The Weight Bias in the Workplace

Feb. 22, 2008
A recent study conducted at Wayne State University in Detroit reveals that obesity can negatively impact employees in the workplace, especially during the initial hiring process.

“There are a whole set of stereotypes that go along with being overweight, and a lot of them transfer into the workplace in terms of people’s judgment about others’ abilities and appearance in relation to job performance,” said doctoral candidate Cort Rudolph, who led the study.

Among the stereotypes often prescribed to overweight workers include laziness, sloppiness and a lack of self-discipline and control. Employers also are more likely to believe overweight workers have increased health problems, which might dissuade them from hiring an overweight individual.

“The results have been consistent. People who are overweight are viewed more negatively in the workplace than those who are of average weight, which is not surprising based on what we know about weight-based stereotypes,” Rudolph said.

Rudolph found that these stereotypes are most prevalent in the initial hiring process, and are less likely to affect overweight employees during performance evaluations or when under consideration for promotions. The bias is stronger, however, when the job entails frequent face-to-face interaction with customers or others.

Dr. Boris Baltes, a psychology professor at Wayne State and Rudolph’s adviser, conducted his own research by sampling 600 undergraduate students and asking questions to determine negative perceptions about overweight people, such as whether obese individuals have less motivation.

“We were amazed with the vast majority of people who strongly agreed with most of the negative statements,” he said.

Baltes added that if a person has an explanation for being overweight, such as a thyroid condition, the stereotype has less of an impact. His research also suggests, however, that people are more likely to endorse weight-based biases than gender- or race-based biases in the workplace.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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