Fat and Fiction: Obesity Stereotyping Goes Global

When you think of discrimination in the workplace, the grounds that most frequently come to mind are things like race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability and religion. Weight bias usually isn’t at the top of the list. 

Part of the reason is that people who aren’t obese—a shrinking group, since according to one study fully one-third of the world’s population falls into the categories of obese or overweight—think obesity is a choice. You’re born black or female or gay, but weight is simply a matter of diet and exercise, right? You can overcome obesity by not eating, just like you can overcome alcoholism by not drinking or nicotine addiction by not lighting up. 

The world, unfortunately, isn’t that simple. Obesity has a lot of causes—genetic, metabolic, psychological, environmental—not all of which are under an individual’s control, but all too often people (including employers) don’t see (or even look for) anything below the surface. 

As noted by Rebecca M. Puhl et al in a study titled Potential Policies and Laws to Prohibit Weight Discrimination: Public Views From 4 Countries, "discrimination is fueled by negative stereotypes that people who are perceived to be ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ are lazy, weak willed, sloppy, noncompliant, unintelligent, or lacking in self-control and personally to blame for their weight." 

As to the employment consequences of this, Puhl and her co-authors note that "several decades of research show that compared with thinner employees, adults with obesity face unfair hiring practices, lower wages, denial of promotions, and job termination because of their weight." 

A Bloomberg BNA colleague has blogged about the issue of obesity discrimination in the U.S., and the phenomenon isn't confined to this country. Again quoting Puhl and associates: "Negative employment outcomes for higher-weight employees have been documented in several countries, such as Iceland, Korea, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. Research in European countries has documented that a 10 percent increase in average BMI was associated with a 1.86 percent reduction in actual hourly earnings for men and a 3.27 percent reduction for women, with the most severe pay decreases taking place in southern European countries (Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal). Weight discrimination in hiring practices, documented in experimental studies from Sweden and Germany, may perpetuate these disparities in earnings." 

Obesity discrimination in Europe became enough of a concern that the European Court of Justice was asked to rule on it. In Fag og Arbejde v. Kommunernes Landsforening (Case C-354/13, ECLI:EU:C:2014:2463 (2014)), the ECJ held that, as summarized in an analysis by the American Society of International Law, "the absence of an explicit reference to obesity in the EU treaties and [Directive 2000/78/EC establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation] forecloses a direct prohibition of employment discrimination on grounds of weight. However, the Court left open the possibility of indirectly protecting obese individuals from discriminatory actions in the workplace by identifying obesity as a potential disability." 

Few countries have laws specifically protecting obese and overweight employees from discrimination, but in some countries at least people think there should be. In Puhl’s study, "the majority of participants in the United States, Canada, and Australia agreed that their government should have specific laws in place to prohibit weight discrimination. At least two-thirds of the participants in all four countries [including Iceland] expressed support for policies that would make it illegal for employers to refuse to hire, assign lower wages, deny promotions, or terminate qualified employees because of body weight." 

So it would appear that if governments in these countries decide to address obesity bias in the workplace, they’ll have broad public support for their efforts.

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