A woman in a dress cringes while a crowd of faces stare at her.

Weight Discrimination in the Workplace

Experts estimate that more than 1 in 4 people in the workplace are living with obesity. People with obesity often face weight discrimination on the job. And according to research by the Society for Human Resource Management, almost 3 in 4 employees with obesity who experience discrimination have thought of quitting their jobs.1,2

What does weight discrimination look like?

A 2021 study found that people with obesity are perceived to lack self-discipline and motivation. They are seen as less competent and hardworking than employees who are of average weight.3

Because of this perception, people with obesity are less likely to be hired or promoted. More than 1 out of 10 human resources professionals say that weight has been a factor when they made hiring decisions. People with higher body weights may even be fired without cause.2,3

People with obesity also commonly receive less pay than their average-weight peers. This is especially true for women. One study found that when a woman's body mass went up by 10 percent, her wages were cut by 6 percent. White men with obesity do not face the same bias and may even make more than employees with average weight. But women with obesity consistently receive less pay.2-4

In addition, coworkers and supervisors may make nasty comments about people with obesity. The discrimination can be subtle, too. For example, employers may not provide chairs that larger people can sit in comfortably or accessible bathroom stalls.2,3

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The harmful effects of weight discrimination

Over time, people with obesity may internalize the stigma they feel from others. If they are treated as less capable than other employees, for example, they may start to believe that this is true. They may even see themselves as unable to keep up with the demands of their job. This can lead to increased absences from work or early retirement.3

Weight discrimination can have other serious consequences for a person with obesity as well. These harmful effects may include:2,5,6

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Thoughts of self-harm
  • Negative body image
  • Low self-esteem
  • Being rejected by loved ones
  • An increase in alcohol and substance use
  • Developing an eating disorder
  • Avoiding exercise
  • Unfulfilling personal relationships
  • Putting off doctor appointments

Contrary to what some may believe, weight discrimination does not motivate people with obesity to lose weight. In fact, "fat shaming," which causes stress, can lead to weight gain. Extreme stress can lead to a lack of self-control, including bouts of binge eating.5,6

One survey found that employees with obesity who had a strong sense of self-awareness were less likely to be affected by bias against them. This is because people with genuine self-awareness consider everything that makes them who they are. This includes the way they look but also their thoughts, feelings, motives, and social commitments.3

Legal protections for people with obesity

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is designed to prevent discrimination against people with disabling conditions. The ADA does not typically recognize obesity itself as a disability. However, some conditions related to obesity may be covered by the ADA. These include heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and stroke.7,8

Some areas have state and local-level protections too. Michigan has a long-standing law protecting people with obesity from discrimination. Other states, such as New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont, are considering such laws.2

Several cities, including San Francisco, California; Madison, Wisconsin; and Urbana, Illinois, do not allow weight-based bias against workers. And New York City no longer allows discrimination based on height or weight.2

What to look for in an inclusive workplace

People with obesity deserve to feel comfortable and accepted at work. An inclusive workplace may include the following:2

  • A no-tolerance policy when it comes to weight discrimination
  • Managers who have been trained to recognize bias against people with obesity
  • Wellness programs that are not based on weight
  • Seating and other space accommodations for people with larger body types
  • Making weight discrimination a part of any diversity training program

Inclusive policies and informed employees can help lessen weight discrimination at work. This will allow people living with obesity to have fulfilling careers and make meaningful contributions in their workplaces.6

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