Even those within the healthy BMI range are judged, according to a new study.
In an ideal world, all people would be evaluated in the workplace only by the quality of their work. Regrettably, that's not how things are. While there are many ways people can be judged on their appearance, one of the most troubling forms of workplace bias is weight discrimination. Bias against those who are perceived as overweight or obese is long-standing and well-documented. A comprehensive 2001 study published in Obesity found that overweight people experience discrimination not just in employment, but also in health care and education, potentially receiving a lower quality of care and attention in both areas. Another study in the International Journal of Obesity found that obesity discrimination was correlated with lower starting salaries at work as well as a decrease in predicted career success and leadership potential. This has been a problem for decades. And sadly, it doesn't seem to be getting better.
In a study published last week, a team of researchers tackled a less-investigated area of weight discrimination: people who fall on the upper end of the "healthy" BMI (body mass index) range. This study stands apart from previous ones because it showed that people who are actually healthy (according to their BMIs) were discriminated against because of their appearance compared to those with lower BMIs also in the healthy range. In the experiment, 120 people were shown images of male and female job candidates, all of whom fell somewhere within the healthy BMI range. They were asked to rank each candidate's suitability for customer-facing roles like sales associate and waitress, as well as non-customer-facing roles like stock assistant and chef. People were told that all candidates were equally qualified for the positions.
The results of the study were unsettling: People preferred the images of candidates with lower BMIs for customer-facing jobs by far. Not okay. (FYI, the healthiest BMI is actually overweight, according to a new study.)
Lead researcher Dennis Nickson, professor of human resource management at Strathclyde Business School, University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, notes that while obesity discrimination is well-established, discrimination within a group of people who are all at a medically healthy weight wasn't known before this study. "Our work extends our awareness of this issue by highlighting how even a marginal increase in weight can have an impact in a weight-conscious labor market," he says.
Unsurprisingly, women were discriminated against more extremely than men. "I think the reason why women face greater bias than men is that there are societal expectations around what women should look like, so they face greater discrimination around body shape and size," notes Nickson. "This issue is particularly pronounced in the area of customer contact employees, which we considered in the article."
But how can we fix it? Nickson emphasizes that the responsibility for change is not on those who are overweight, but rather on society as a whole. "Organizations need to take responsibility to portray positive images of 'heavier' employees as competent and knowledgeable. Additionally, managers need to be educated to consider weight discrimination in hiring and other employment outcomes." He also points out that people who are discriminating may not, in fact, be aware of their prejudice. For that reason, it's crucial to include weight in programs like diversity training in order to educate managers and recruiters about the issue.
The first step to fixing a widespread discrimination issue like this one is to create awareness, which this study is undoubtedly helping to do. As the body positive movement grows, we hope that people in all sectors—not just employment—will begin to treat all people fairly without reference to their size.