The Opportunity Costs of Weight Bias at Work

Weight-based discrimination is a pervasive problem. Here’s how to address it in your workplace.

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The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that 70% of adults in the United States are overweight and 40% of those individuals are obese. Despite these high numbers, there is a pervasive culture of weight stigma. The ubiquity of “fat jokes,” fat-shaming, and general anti-fat attitudes reveal that being heavy is one of the most stigmatized characteristics in modern-day society.1 Furthermore, weight bias is persistent across many arenas of one’s daily life — including the workplace.

Many people believe that body weight is controllable or that people could manage and maintain a healthy weight if they just exercised more and ate less. Being heavy, then, is often considered a personal failure and attributed to a lack of willpower. Research shows that this perspective is inaccurate and misguided.2 Genetic and health factors unrelated to willpower, such as thyroid conditions, can play a significant role in determining one’s size.

Yet, advertised commercial diet and weight-loss plans, exercise equipment, gym memberships, and testimonials on social media all continue to perpetuate the idea that weight is easily controllable, thereby contributing to the weight stigma. Indeed, the weight-loss and diet-control industry is an expansive market in the U.S., with a net worth of over $70 billion. The result is that weight stigma remains and leads to numerous negative stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes.

How Weight Bias Affects People at Work

Some of the negative workplace stereotypes that are particularly damaging are that heavy workers are lazy, less intelligent, lacking in self-discipline, sloppy in appearance, and less healthy.3 Additionally, personality stereotypes suggest that heavy individuals are less conscientious, less agreeable, less emotionally stable, and less extroverted than average-weight individuals. Although research fails to provide practical support for a relationship between weight and many of these stereotyped traits, the stereotypes still lead to biased behavior in the form of workplace discrimination.4

Research based on survey data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States found that in a sample of 2,800 adults, heavy individuals reported being more likely to perceive weight-based discrimination than people who were of average weight.5 These self-reported perceptions of bias are confirmed by additional data, including our own research.

Our work reveals consistent evidence that heavy (versus thinner) job applicants are more likely to experience subtle forms of discrimination when seeking employment. In our study, research assistants ranging from thin to medium-sized applied for jobs in person at retail stores.6 In half of the store interactions, they appeared to be obese, wearing professionally made obesity prostheses, or “fat suits.” These job applicants observed more discrimination when they were wearing the suits than when they were not, which was confirmed by additional undercover research assistants who observed the in-store interactions. This discrimination took the form of subtle interpersonal behaviors such as less nodding and smiling, more interpersonal distance, and shorter interactions. This same pattern of bias emerged in another study, which found that even implicit negative attitudes about weight can lead to weight discrimination.7 Findings showed that hiring managers with stronger negative implicit attitudes about weight were less likely than those with weaker implicit attitudes to invite an obese job applicant for an interview.

Research also confirms that weight bias and discrimination extend beyond the hiring process to actual employment, specifically in the areas of training, compensation, and performance evaluations. We studied the impact of weight bias on training experiences and outcomes in a laboratory experiment in which student participants trained another individual who was pictured as either thin or obese.8 Those who believed they would be training an individual who was obese (versus thin) had lower expectations about the trainee’s success and work ethic prior to training.

In another example, an analysis of longitudinal archival data showed that weight can negatively impact salary.9 A study of over 7,000 participants across a 25-year span showed that for women, gaining weight is significantly related to lower wages. For men, weight gain did not negatively affect salary until they were formally obese, highlighting the especially pernicious effects of weight for women, a group already disadvantaged in the workplace.

Additionally, our research shows that weight bias and discrimination can negatively affect the performance evaluations of leaders in top management roles.10 Our analysis of 360-degree survey data paired with objective medical measurements for over 750 senior executives found that increased size (measured using both body mass index and waist circumference) was negatively related to evaluations of both task and interpersonal performance. This means that the supervisors, subordinates, and peers of senior executives rated heavy leaders more negatively than thin leaders. It is clear that even CEOs, senior vice presidents, and board members are susceptible to the effects of weight bias and discrimination.

Organizational Consequences of Weight Bias

There is strong consensus among scholars that experiencing discrimination has negative implications for people’s physical and psychological health and their job-related attitudes and outcomes.11 If people are selected or promoted on the basis of characteristics not directly relevant to the job, such as their appearance, then employees may miss out on opportunities to work in positions that fully utilize their talents.

The effects of bias and discrimination are not isolated to targets of weight discrimination; they can have negative consequences for organizations as well. We conducted two field experiments in which actors posed as either obese shoppers (wearing an obesity prosthesis) or thin to medium-sized customers at retail stores. Our results confirmed that overweight customers received poorer treatment from salespeople than their thinner counterparts.12 In a follow-up study involving real shoppers, we found that heavier (versus thinner) shoppers reported higher levels of subtle discrimination. Shoppers who experienced more subtle discrimination spent less money in stores and reported lower intentions to revisit them compared with those who did not have these negative experiences. The bottom-line implications of weight bias are evident in customer service contexts.

What Managers Should Do

Weight-based bias and discrimination are pervasive and pernicious and can lead to negative outcomes for employees and organizations. So, what can managers do to combat this issue and reduce incidents within their organizations?

