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Do We Discriminate Against Fat People Because We Fear They’re Contagious?

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Let’s face it: The IT profession doesn’t exactly lend itself to physical fitness. I don’t have any statistics to prove it, but my hunch is that IT pros on average would probably fall on the heavier side of a scale that measures the weight of workers as a whole. Beyond the fact that it’s a largely sedentary profession, it’s also an extremely demanding one of relentlessly long hours. So something like getting to the gym may be mundane for people in other lines of work, but for IT pros it’s more likely a luxury, if not a near impossibility.

Given that two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, it’s probably not a huge stretch to suggest that the proportion of overweight IT pros is even higher than that. So I have to wonder: Are people in IT more likely to be subjected to weight discrimination than people in other professions? And given that we’re a nation of overweight people, why on earth would we be prone to discriminate against overweight people in the first place?

The issue of weight discrimination was on my mind last week when I spoke with Donna Ballman, an employment lawyer in Florida and author of the book, “Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before you Quit, Get Axed, or Sue the Bastards.” As the title of her book suggests, Ballman is kind of a character, or at least that’s the welcome impression I had after our interview.

For starters, I asked Ballman if she could make any sense of the fact that people who are overweight are so often discriminated against in a nation of overweight people. Her theory is that it has something to do with an irrational fear that fat people are contagious:

I think people sometimes have a lack of perception about their own weight. I think that to some extent, we treat the overweight the way we treated people in the early days of AIDS—I think we treat them as if they’re contagious. I think there is some sort of visceral reaction to the overweight—that somehow we don’t want to be around them because you might catch it from them, which is obviously ridiculous. But I think maybe there’s some of that going on.

I did my homework well enough to learn that the EEOC considers morbid obesity to be a protected disability. So I asked Ballman whether it’s the case that if I’m moderately obese and my employer discriminates against me, there’s nothing I can do, but if I gain a ton of weight and become morbidly obese, I’m protected. Ballman said she wouldn’t go that far:

I would say you have to look at the nature of your particular circumstances. If the obesity is such that it affects a major life activity, which would include work, then it could possibly be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If it was caused by some sort of disability, then it could be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A lot of times people have an illness that causes them to become overweight, or certain medications cause them to be overweight. That could be protected. It’s a difficult line to draw. The courts and the EEOC are trying to draw that line, because discrimination against the overweight really starts in elementary school. So it’s something that’s really ingrained in us.

Still, the fact remains that you have to be morbidly obese, as opposed to just overweight, in order to be protected. So I asked Ballman what her response would be to someone who says that under federal employment law, overweight people are incentivized to keep gaining weight. She said she would hope not:

First of all, I would hope that nobody would live their life around the potential of a lawsuit. So please don’t become morbidly obese so you can potentially sue your employer—that would be just incredibly stupid. I would hope that it would not incentivize anyone, because it’s your health and your life vs. a stupid job. By that logic, maybe somebody would be incentivized to become pregnant, or convert to Judaism. I mean, there are things you could do to become in a protected class, but why would you do that? Why would you live your life that way?

OK, so to get back to the realm of the practical, I asked Ballman what her advice would be for someone who feels he or she is being treated unfairly at work because of a weight issue. Her response:

I would say try to figure out if you may be in a protected category. Is it related to a disability? Are you being singled out due to gender? Does your state law offer some protection? If you have legal protection, then your next step would be to go to human resources and report it. If you feel you’re being harassed or singled out, you should follow the company’s harassment reporting policy. I suggest you report it in writing, and call it a formal complaint of discrimination based on disability, or gender, or whatever it is, and give them the opportunity to fix it. Now, if you’ve been fired or demoted due to your weight, you need to go straight to the agency that handles it. If it’s discrimination, for instance, it’s the EEOC. If it’s weight discrimination, you’d have to go to the state agency that handles it, or you can talk to an employment lawyer at that point.

I asked her what her advice would be for someone who’s experiencing bullying at work because of a weight issue, and she said it’s basically the same thing:

Look, bullies pick on people who are weak or different, and a lot of times those weaknesses and differences are in a protected legal category. Bullying is not illegal in any state, so if you report it as bullying, you’re not legally protected against retaliation. So look for a legally protected category—if you’re going to report it, report it as something that’s legally protected, such as disability or gender discrimination.

Finally, I asked Ballman whether federal law adequately protects overweight people, or if something needs to change. She said something definitely needs to change:

I think in this society we do stigmatize the overweight, and yet we are a nation that’s getting heavier and heavier. So at some point we need to look at weight as a protected category, unless there’s some business reason why somebody needs to be thin—there can be a legitimate reason. But I think we need to protect people, because shouldn’t it really be about their ability to do the job? Shouldn’t all discrimination laws be focused on, can this person do the job or not? So anything based on appearance and on misconceptions about what it means to be overweight, I think is wrong. And I think it’s time for the laws to catch up.

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