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Do employers discriminate against overweight employees?

Belief that weight problems are ‘self-inflicted’ may be behind certain stereotypes

By Brian Kreissl

I'm not exactly a skinny person, so I can understand to a certain extent what people who have a serious weight problem must go through. With respect to the workplace, recent developments in the European Union (EU) suggest obesity could be considered a disability requiring accommodation.

Danish child care worker Karsten Kaltoft recently took his case before the European Court of Justice after he alleged his employer fired him for being overweight and unable to perform his job. At 160 kg (about 350 pounds) he reportedly required assistance from a colleague to tie children’s shoelaces.

According to the opinion of advocate general Niilo Jaaskinen (an advocate general acts as an advisor to the court and their opinion is usually followed, although it is non-binding) severe obesity could count as a disability. Jaaskinen argues the cause of the disability is irrelevant, even if it could be considered “self-inflicted” to some extent. 

If Karloft is successful, employers in the EU would likely be required to accommodate being overweight as a disability. Some commentators have even suggested courts and tribunals in Canada may end up following the decision.

Carrying around a few extra pounds

But aside from extremely obese people, or those with diseases caused or aggravated by obesity, what about those of us who are simply carrying around a few extra pounds? Do employers discriminate against people who are overweight? To be clear, I'm not talking about people who require any special accommodation to do their jobs.

In many cases, people who are overweight can still be fit, active and healthy, and are able to do just about anything their skinny counterparts can do. Recent health studies have even suggested there may be little or no health risk for such folks. One would also hope that as society becomes more enlightened we would naturally become less inclined to ridicule or discriminate against people because of their weight.

Unfortunately, however, many people still don't get it and believe it's acceptable to mock, ridicule and discriminate against people because of their weight. There are still some horrible stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding overweight people, including perceptions that they're lazy, sloppy, disorganized, greedy and lacking in self-discipline.

I've also read that overweight people are often paid less than their counterparts of normal weight and are frequently assumed to have a lower socioeconomic status than they actually do. Some people even insinuate that overweight people are somehow dirty or have poor standards of personal hygiene.

Go to any blog or online forum where there’s a discussion about challenges faced by overweight people, and you will be amazed at the vitriol and hatred spewed by some commenters towards obese people. If they were talking about a race or a religion we would call it a hate crime.

The idea, of course, is that overweight and obese people can simply lose weight and their problems are largely self-inflicted. But unless you’ve been overweight yourself, I believe it’s very difficult for many people to understand what people with a weight problem experience.

People are overweight for all kinds of reasons. Some have hypothyroidism or other metabolic conditions that make it difficult to lose weight, while some medications cause weight gain as a side effect.

Still others are emotional eaters or they overeat when they are stressed. I have even heard theories that being undernourished and having deficiencies of certain nutrients can lead to weight gain.

I know that when I lose some weight, my body seems to scream for more food afterwards and I feel hungry all the time. Like a lot of people, I find keeping weight off even harder than losing it in the first place.

I’m not trying to insinuate that I’m entirely innocent myself. Like most people, I have been guilty of being cruel and insensitive to overweight people when I was younger — something I’m not at all proud of.

But now that we have become more enlightened and we realize it’s not acceptable to discriminate against people because of their gender, race, religion, age or sexual orientation, it’s time we realized that overweight and obese people are also deserving of dignity and respect. I believe some employers do discriminate against people who are overweight, but some of that may be based on subconscious bias (although many commenters on online forums illustrate to me just how cruel and insensitive people can be with regard to this topic — something they’re entirely conscious and aware of).

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, HAB Press. All rights reserved.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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