An Unprotected, Yet Common Type of Workplace Discrimination
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has federal laws that protect employees from being discriminated against at work because of their race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, color, or gender identity. The fact is, there are other types of bias or discrimination in the workplace that employers also need to be aware of and create policies for – even if not covered under the EEOC laws.
On either side of the weight spectrum, it is not appropriate to comment in the workplace about someone’s weight, even if it’s meant to be a compliment. Praising someone for their weight loss may cause others to be self-conscious about their own weight, or even make the recipient of the comment uncomfortable.
A family member recently shared a story about how she was wearing her favorite football team jersey on the Friday before a big game. A co-worker laughingly commented, “well, you’re certainly big enough to play with the team”. Weight discrimination can be blatant, as in that example, but it can also come with the best of intentions.
If a co-worker has been dieting and has lost noticeable weight, it still isn’t appropriate to comment about their weight loss, even if they talk about their dieting. Comments like, “I wish I could eat like that and still be as skinny as you” are simply best not to be voiced.
Even if speaking about yourself, your comments can still fall under the category of weight discrimination. For example, if an occasion is being celebrated with cake, a comment such as “This looks so good, but I shouldn’t. I’m going to the beach this weekend.” A comment like this implies that if someone else eats a piece of cake they would get fat and not look good.
Are There Any Laws Against Weight Discrimination?
Currently, Michigan is the only state that protects employees from weight discrimination in the workplace, says Lori Armstrong Halber, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP in Warrington, PA. Washington, D.C. prohibits discrimination based on personal appearance, which could encompass weight, and the Americans with Disabilities Act might provide coverage for morbidly obese individuals, 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.”
What Should Companies Do?
Anna Burns, founder and CEO of Seen@Work, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm in New York City suggests changing the culture and 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 should 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.”
Burns also recommends formalizing policies in writing. Make it clear in the employee handbook that it is wrong to discriminate against someone for their race, gender, color, religion, sexual orientation, and weight.
Train employees on what weight discrimination looks like and clearly state a zero-tolerance policy for it, just as you do for other types of discrimination. Encourage those who experience weight discrimination in the workplace, or are a witness to it, to report it to HR or management who then has the responsibility of addressing and correcting the situation.
SHRM HR Daily Newsletter, 5/31/2022. “How Some Employers Are Addressing Weight Discrimination”, by Kylie Ora Lobell. (Subscription may be required).
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