When Emma Gordon was working as an intern, she was on medication for an illness she was experiencing at the time. The medication caused a notable weight gain.
"Several of my superiors would often make derogatory comments about my size," said Gordon, who is the founder of USSalvageYards in Los Angeles, an online auto salvage company with 70 employees. "Their continued harassment took such a heavy toll on my mental health that I left the company."
Gordon isn't the only employee who has felt singled out after facing workplace discrimination for being overweight. According to a Vanderbilt University study, women who are overweight make less money than both women and men of average weight. And a U.K. study found that respondents believe overweight people are weaker-willed and lazier than average-weight employees.
While the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has federal laws that protect employees from being discriminated against because of their race, religion, sex, color or gender identity at work, weight is not included. In fact, only one state, Michigan, protects employees from weight discrimination in the workplace, said Lori Armstrong Halber, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP in Warrington, Pa.
It's worth noting that Washington, D.C., prohibits discrimination based on personal appearance, which could encompass weight, and the Americans with Disabilities Act might provide coverage for individuals who are morbidly obese, she added, depending on the circumstances of the job.
"Regardless of whether weight is a 'protected class,' an employer that focuses on things other than an applicant's or employee's skills, abilities and experience is doing both the individual and itself a disservice," Halber said. "You could be missing out on an incredibly talented and engaging employee based on your bias. Employment decisions should be based on business reasons, not stereotypes or assumptions based on stereotypes."
Some employers have created policies to ensure they avoid weight discrimination in the workplace. Here are some examples.
Change the Culture
Anna Burns, an independent diversity, equity and inclusion consultant in Bridgeport, Conn., was the target of body shaming. While working in a previous position, the chief people officer of her company watched her as she ate a cupcake. She told Burns, "These look so good, but I shouldn't. I'm going to the beach this weekend."
Burns said the implication was that "if she ate a cupcake, like me, she'd get fat, like me, and therefore couldn't possibly go to the beach and look good. This was painful, and I talked it through with a straight-sized [not overweight] colleague who had witnessed the whole thing. As an ally, and with my consent, they approached the woman who did this, kindly and empathetically, to inform her of the harmful implications behind her words and attitude, and the impact they'd had on me."
Unfortunately, the chief people officer got defensive and couldn't see that she had done anything wrong. She stood by what she said.
"I left the company not two months later," Burns said.
To prevent similar situations at work, Burns suggests creating an environment where commenting on other people's bodies and complimenting weight loss is discouraged. Discussions that focus on diet culture or moralize bodies, food or exercise need to be avoided, as well.
Her advice? "Call people into discussions when they engage in weight discrimination or body shaming," she said. "Anti-fat bias is so prevalent that many times people don't understand that what they're saying or doing is hurtful, offensive or discriminatory."
Institute Zero-Tolerance Policies
Along with shifting the culture, it's also important to formalize policies in writing, Burns said. Make it clear in the employee handbook that while it is wrong to discriminate against someone for their race, gender, color, religion or sexual orientation, it's also wrong to discriminate because of weight.
"Pre-empt weight discrimination and body shaming by explicitly including size inclusivity in your nondiscrimination policies and by actively educating your team on size inclusion," she said.
Bullseye Locations introduced a formal policy to combat weight discrimination after Joshua Rich, then-CEO and founder of the software company with 20 employees in Branchburg, N.J., hired someone who was obese. The employee impressed Rich with his confidence and skill set.
However, "I always caught him sitting alone during the break times, and his enthusiasm seemed to have vanished," Rich said. "I figured out that due to weight stigma, people weren't trying to make the new employee comfortable in the workplace."
Rich stepped in to rectify the situation. He gave his employees extensive training and introduced a zero-tolerance policy for weight discrimination. Now, employees cannot make any negative comments about weight either to or about their overweight co-workers.
"This has made the situation much better for my new employee," Rich said. "My belief is that the change around the workplace regarding weight discrimination can only come through strict policies, as there is no way people's mindsets are going to change without them."
Utilize Employee Groups
One way to prevent weight discrimination and create positive experiences for overweight employees is to develop employee groups that address the issue, said Burns, who advised one client to "launch a fat-positive or body-positive employee resource group to advocate for size inclusivity, encourage education around weight discrimination and body shaming, and normalize open discussions about eliminating microaggressions against fat people."
At USSalvageYards, Gordon tells her employees to report any issues as soon as they arise. "We encourage workers experiencing this problem to speak out and report it to the HR department," she said. "Otherwise, those discriminatory behaviors might go unchecked."
Once Gordon finds out what happened, she addresses the situation directly. "We raise the awareness of weight discrimination by including it in conversations that deal with inclusion and diversity, we talk about it openly with workers, and we clearly state the no-tolerance policy that accompanies the consequence of this action," she said. "We do not accept discrimination of any kind in the workplace."
It's also critical for employers to check their own biases and be open to hearing about this type of discrimination. "Believe the experiences of fat people when they tell you they've experienced weight discrimination, body shaming or microaggressions, and take action in the same way you would with other discriminatory behaviors," Burns advised.
Create a Better Environment
While employment law has yet to catch up, companies that take steps to stop discrimination toward their overweight workers cultivate a better workplace atmosphere for everyone involved.
"It's important that we stop discriminating against people based on their weight, as this does not reflect an individual's personality, potential and skills," Rich said. "Any kind of discrimination leads to inhumane acts that may impact an individual's mental health. Hence, it is important that we recognize a person's true personality instead of discriminating against them based on their weight."
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.