Are heavier employees more likely to be passed over for jobs?

James Zer­vios re­counts the story of a woman who was told she needed to lose weight to keep her job. She was a flight at­ten­dant who couldn’t buckle the seat belt on the plane’‍s jump seat.

“She was told if she did not lose enough weight to buckle the seat belt with­out a seat belt ex­tender, then she would be ter­mi­nated,” Mr. Zer­vios said.

As di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Obe­s­ity Ac­tion Co­a­li­tion, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Tampa, Fla., Mr. Zer­vios deals with weight-based dis­crim­i­na­tion a lot. He has worked with peo­ple who claim they weren’t pro­moted be­cause of their weight. Others al­lege they were fired be­cause of their in­abil­ity to per­form cer­tain tasks. About once a month, he’‍ll get a call from some­one who has been stig­ma­tized at work be­cause of their weight.

“Un­for­tu­nately, weight bias is alive and well,” Mr. Zer­vios said.

Re­search sup­ports that con­clu­sion. Heavier em­ploy­ees are more likely to lose their jobs or be passed over for po­si­tions than their thin­ner coun­ter­parts, ac­cord­ing to the Rudd Center for Food Pol­icy & Obe­s­ity at Yale Univer­sity.

“I think what’s safe to con­clude is that weight dis­crim­i­na­tion oc­curs at ev­ery stage of the em­ploy­ment cy­cle from get­ting hired to get­ting fired,” said Rebecca Puhl, dep­uty di­rec­tor at the Rudd Center. “What we see in ex­per­i­men­tal stud­ies, for ex­am­ple, is that hir­ing pro­fes­sion­als are less likely to hire an over­weight can­di­date as op­posed to a thin­ner can­di­date with the ex­act same qual­i­fi­ca­tions.”

In fact, she added, an em­ployer would rather hire a thin per­son who is less qual­i­fied for a po­si­tion than an over­weight per­son who is more qual­i­fied, es­pe­cially for jobs where a lot of so­cial in­ter­ac­tion with cli­ents is ex­pected.

A 2008 Rudd Center study of more than 2,800 Amer­i­cans found over­weight adults were 12 times more likely to re­port hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced weight-based em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion than thin­ner per­sons. Of the study’‍s par­tic­i­pants, 60 per­cent ex­pe­ri­enced at least one oc­cur­rence of em­ploy­ment-based dis­crim­i­na­tion due to weight is­sues.

More than one-third of Amer­i­can adults are obese, ac­cord­ing to the Center for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion.

Some ex­perts be­lieve dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of weight stems from ide­al­is­tic beauty stan­dards. “In gen­eral, more at­trac­tive peo­ple are viewed as hav­ing a num­ber of pos­i­tive traits, which re­flects em­ploy­ment de­ci­sions,” said Mark Roeh­ling, a pro­fes­sor at the School of Human Re­sources and La­bor Re­sources at Mich­i­gan State Univer­sity.

Others be­lieve weight-re­lated in­ci­dents can hap­pen to any­one, even those who don’t fit the typ­i­cal over­weight cri­te­rion.

“A per­son does not need to have an ex­tremely high body-mass in­dex to ex­pe­ri­ence dis­crim­i­na­tion and bias. Even those who aren't obese are be­ing teased about their weight,” Ms. Puhl said. “Cer­tainly, they’re much less likely to ex­pe­ri­ence bias and stigma than a per­son who is over­weight, but it doesn’t make them im­mune.”

There are few le­gal op­tions avail­able in these cases. A state law against weight-based dis­crim­i­na­tion has been passed in Mich­i­gan. Other sim­i­lar mea­sures have passed in cit­ies such as San Fran­cisco.

But cur­rently there are no fed­eral laws pre­vent­ing the prac­tice, which might be a rea­son it is of­ten over­looked, Ms. Puhl said. “Be­cause there is no le­gal re­course, peo­ple don’‍t come for­ward,” she said.

Some ex­perts think em­ploy­ers should do more to ad­dress the is­sue, but oth­ers ar­gue they could cause more dam­age than good.

“We no­tice em­ploy­ers will im­ple­ment some type of plan they think will ad­dress the is­sue, but in re­al­ity it stig­ma­tizes those who are over­weight or obese. We’ve seen cases where com­pa­nies would place a mon­e­tary pen­alty against some­one who’s BMI fell in the obe­sity range,” Mr. Zer­vios said. “Ba­si­cally, the em­ployer pe­nal­izes em­ploy­ees who have obe­sity and yet do not of­fer any type of ef­fec­tive work­place well­ness pro­gram.”

The Obe­s­ity Ac­tion Co­a­li­tion of­fers a weight bias guide for those try­ing to stop weight-based dis­crim­i­na­tion in their work­place that of­fers sug­ges­tions on how to im­prove work­ing con­di­tions for such in­di­vid­u­als. Ideas in­clude cre­at­ing a sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment and set­ting re­al­is­tic, at­tain­able weight goals.