First, managers should check their own biases. Many people feel comfortable expressing disdain toward overweight and obese individuals, in part because weight is seen as controllable. Managers should examine their own known and potentially unconscious biases about weight that may inform their attitudes or impressions about people who are overweight or obese. Awareness of their own bias can help people be more conscious about how these biases influence decision-making.

Second, managers should ensure that objective measures with clear criteria are used in all human resources decision-making. The use of standardized and objective measures, such as anchored rating scales, have been shown to reduce bias in personnel decision-making, because they focus attention on criteria that are related to job performance.13 Additionally, multiple people should be involved in decision-making processes regarding personnel decisions when possible. The inclusion of multiple decision makers allows for increased accountability and offers opportunities to check and address any idiosyncratic biases that may enter the decision-making process.14

Third, organizations and managers also should work to reduce their subordinates’ displays of weight bias and discrimination. One way to do this is to send a clear message that discrimination based on any element of identity, including weight, will not be tolerated in the organization. Organizations can emphasize this message by including weight bias in anti-discrimination policies and diversity training. Within training, organizations can provide information to help reduce perceptions of the controllability of weight and correct negative attributions about heavy employees. Evidence shows that this approach works.15 Managers can send a clear message about not tolerating weight-based discrimination by modeling behaviors that are inclusive and nondiscriminatory toward all employees and customers.

Although weight bias and discrimination are common occurrences in the workplace, these issues are seldom included in discussions of diversity and inclusion. It is important that organizations recognize that weight is another aspect of identity that can contribute to unequal experiences. Doing so will allow them to ensure that a culture of inclusion continues to tap the full potential of employees who may otherwise experience mistreatment and feel excluded.

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References

1. C.S. Crandall, S. D’Anello, N. Sakalli, et al., “An Attribution-Value Model of Prejudice: Anti-Fat Attitudes in Six Nations,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27, no. 1 (January 2001): 30-37.

2. “Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping, and Discrimination,” T.D. Nelson, ed. (Hove, England: Psychology Press, 2009).

3. M.V. Roehling, “Weight-Based Discrimination in Employment: Psychological and Legal Aspects,” Personnel Psychology 52, no. 4 (December 1999): 969-1016.

4. M.V. Roehling, P.V. Roehling, and L.M. Odland, “Investigating the Validity of Stereotypes About Overweight Employees: The Relationship Between Body Weight and Normal Personality Traits,” Group & Organization Management 33, no. 4 (August 2008): 392-424.

5. M.V. Roehling, P.V. Roehling, and S. Pichler, “The Relationship Between Body Weight and Perceived Weight-Related Employment Discrimination: The Role of Sex and Race,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 71, no. 2 (October 2007): 300-318.

6. E.N. Ruggs, M.R. Hebl, and A. Williams, “Weight Isn’t Selling: The Insidious Effects of Weight Stigmatization in Retail Settings,” Journal of Applied Psychology 100, no. 5 (September 2015): 1483-1496.

7. J. Agerström and D.O. Rooth, “The Role of Automatic Obesity Stereotypes in Real Hiring Discrimination,” Journal of Applied Psychology 96, no. 4 (July 2011): 790-805.

8. J.R. Shapiro, E.B. King, and M.A. Quinones, “Expectations of Obese Trainees: How Stigmatized Trainee Characteristics Influence Training Effectiveness,” Journal of Applied Psychology 92, no. 1 (January 2007): 239-249.

9. T.A. Judge and D.M. Cable, “When It Comes to Pay, Do the Thin Win? The Effect of Weight on Pay for Men and Women,” Journal of Applied Psychology 96, no. 1 (January 2011): 95-112.

10. E.B. King, S.G. Rogelberg, M.R. Hebl, et al., “Waistlines and Ratings of Executives: Does Executive Status Overcome Obesity Stigma?” Human Resource Management 55, no. 2 (March-April 2016): 283-300.

11. K.P. Jones, C.I. Peddie, V.L. Gilrane, et al., “Not So Subtle: A Meta-Analytic Investigation of the Correlates of Subtle and Overt Discrimination,” Journal of Management 42, no. 6 (September 2016): 1588-1613.

12. E.G. King, J.R. Shapiro, M.R. Hebl, et al., “The Stigma of Obesity in Customer Service: A Mechanism for Remediation and Bottom-Line Consequences of Interpersonal Discrimination,” Journal of Applied Psychology 91, no. 3 (May 2006): 579-593.

13. J. Levashina, C.J. Hartwell, F.P. Morgeson, et al., “The Structured Employment Interview: Narrative and Quantitative Review of the Research Literature,” Personnel Psychology 67, no. 1 (spring 2014): 241-293.

14. M.A. Campion, E.D. Pursell, and B.K. Brown, “Structured Interviewing: Raising the Psychometric Properties of the Employment Interview,” Personnel Psychology 41, no. 1 (March 1988): 25-42.

15. R.M. Puhl, M.B. Schwartz, and K.D. Brownell, “Impact of Perceived Consensus on Stereotypes About Obese People: A New Approach for Reducing Bias,” Health Psychology 24, no. 5 (September 2005): 517-525.

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