blameworthiness is the major reason that the obese are often debated as not disabled, since someone can assert that some who are overweight have the power not to be (Johnson & Wilson, 1995). However, none of these are fundamental reasons an employee’s weight should be considered as a hiring barrier. There are only a few reasons that the weight of an employee should be considered: that is when it Because the overweight are not a protected class, this way of thinking is perfectly legal, but not necessarily ethical. Roehling (2002) proposes a number of minimal employer ethical obligations in order to be more considerate and accommodating to the overweight: (1) Employers should consider only job relevant information (2) Employers should be able to demonstrate higher costs associated with the hiring of overweight employees and (3) To take reasonable steps to cease disparate treatment of overweight female employees. Right now, thought, because it is not a legal obligation, and employers are focused on protecting classes related to race, gender, and age, they cannot make the reasonable accommodations expressed by Roehling (Reaves, 1983). But, in nearly every single study conducted by Roehling or Roehling and Roehling, there are a number of legal considerations discussed and reiterated, making it a serious concern for future lawmakers (Roehling, 1999; Roehling, 2002).


Stereotypes, biases, and lower employment ratings can affect the overweight population throughout their career, from dealing with selection discrimination to hostile work environments. While the majority of these stereotypes are not rooted in scientific research, the continue to plague the overweight. This is specifically true for overweight females, who face an even thicker glass ceiling due to their physical appearance having a significant affect on their perceived value both in and outside of the workplace. This disparate treatment has lead researchers and lawmakers to continue to raise the topic of bringing overweight class protection from the few major cities it is in to the federal level. In the meantime, there are ethical best practices that employers should be taking to ensure that the overweight are treated fairly.

This article was sponsored by Aider Solutions: Where Strategy Meets People

The only staffing, development, and human capital onsulting firm devoted to the plus universe


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