Some years ago when I worked for a major Los Angeles law firm, the Director of Administration asked me to lunch. Since this was rarely done for non-attorneys in those days, I was delighted. He took me to the Yorkshire Grill where he insisted that I have the pastrami sandwich piled high on rye bread along with a generous helping of potato salad. Who can refuse their boss? Career buster for sure.
After lunch, he hit me with “You’re doing a great job here.” Wow. I liked that. “However,” he proceeded, “if you’re going to succeed, you’ll have to lose weight.” To this day, I could tell you exactly where we were standing, what I was wearing and the time he gave me the news.
What many employees fail to recognize is that this is a new workplace. We are, rightly or wrongly, visually judged everywhere: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn. Then there are the constant pictures from iphones, iPads, emails, websites, videos and more. We’re no longer a society floating in a world of the anonymous. We are judged not only by who we are but unfortunately, how we look.
In fact, according to one source, there is a proposal in the UK that puts forth that obese claimants could see their benefits reduced or increased according to how often they attempt to work out.
Robin Thompson, Chairperson of the Association of Litigation Support Professionals, knows first -hand about weight discrimination. She’s lost 200 pounds. “As a thin person,” she says, “I am greeted with much more friendliness and taken more seriously. I have even had people comment that people who are overweight cannot control some aspect of their life and that it’s a reflection on how they would perform in a professional situation.”
You don’t have to be 100 pounds overweight to be discriminated against. “Chunkies” might take a look at the progression of their career over “thinnies”. Have those around you advanced while you remain at the same level? Sure, maybe they are more qualified but truthfully, are they thinner? Does a glass ceiling exist at your workplace because of weight? Is there anyone really heavy in upper management? Of course, there’s an exception or two but it’s really that – an exception.
While many victims of weight bias have suspected their appearance has been hurting their careers, two past studies analyzing decades' worth of research showed just how pervasive the problem is. The bulk of research has shown that the bias tends to be felt most by overweight white women, who are battling both the glass ceiling and the stigma of being heavy.
A 2004 study by Cornell University Associate Professor John Cawley found that when the average white woman puts on an additional 64 pounds, her wages drop 9%. (Some studies have shown that overweight white women are evaluated more harshly than overweight African American women and that African Americans tend to be more accepting of large body types.)
In 2004, Charles Baum, of Middle Tennessee State University, reported in the journal Health Economics that obesity could lower a woman's annual earnings by as much as 6.2% and a man's by as much as 2.3%.
“Fat, lazy and unproductive” might be some of the stereotypes that ring true to employers who reject an obese applicant despite a stellar resume. Published last month in the International Journal of Obesity, a new study examined the role anti-fat prejudice plays in workplace hiring practices.
A group of 95 reviewers acting in the role of employers were shown a group of resumes with an attached photo. To avoid biased results, the true reason for the study was concealed from participants, said lead researcher Kerry O'Brien of Monash University in Australia. Asked to determine the likelihood of selecting a potential candidate and her starting salary, the “employers” were shown a group of resumes with equivalent skills, experience and education.
What the reviewers did not know was that the pictures clipped to the resumes were of the same six women before and after weight loss surgery. The study results showed that obese women received more negative responses on leadership potential, predicted success, likelihood to select, salary, total employment rating and rank order of preference relative to other candidates.
Employers today want to keep healthcare costs down. The heavier you are, studies show, the more days off you take and the more vulnerable you are to certain illnesses. While your work may be excellent, chances of promotion may be slim. (Pardon the pun, please.) Have you been in the same position for 20 years while being told that you are an excellent attorney, paralegal, manager, etc.? Surely there must be somewhere upwards you could travel. If it hasn’t happened and your work is terrific, ask yourself, why, why, why?
Fat is one of the last bastions of discrimination with very little done to curb prejudice or intolerance. Being overweight does not mean a person is unmotivated or lazy. Chances are if you made it into in a law firm environment, you are smart, good at your job and ambitious. In fact, because of excess weight, people may even be more driven than others.
I did very little in terms of losing weight. Oh, I was up, I was down, I was going to lose those “last few pounds” but frankly, despite a very satisfying career, I never really did see the light. Until recently, that is, when I took Draconian-like steps to cure a lifetime of ridicule and bias. Sure, people want to be accepted “just the way they are and for whom they are” despite any well documented health risks and concerns - as so they should be. But that’s not the reality. Excess weight can kill you. It can be a social and career barrier and despite anyone’s sincere efforts to change the world, this kind of discrimination probably isn’t going stop anytime soon. Fair? Absolutely not. Make you want to rebel? You betcha. But consider this: the world has changed. It’s visual now. And, being in shape can bring nothing but good things. That’s the reality.
By the way, while I’m on my soapbox, please beware of those of us who are on weight loss programs. These "just saw the light and you can too" folks can be righteous and annoying; they will preach, lecture and moralize – all the while (for those who succeed) advancing their careers just splendidly. Along those lines, I'm pleased to announce that I have just lost over 115 pounds. But that remains another story meant for another day.