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Should employees be protected from weight discrimination?

It is well known that federal laws protect job seekers and employees from employment discrimination based on a number of characteristics. These “protected classes” include gender, race, national origin, religion, disability and pregnancy.

While these protected classes are fairly comprehensive, some believe there should be at least one more characteristic protected from employment discrimination: Obesity. America has a growing obesity problem that is obviously bad for public health. But studies have shown that obesity discrimination is very real and can negatively impact an individual’s success in the workplace. The effects of obesity discrimination are most pronounced for women.

A recent study from Vanderbilt University Law School examined weight classes of workers in two different job categories. They included jobs with high levels of interaction (such as sales work) and jobs that involved more specific physical activities (such a food preparation).

Researchers found that as women became heavier, they were less likely to be in a high-paying job and more likely to be in a lower-paying job. It may come as no surprise that men’s weight did not have the same correlation. Regardless of the occupation, obese men and normal-weight men had equal levels of success.

Overall, researchers found that “The data is highly suggestive of job discrimination against obese individuals, especially against obese women.” Obesity discrimination disproportionately affects women, who already tend to face discrimination and obstacles to employment and advancement based on their gender.

Should obesity discrimination be illegal? This is not an easy question to answer. But this bias is something that employees and employers alike should at least be mindful of.

Source: MPR News, “Should weight be added to employment discrimination standards?” Bob Collins, Oct. 28, 2014

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