ISM Number Four: FATISM

I know that is not really a word, but it could be, and is abrupt enough to make my point. Despite the fact that 65% of adult Americans are overweight or obese, (See A Nation at Risk: Obesity in the United States), we have a culture that celebrates thin. In fact I would go beyond celebrate to say worship. Overweight people are often labeled as lazy, having no self-control, no will power, no drive. And to an extent, for some people this is true. I know it is in my case. I weigh more than I should. I wax and wane on exercise and on eating properly. I have been up and down in weight. I know I can weigh less and be healthier, because I have been. I am back on that road right now with regular exercise and watching what I eat. But it is not always an issue of just self-contol for some people. It is not always that easy.

Fatism or weight discrimination has been around for quite awhile. When I was growing up no one picked the fat kid to be on their team and no one wanted to dance with the “fat girl.” That discrimination has persisted into this day and age and manifests itself in the workplace. According to Weight Discrimination: A Socially Acceptable Injustice by Rebecca Puhl and published by the Obesity Action Coalition, “In a recent study, we examined the prevalence of multiple forms of discrimination in a nationally representative sample of 2,290 American adults and found that weight discrimination is common among Americans, with rates relatively close to the prevalence of race and age discrimination. Among women, weight discrimination was even more common than racial discrimination. Among all adults in the study, weight discrimination was more prevalent than discrimination due to ethnicity, sexual orientation and physical disability. Almost 60 percent of participants in our study who reported weight discrimination experienced at least one occurrence of employment-based discrimination, such as not being hired for a job.” Additionallythey found “On average, a person’s chances of being discriminated against because of weight become higher as their body weight increases. In our study, 10 percent of overweight women reported weight discrimination, 20 percent of obese women reported weight discrimination and 45 percent of very obese women reported weight discrimination. Rates for men were lower, with 3 percent of overweight, 6 percent of obese and 28 percent of very obese men reporting weight discrimination. This finding also tells us that women begin experiencing weight discrimination at lower levels of body weight than men.”

Unlike racism, sexism and ageism however, there are very few laws that protect people from weight discrimination in the workplace. No explicit federal law exists and only a few local or state laws exist. However, the area of weight discrimination is beginning to present some challenges to human resources departments. With the changes in the ADA late last year, where disability has been redefined, overweight individuals who feel they have been the victims now have the potential for claiming protection under ADA. Up to this time only morbid obesity could be claimed to be disabiling, but now people may be able to claim protection because of the physical problems that arise from too much weight, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Additionally, numbers have shown that some minorities have higher incidence of obesity, thus claims may be made under Title VII and disparte impact. Sex may also play a factor, since overweight women suffer a higher rate of discrimination than do men, allowing a claim of sex discrimination based upon decisions made on weight. And lastly, age and weight may be a factor, since older workers also have a higher incidence of “overweightness.”

So making decisions based upon weight is becoming much more problematic for companies and I predict there will be an increasing number of law suits that will provide some defintion to this arena.

Your best protection to keep from becoming a landmark case? Make your decisions based upon qualifications and productivity. If you keep it work related you will stay out of trouble far more often than not. And all good HR people already know this. Don’t you??

BTW, if your reaction to the picture was disgust, well then read this article again and then look in the mirror.

12 thoughts on “ISM Number Four: FATISM”

  1. i always wonder… we see employers who turn away smokers because they may drive up health costs. when will we see employers turn away fat or obese candidates because they too will drive up health costs? we heard the squabble over the surgeon general's weight when she was appointed and whether it should have been considered a qualification for that job… who's going to take it a step further? has anyone tried? i can't remember seeing or hearing about anyone trying…

  2. Jessica, turning candidates away because of the impact on insurance policies already occurs, on a regular basis. It is just not the great "evil" that smoking is, so employers are more circumspect in their reasons for turning people down. Weight is a more personal issue and employers don't want to seem like they are attacking the individual. I think the trend is now for individuals who have been discriminated against to push back more than they have and try to use the ADA to provide them some "protection." The Surgeon General's weight issue is a good example of what we think of overweight people. Most of us instantly attributed her weight to a personal failing and condemed her for being a poor doctor and a bad example, without having given any thought to the possibility of some form of physical condition that may be involved.

  3. I can see this being a very slippery slope for employers. Turning away overweight candidates for fear of increased benefit costs can so easily morph into an 'only thin and good-looking people need apply' argument by an enterprising attorney. Really excellent series of posts, Mike.

