Employees can still be fired for being overweight in most areas in the U.S. But several cities and states have introduced or passed legislation to end that practice.
New York City is considering a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on height or weight in employment, housing and access to public accommodations. The Washington Post reported that the measure will be voted on in the coming weeks.
Shaun Abreu, a New York City Council member who introduced the bill, told The New York Times that after he gained 40 pounds, he noticed that people treated him differently, touching his stomach and commenting on his weight.
"Body discrimination denies people necessary, even lifesaving, medical treatment; contributes to financial inequality; and creates serious mental health challenges," Abreu said during a February rally on the steps of New York City Hall.
Other U.S. cities and states are addressing this increasingly important workplace issue:
- San Francisco; Urbana, Ill.; Binghamton, N.Y.; Madison, Wis.; and Santa Cruz, Calif., prohibit weight bias at work.
- Washington, D.C., prohibits discrimination based on personal appearance, which could encompass weight.
- Michigan is the only state that has passed a law to declare weight as a category protected from discrimination.
- In Washington state, obesity is covered by the state anti-discrimination law.
- State legislatures in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Vermont are considering their own legislation to prohibit weight discrimination.
Erin Dougherty Foley, an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, said health issues that cause or contribute to obesity could be considered a protected health condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Employers need to tread carefully," she said. "All employers need to engage in the interactive process with employees who suggest they may need some type of an accommodation, and to train their managers to be open to trigger phrases that might suggest that interactive process needs to take place."
New SHRM Research Examines Weight Bias
Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the University of Connecticut and deputy director of the university's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, said weight discrimination in employment has been documented for several decades.
"It 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," she said.
New SHRM surveys of HR professionals, people managers and employees examined weight bias in the workplace:
- About 50 percent of people managers say they tend to favor interacting with healthy-weight employees.
- Nearly 72 percent of workers who have experienced unfair treatment at work due to their weight say it made them feel like quitting their job.
Several additional reports exemplify the prevalence of weight bias at work:
- A 2020 study by researchers at Harvard University suggested that while unconscious bias against race and sexual orientation fell over a 14-year period, implicit bias against high-weight people remained steady.
- More than 5 in 10 employees in the U.S. who identify as being overweight say they've experienced weight discrimination in the workplace, according to a 2023 survey by ResumeBuilder.
Additionally, women who were considered overweight made less money and were more likely to work in lower-paying and physically demanding jobs than female colleagues who were considered average weight and male colleagues of any weight, according to a 2014 study by Vanderbilt University.
5 Ways to Combat Weight Discrimination at Work
Mary Himmelstein, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University in Ohio, has co-authored several studies on weight stigma. She offered five tips for employers to prevent weight discrimination at work:
- Create a zero-tolerance policy on weight discrimination.
- Include weight discrimination in HR trainings.
- Eliminate discriminatory policies around health care or insurance, such as removing body-mass-index policies.
- Avoid informal practices such as "weight-loss competitions" in which employees win prizes for losing weight.
- Ensure there is adequate seating and spaces to accommodate people with larger body sizes.
"If health is the ultimate goal, then focusing on healthy behaviors rather than body weight is important," Himmelstein said. "This includes focusing on improving nutrition, decreasing smoking [and] increasing exercise rather than simply focusing only on the number on the scale."
Puhl noted that employers must educate themselves and their workforces about weight discrimination, including both explicit and implicit bias, and its harmful consequences.
"Very often, weight stigma is absent as a topic in workplace diversity and anti-harassment training initiatives," she said. "There are clear opportunities to include weight discrimination in these trainings to promote awareness and education for employees."