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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Deal With Weight Bias and Discrimination at Work

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“You should try this new diet I heard about.”
“Is that what you’re eating for lunch?”
“I’m so concerned about your health—maybe you should try losing weight.”

Every day, Ally Duvall, a body image activist and senior program development lead at the virtual eating disorder treatment platform Equip Health, says people hear these kinds of comments at work, whether it's from their bosses or their coworkers.

“That’s absolutely not OK,” she says. “These attitudes that we’ve built up about weight and shape lead to discriminatory actions—and I hear just how constant it is from clients.”

Research released by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in May 2023 revealed that 12% of workers have felt unfairly treated due to their weight at some point in their careers, and 15% say their coworkers have made false assumptions about them because of their weight. Half of people managers say they favor interacting with average-weight employees.

Beyond favoritism and the like, “we have a tendency in our society to feel like we’re entitled to comment on people’s appearance,” says Janice Gassam Asare, an organizational psychologist and founder of the diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy BWG Business Solutions. “It shows up in comments and microaggressions that we see in the workplace.” And while this can happen to anyone of any size, it tends to affect people who are overweight more frequently.

While federal law protects employees from discrimination based on their race, religion, sex, color, disability, or gender, weight isn’t included as a protected class. Michigan is the only state that bans workplace weight discrimination. Other areas are moving in the right direction: New York City recently enacted an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on someone’s height or weight, and Washington, D.C. bans discrimination based on personal appearance, which could include weight.

Weight bias can have serious effects on people and their careers, often leading to low self-esteem, negative body image, depression and anxiety, poor-quality relationships, eating disorders, lower pay, and fewer promotions, according to the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC). Here’s how to recognize it and what to do if you experience it.

What is weight bias?

Weight stigma or bias refers to negative weight-related attitudes that manifest as stereotypes, social rejection, or prejudice, according to OAC. They can be subtle or overt, and encompass name-calling, derogatory remarks, physical aggression, rumor-spreading, or social exclusion. One common example is when companies offer wellness programs centered around weight loss, Duvall says. 

Weight discrimination refers to unequal or unfair treatment of people because of their size, such as not getting hired, being denied promotions or raises, facing harsher disciplinary actions, or getting fired. Case in point: Insurance premiums may be higher for people with higher body mass indexes.

According to SHRM’s research, 11% of human resources professionals say an applicant’s weight has factored into hiring decisions. Obese individuals were more likely to be perceived as lazy, unmotivated, and unprofessional, while average-weight people were more likely to be considered high-performing, hard-working, motivated, and as leaders.

Weight bias and discrimination are more likely to impact women, people of color, and those from marginalized groups, including gay and transgender individuals, research suggests.

And even as more companies focus on DEI, Asare hasn’t seen many companies including weight discrimination or bias in their initiatives. “I think part of that is because it’s not necessarily a protected class,” she says. “As a society, we’re very fat-phobic, and dismantling and disrupting these weight stigmas will benefit all of us.”

What to do if you experience weight bias or discrimination at work

Weight bias and discrimination can increase your risk for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and possibly suicide, according to the American Psychological Association. So, it’s crucial to take steps to address it if it happens to you:

1. Report it.

“The second you’re feeling uncomfortable and like you can’t exist in your space, it’s time to talk to somebody,” Duvall says.

Start with your direct manager, but if they’re the one making the comments, take it up the ladder to their boss or to your HR department, Asare says. Keep in mind, though, that since weight isn’t a protected class, HR might not take action. Another idea is to check if your employer has an ombudsman, who’s usually an independent party that can help employees deal with workplace issues, Asare adds.

2. Change the subject.

Weight-related issues can be difficult to bring up. But sometimes it’s best to address it head-on, respond to comments in the moment, and pivot the conversation, Duvall says. “It can really shake up some of these normalized behaviors.”

Try saying things like, “I don't want to talk about this right now,” “I don't feel comfortable talking about my weight,” or “I’m surprised that you feel comfortable talking about my body in that way.” Or, simply, “What do you mean by that?”

3. Find external support.

Many people experience weight bias or discrimination at work, so look for social media communities or support groups of people with similar experiences, Asare says. “It’s powerful, and those folks can help you navigate your situation or at least feel like you’re not going through what you’re going through alone.”

Seek mental health treatment if you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or substance abuse, especially when it’s affecting your ability to function daily.

4. Look for another job.

More than 70% of people who were treated unfairly at work because of their weight said it made them want to quit their jobs, according to SHRM. “That really speaks to the sense of belonging being ruptured based on weight discrimination,” Duvall says.

Finding a new job might be worth considering if you’ve tried talking to your manager and HR about your weight-bias experiences but don’t feel enough has been done to address it, she suggests.

5. Try to drive change.

If you feel comfortable, use the opportunity to educate your company leadership on weight bias and discrimination. “Building that awareness is so important,” Duvall says. Talk to your company’s leadership about creating new policies addressing these issues, and OAC has resources for employers to help.

“There are ways to promote growth and healing that still addresses the problem and really makes sure that it doesn't continue but also doesn't villainize the person who's seeking that support,” Duvall says.

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