The Unspoken Problem of Weight Discrimination at Work
After working for a year at a Canadian fashion company, Courtney noticed she was left out of meetings with salespeople. “It was described to me that being away from the office for a whole afternoon [meeting vendors] was not a good use of my time,” she recalls.
In August 2018, 18 months after starting work, Courtney (whose last name is withheld for privacy reasons) sat down with her manager for a performance review. He spent the first 10 minutes praising her performance at work, but the next 20 minutes took Courtney by surprise.
“He told me that my appearance affected my work. He told me point-blank that he thought I was too big to be in the position I was in. He told me he was embarrassed to have me with our vendors at meetings, and it ruined his reputation.
Courtney’s boss also told her she needed to start going to the gym and stop wearing form-fitting clothes. He told her to buy a new wardrobe and to wear makeup every day. “I was so shocked,” she says. “I’m kind of just sitting there, to be perfectly honest. I felt like I was going to cry. After the meeting, Courtney says her worries about her appearance significantly affected her work; she felt paranoid about what her colleagues were thinking. “My work suffered 100%. I was so distracted.
Weight discrimination in the workplace is still legal in almost all parts of the world, with the exception of the US state of Michigan and a handful of US cities, including San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin. In many countries, characteristics such as gender, race, religion and sexual orientation are officially protected by law, which means that employers cannot use them to discriminate. But with a few small exceptions, this is not yet the case for weight.
Of course, many people know that including weight as a factor in the hiring or promotion of candidates or employees is not fair. But this kind of discrimination still happens, whether overtly or behind the scenes, based on people’s conscious and unconscious biases. It can have significant consequences, both economically and mentally, for those who experience it. The measures to deal with it legislatively progress glacially; meanwhile, this insidious form of discrimination remains difficult to eradicate.
“Weight discrimination can be experienced in different ways, some subtle and some more overt,” says Rebecca Puhl, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Connecticut, USA. “We see people being discriminated against because of their weight when applying for jobs. They are less likely to be hired than thinner people with the same qualifications.