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Fat people face prejudice in the workplace, says survey

12 March 2007

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Fat employees are not safe in their jobs, according to a new survey out next week. The very people who hire and fire in Britain’s companies reveal an overwhelming prejudice against fat, in the survey published on the eve of this week’s National Obesity Awareness Week (11–17 March) by Personnel Today and TOAST, the Obesity Awareness and Solutions Trust.

A staggering 93% of British human resources officers say they’d rather give a job to someone slim than the fat candidate – even if the two job seekers had exactly the same experience and qualifications. What’s more, many openly believe that obese workers spoil their company’s corporate image and that they’d be less likely to promote someone who is obese.
And British law would allow them to do just that – because there is no discrimination law concerning obesity, as there is for gender, race, age, disability and sexuality.
An employee suffering from obesity would not currently be protected under the Disability Discrimination Act. So teasing and bullying in the workplace about their fatness is presently legal and the obese worker is unprotected.
“I knew that fattism was the last remaining prejudice in this country,” said Anne Diamond, health campaigner and patron of TOAST. “But I had no idea that it was legal – and being openly practised in the business world.”
“With obesity directly affecting one in four women and one in five men in the UK, this is a grave injustice to millions of ordinary workers who could, at any time, find themselves unemployed and unemployable, or suffering from bullying at work. Besides that, it’s just plain ignorant, hurtful and unjust. Obesity is hard enough to fight, without having to bear it as a social stigma.”
Louise Diss, Chief Executive of TOAST said: “Unfortunately these results are not surprising to us. Blatant discrimination of this nature is illegal in all areas apart from when it is directed at a person because of their size. As a high court judge said recently to a defendant charged with racism “next time tell him he is a fat b***** then you won’t be taken to court.”
She continued, “We have been told by many people who contact the TOAST helpline about instances of prejudice, stigma and discrimination that they have experienced at work. Some people describe being bullied and intimidated, others being forced out of their jobs with no legal redress. Some companies are starting to recognise that they have a role to play in challenging this but unfortunately many don’t and perpetuate the problem.”
Ms Diss concluded: “We would like to see equal opportunities policies in every workplace that address the rights of all employees.”
Almost 3,000 HR officers responded to the survey by Personnel Today, the HR profession’s news magazine. Some of their workers responded too – but interestingly, their opinions clashed about attitudes to fat workers.
Karen Dempsey, Editor, Personnel Today, concluded: “The real issue here is that obesity has become such a social stigma – 93% of employers agree that’s the case, and two-thirds say obesity is not discussed enough in their organisation. This leaves obese people feeling victimised in the workplace. Employers need to tackle this issue openly and head-on – otherwise the risk is that legislators will step in and force them to do it.”
Norman Lamb MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary and Member of Parliament for North Norfolk, commented: “It is really important that employers do not discriminate against those with weight problems. Judgements about employment should be solely based on an individual’s ability to do the job. It is equally important we get the message across that it is unacceptable for people to suffer victimisation or bullying on the basis of their weight or appearance.” Norman Lamb has a background in employment law and previously worked as  an employment law solicitor.
Dr Brian Iddon, Labour Member of Parliament for Bolton, South East, and a Parliamentary Patron of TOAST added: “This government has gone to great lengths in its attempts to abolish discrimination in several areas of social policy. Obviously, it will have to look next at discrimination against those who are overweight. What matters most is an ability to do the job.”

  • 69% of bosses said they would seek medical advice if an employee’s weight begins to affect their work, yet only  4% of employees said they’d ever been offered it.
  • An impressive 92% of bosses said they  were proactive about encouraging more healthy lifestyles, yet only 36% of workers said they’d ever seen any sign of it.

The survey also showed that:

  • 30% of HR bosses believe obesity is a valid  medical reason for not employing someone.
  • 14% are less likely to promote an obese employee,  whereas 77% of employees believe obese people are less likely to be  promoted at work.
  • 37% said they were not sympathetic to obese  employees and 20% reckoned obese people negatively affected the corporate image.

Obesity is a growing epidemic in this country, according to the World Health Organization, with 20 million adults affected and one in five children. And just in case you’re wondering – you are officially obese if you have a waist measurement of over 35ins (if you’re a woman) and 40ins (if you’re a man).