Dealing with the �Fat People Need Not Apply' Problem

Don Tennant

For a nation of overweight people, we sure don't have much tolerance for overweight people. It's one thing when that intolerance is exhibited in a social setting, but when it's exhibited in the workplace-especially in the hiring manager's office or the HR department-that's something else entirely.

If there's a segment of the population that can be characterized as the "Rodney Dangerfield demographic," it's fat people. On March 13, two days after Japan was hit by the earthquake and tsunami, #prayforjapan was trending on Twitter. In a striking juxtaposition to that humane sentiment, also trending was #waystopissoffafatperson. Among the contributions: 'Jump up slightly when they sit down next to you,' and 'Eat half a twinkie and throw the rest away.'

A particularly disturbing dimension of this disrespect is its presence in the workplace, which was touched upon in an article in the April 2011 issue of Reader's Digest Magazine, titled 'What HR People Won't Tell You About the Job Interview.' Among the tips provided in the article was this one from Suzanne Lucas, a former HR professional who blogs as 'Evil HR Lady' on

Is it harder to get the job if you're fat? Absolutely. Like George Clooney's character said in Up in the Air, 'I stereotype. It's faster.'

Being a little in-your-face appears to be part of Lucas' shtick. Regardless of whether her style appeals to you, her less-than-tactful tip begs an uncomfortable question: Is she only saying what HR people and hiring managers think, but dare not say?

Presumably, the stereotype raises concerns about the overweight person being a health liability, and being physically ill-equipped to perform vigorously, rigorously on the job. But jumping to that conclusion can be costly for a company.

Last September, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Resources for Human Development, a nonprofit organization in New Orleans, claiming that the organization had fired an obese employee in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (yes, the EEOC has ruled that obesity is a disability). Here's an excerpt from the EEOC's announcement of the suit:

Jim Sacher, the EEOC's regional attorney in Houston, who is in charge of all EEOC litigation in Louisiana, said, 'The filing of this suit sends a strong message to employers that they cannot fire disabled employees based on perceptions and prejudice. Ms. Harrison's obesity did not interfere with the care she provided to young children. Those children deserved better from her employer just as she did. The EEOC will continue to scrutinize situations like this very closely, and to file suit where necessary to enforce the ADA.'

As I noted in my recent post, the EEOC is all over cases not only involving the unfair treatment of employees, but the unfair treatment of prospective employees, as well. If you feel you've been a victim of discrimination because of your weight, either in the workplace or in the job application process, I'd very much appreciate hearing from you. This injustice stands no chance of being eradicated until enough courageous people step forward and force employers who engage in this practice to be held accountable for their actions.

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