The other day, I read a post by one of my favorite HR bloggers, Laurie Ruettimann, about a boss who told her not to hire certain nurses, because “Chairman hates fat women” and “you can’t have a fat nurse around here.”
Even though it was years ago, Ruettimann said this “still happens.” Google was recently accused of such practices.
The indirect excuses you hear about why an overweight candidate didn’t get the job are ridiculous:
- “They’re lazy.”
- “They’ll be chronically ill.”
- “They drive up insurance premiums.”
- “They don’t fit in with our company image.”
I spoke with Lisa Tealer, program director for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, and she tells me that weight discrimination is an ongoing issue. When it comes to survival of the fittest, the winner is the thinner.
“We live in a very fat-phobic society,” she said. “From our [NAAFA’s] perspective, we seem to be getting more emails or calls about weight discrimination. A lot of times, the assumptions that they’re making are inaccurate.”
NAAFA, a volunteer organization, was formed in 1969 as a social support group, but “it has morphed into a civil rights organization” to eliminate weight discrimination in the workplace, medical world and even in education.
That’s right – according to Tealer, there are some educational programs that have denied overweight people entrance, saying they won’t be taken seriously as professionals.
In the job industry, from what Tealer told me, it’s not just discrimination against portlier candidates. It sounds as if employers are scaling back on current employees, if they think there’s a weight problem.
She shared with me a story about a man who was told to lose 60 lbs. by his employer.
“They had these ladders that held up to a certain weight,” Tealer said.
The employee suggested purchasing ladders that allowed for heavier weights, which wouldn’t have cost the company that much, Tealer said. But the employer rejected the idea, instead giving the employee a time period within which he had to lose weight.
The man eventually lost his job. When he tried to take legal action, he lost as well.
Given the choice between a few more ladders or legal fees, which do you think would cost the least?
“It’s that prevalent that people are so much into how you weigh … that they will make really bad business decisions,” Tealer commented.
Though Tealer said she hasn’t seen many cases of this happening as far as staffing agencies are concerned, there is high evidence of people who go through a phone interview only to be turned down once they meet the HR managers face to face.
Or, she added, on the day before their probationary periods end, the employer will say something like, “It’s just not working out or it’s just not a good fit.”
And speaking of “fit,” that’s one industry where NAAFA sees the most discrimination, she told me. A good example of this is Jennifer Portnick, who sued a company after it turned her down for an aerobics instructor position because “she didn’t have the ‘look.’”
Healthcare and medical settings also “seem to be a hotbed of discrimination,” she added. “[It’s] anything that’s kind of based on physical appearance,” she told me.
Only one state – Michigan – has a law that prohibits weight discrimination in the workplace.
Lansing attorney James Thelen said in a SHRM article that “an employer would have to show that the appearance standard is ‘necessary for the normal operation of the business.’”
There are only six cities – Madison (WI), Binghamton (NY), San Francisco, Santa Cruz (CA), Urbana (IL) and Washington, D.C. – that have laws like this.
“There really isn’t any federal protection,” Tealer told me, nor is there any legislation to cite when it comes to proving a case.
The ADA’s expansion of coverage has included obesity in some circumstances, Tealer explained, as if there is any possibility of perceived disability stemming from a person’s weight, “it is a form of discrimination. A person could technically file a complaint. Employers are kind of getting nervous.”
NAAFA is there to connect those facing discrimination with attorneys.
The organization has a wealth of material, including a size diversity toolkit they send to Fortune 500 companies and academic institutions, which “are resources to help employees be more inclusive when it comes to size diversity,” Tealer said. “It’s really about awareness.”
And there are positive things employers can do like provide discounts on gym passes, “to give employees options they can easily incorporate.”
NAAFA’s trying to protect people’s rights, not “make people fat,” as Tealer said NAAFA has been accused of in the past. “That’s just not the case.”
“Regardless of anybody’s health status or weight, they still should have rights,” she said. “For us, it’s the civil rights issue.”
We want to know: have you ever been discriminated against because of your size? Has one of your customers refused to hire one of your placements? Please leave your story in the comments below!