  4. Steve:
    You are correct. Those arguments could go along the same lines of why only blond hair and blue eyed employees.

    There certainly are some genuine concerns for employers in dealing with overweight employees and the cost of degrading health of the employee. Not only from an insurance standpoint but also productivity that may suffer due to health issues. The counter to that is that thin people have health issues as well. In fact I read something yesterday that said that women with thighs less than 23.5 inches in diameter have mortality rate 4 times greater than women who don't.

  5. I read your article with great interest. This again is another form of discrimination. It has been around for a long time. When I was in college (20 years ago) I did a major paper for my psychology on just this issue. Some people in my class thought it was funny. It was not meant to be. I have recently made a movie about age discrimination, when you add weight in as a factor on someone's chances of getting a job the percentage of not finding employment rises. This is a serious issue. In the NY Times an article about taxing the obese stated, after indicating that a Cleveland clinic instituted a wellness initiative and will not hire smokers:

    "Which is why it is so striking to talk to Delos M. Cosgrove, the heart surgeon who is the clinic’s chief executive, about the initiative. Cosgrove says that if it were up to him, if there weren’t legal issues, he would not only stop hiring smokers. He would also stop hiring obese people. When he mentioned this to me during a recent phone conversation, I told him that I thought many people might consider it unfair. He was unapologetic." Fat Tax, August 12, 2009

    This frightens me. Where will we draw the line, how perfect will we have to be in order to be employed and by whose standards will we be judged?

    In these times it seems there is more hate than acceptance, race, age, sex, religion and weight all playing a factor in how we are perceived. As an artist I made a series of pieces called "People say we're fat" it is my way of trying to bring attention to the hurt that is cause by being discriminated against because of weight.

    Growing up in the 60s made me have (some consider it naive) an idealistic hope that we, as a culture, could get beyond our differences and work together towards a more humane and cooperative society. I still have my hope, but it's dwindling.

  6. Mike,

    I have really enjoyed the ISMs series. Thanks for your thoughtful consideration and for providing education.

    I'm trying to resolve a paradox.

    I recently came across an interesting discussion in the Linked:HR (#1 Human Resources Group) about pre-employment screening through social media websites.

    In addition, Cathy Martin recently blogged about the applicants for an HR professional position and advised people to google themselves, as a potential employer might, to review results from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. She cautioned people to use common sense when using social media websites.

    This advice is also echoed in the Linked:HR (#1 Human Resource Group) discussion and comments.

    Yet, as you advise in your blog on FATISM, employment decisions (hiring, work assignment, performance appraisal, compensation, training, career development, promotion, and termination) must be job- and business-related to avoid discrimination claims.

    On the one hand, HR professionals have been advised to learn about and use social media in recruiting and selection. On the other hand, we are responsible for protecting the company from discrimination claims.

    Pictures, on Facebook or LinkedIn for example, can contribute to discrimination (sexism, racism, ageism, and fatism). In addition, does the fact that someone likes to party on his/her own time correlate directly to that person's ability to do the job and do it well on company time? (I'm not sure myself.)

    I'm really struggling with this. I respect your wisdom and would like to know your advice. Is it possible that HR's use of social media in making employment decisions might lead to more discrimination claims in the future?

  7. Lisa:
    The use of social media for job hunting and reference checking certainly is laden with difficult issues. People have to remember that it is just one more tool in the kit that can be used. NO ONE should use it as the SOLE determiner of a candidate's acceptablilty. That is asking for trouble. But used in conjunction with interviews, reference checks, criminal checks, MVRs, drug tests, etc. I think the use of social media has a place. I have used it and discovered "red flags" that prompted further questioning of the candidate.

    Will there be abusers of the system? Of course. But this is not a new issue. Candidates used to send resumes with pictures attached. Does HR need to put rules in place for using social media. Yes.

    Remember social media was not put in place to enhance job search. It has become a tool for that, but the other uses still exist as well. I use LinkedIn for professional contacts. I use Facebook for connecting with friends and family and neighborhood alerts. I Twitter for information and thought provoking.

    BTW, to answer your question about someone's personal life being an issue for work. Well it always has been. Many people have lost jobs in the past for stupid things they did that potentially embarassed or had some other impact on their employer. It is just more likely to become public today.

    The key concept in the use of social media for individuals and company consists of two words IMAGE MANAGEMENT. If you are aware of that you will be more careful.

    Hope this helps.

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