Discussions on the impact of obesity usually circle around health issues – diabetes, heart disease, or they hit on the medical costs associated with weight.
Wharton researcher Maurice Schweitzer examines how obesity changes people’s careers, and impacts their chances for advancing in their jobs.
“What we found in our research is that obese people are discriminated against. They are perceived to be less competent, independent of their actual performance,” said Schweitzer.
As a result, when an obese person is up for a promotion, or are part of a group project, they might not get the credit they deserve, they are expected to perform at a lower level.
Schweitzer says the reason for discrimination based on weight is a belief that being big violates a norm of self-control. “People believe that obesity is a choice, so we think it’s okay to discriminate for obesity in a way that is not okay for other physical features, such as race, ethnicity,” he explained.
“We feel as if they chose it, and so the gloves come off,” he added.
Schweitzer and his team studied obesity and discrimination in several different ways. They had people look at Jeopardy contestants – and asked them who they thought had won. Participants were far more likely to think that thin people won the contest.
They also did a resume study where they included weight information – no pictures – in the resume, and found that people discriminated against those who were overweight or obese.
Schweitzer says he thinks managers need to be aware of the potential for bias. “Just as we have tried to select and promote people regardless of gender and race, we need to think about weight,” he said. He suggests blind screening processes, and looking at performance metrics to determine who gets a raise or promotion.
He says not all CEOs are receptive to talking about this issue, but most are realizing it’s becoming more important to think about weight.
“68 percent of Americans are overweight, so if you are the CEO of a mid sized or large organization you can not staff your organization without some overweight people, and we need to figure out a way to not discriminate against people who are performing well,” said Schweitzer.