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.



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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