When confronting weight-based bias and harassment in the workplace, there's no shortage of personal testimonies. Take, for example, Anna Burns.
Growing up, Burns felt compelled to excel at school and in extra curriculars in order to combat stereotypes around fatness, including assumptions about intelligence and athleticism.
The stereotyping continued as an adult. Once, her chief people officer openly commented about not wanting to eat a cupcake because she was going to the beach that weekend, “implying that if she ate the cupcake, she would look fat, like me,” Burns said. After it was explained to the manager that what she said had caused Burns harm, the individual did not feel the need to express remorse or take accountability.
"I've experienced weight discrimination across my lifetime, throughout different years, cities and industries," says Burns, a diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) consultant in Bridgeport, Conn. "Because it's so accepted and ingrained in our culture, anti-fat bias is the norm, and in my experience, no time, place or space is immune from it entirely."
Burns isn't alone.
More than 40 percent of U.S. adults report experiencing weight-related stigma at some point in their lives. In the workplace, this can take the form of teasing, taunting and microaggressions. Research has found that as obesity rates have risen in the U.S., so too has weight discrimination. With nearly 1 in 3 U.S. adults classified as overweight, and more than 2 in 5 meeting the clinical definition of obesity, it follows that a significant number of people in today's workforce are likely to face weight-based workplace discrimination, potentially harming their job opportunities and career advancement.
According to recent SHRM research on the state of weight discrimination in the workplace, 72 percent of U.S. employees who have experienced unfair treatment at work due to their weight say it has made them feel like quitting their jobs, and 11 percent of HR professionals say an applicant's weight has played a role in decisions their organizations have made during the job application process.
"Weight discrimination in employment has been documented for several decades, so this is not a new problem," explains Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the University of Connecticut and deputy director of the university's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health. Puhl has conducted research on weight-based discrimination for more than 20 years, and she has published more than 180 studies on the topic.
"[Weight discrimination] can be present in different ways in the workplace, including unfair hiring practices, such as refusing to hire qualified job applicants because of their body size; fewer promotions; stigma or stereotypes from co-workers and supervisors; and wrongful job termination," Puhl says. She notes that such discrimination can also be manifested in more subtle, difficult-to-prove ways at work, such as assigning office chairs that cannot accommodate employees with larger bodies or failing to provide accessible bathroom stalls.
Research shows that pay disparity is another challenge that larger workers face—but only if they are female. Just a 10 percent increase in body mass can result in a 6 percent reduction in salary for women, according to research cited by NPR. Conversely, the report showed that overweight men don't seem to face a similar weight bias—in some cases, white males seen as overweight actually earn more.
When a woman "becomes overweight," she is less likely to land a public-facing role in a better-paying, white-collar job, according to research by Vanderbilt University. Women who are considered medically obese or morbidly obese are more likely to work in low-paying, labor-intensive roles in industries such as home health, food preparation and child care.
Discrimination at Work
Sean McLean's experience of weight discrimination in the workplace began with a jacket.
In 2018, McLean was a college student and worked as a stocker for a grocery store in Boston. Company policy required each employee to wear a store-themed jacket while on the clock. However, none of the jackets were big enough to accommodate McLean's size.
He tried working without the jacket, but his managers told him he would be sent home if it happened again. They sternly reminded him that employees must present themselves "in a certain way" in front of customers.
McLean acquiesced to wearing the biggest size available, despite his discomfort. For weeks, he asked managers if they had ordered a bigger size for him. They assured him that they planned to purchase a larger jacket. They never did.
"I was finally told that they just didn't order that size because it would have to be a special order," McLean says. "I got the feeling that my managers never really cared about my comfort. I felt like I lost my individuality working there, as if I didn't matter."
Weight discrimination can be so ingrained in workplace culture that it can even supersede rank. Despite his managerial status, Ryan, a former content manager in Orlando, Fla., who requested anonymity for this story, was openly taunted by his co-workers about his body size for years. He says his size made his direct reports not take him as seriously. They would consistently undermine him, make snide remarks about his appearance and take extended breaks throughout the workday.
Ryan noted that employees didn't treat managers who were smaller in size the way they treated him.
"Employees whom I managed would joke around all the time about my weight," says Ryan. "I just rolled with the punches. But some days it was tough to hear. I'm a confident person, but when people talk about how big you are all the time, it gets to you. That's textbook weight discrimination. Many obese people like me suffer in silence."