Ending Weight Bias in the Hiring Process Starts with Being Conscious of It

By Dawn Onley January 4, 2017

Appearance plays a significant role in whether a person lands a job after an interview, particularly if that person is an overweight woman, research shows.

People with subtle increases in body mass index (BMI) who are still within a healthy weight range face discrimination, according to a recent research paper in Plos One, a journal that features original science and medical research reports.  

The paper noted that marginally heavier job candidates suffered from bias during an experimental job interview in 2013. Researchers obtained images of men's and women's faces from a publicly available database and then doctored the images so the faces appeared slightly heavier. Researchers showed both the original and doctored images to 182 study participants.
The participants rated heavier female and male faces lower on hireability than the original faces.

Eliminating hiring bias against overweight people is a cause the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) has taken on since 1969. Obese and overweight people who are currently employed are less likely to be promoted or to receive salary increases than their peers of normal weight, according to NAAFA, a nonprofit civil rights organization that works to protect the rights and improve the quality of life for overweight people.

According to NAAFA, overweight people earn 1 percent to 6 percent less than nonoverweight people in comparable positions. Further, 43 percent of overweight people report weight bias from employers and supervisors, NAAFA says.

Devay Campbell, SHRM-CP, who provides career coaching and HR consultation services in Pfafftown, N.C., says she has seen the ugly ramifications of this firsthand. Campbell trains hiring managers on interview techniques, diversity and employee engagement.

"One of my previous mentees was a size 8 and was told she had to lose weight to be considered for a role in pharmaceutical sales. I was shocked," Campbell said. "I asked around and people said you have to be 'model-like' to get jobs in that industry. They said it was kind of an unwritten rule." Since then, Campbell said her mentee "has given up and decided to pursue another industry."

No federal law protects workers from workplace discrimination based on obesity, but Campbell said human resources practitioners can try to end this bias by addressing it head on.

"The best way to protect the employee is ensuring your hiring managers are aware that [bias] is not tolerated and let others know that they can report this behavior without fear of retaliation," Campbell said. "You must promptly deal with claims. Although it is not illegal, it is not ethical."

Some companies are deploying a blind hiring process, which can keep those responsible for hiring focused on the potential employees' skills and not their appearance.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Pre-employment Screening]

"We've heard of some companies doing blind hiring where potential biases are removed and employers evaluate job candidates solely on their demonstrated accomplishments and skills," said Brandi Britton, district president of OfficeTeam, an administrative staffing agency headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif. "While this sounds great and may work for certain organizations, a lot can be learned, especially in terms of fit with the corporate culture, by speaking to applicants in person."

Online skills assessments and telephone screenings can reduce the effect of biases based on physical appearance.

As many organizations emphasize training and celebrate diversity, Campbell said, change is coming.

"Although you cannot erase biases, training and diversity awareness have been on the rise and are shown to be effective," Campbell said. "I have seen a change in one of the toughest industries—airlines. I have noticed more male, mature and not so perfectly-sized flight attendants over the last 10 years and that is a great thing."

Dawn Onley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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