Weight discrimination is a common but under-identified aspect of workplace inequity that is finally getting some attention as organizations look to embrace a wider and more holistic definition of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Addressing the problem isn’t just the right thing to do, experts say — it is a fundamental aspect of social justice.
“Weight discrimination would be any form of offense, harm or oppression at the expense of one's weight that could be detrimental to an employee’s mental, emotional or physical health,” said Krystal Hardy Allen, founder and CEO of K Allen Consulting and author of “What Goes Unspoken: How School Leaders Address DEI Beyond Race.”
Weight discrimination affects individuals across various industries and occupations. In fact, studies show the majority of employers would prefer not to hire a candidate who ais visibly overweight.
There are significant ramifications to weight discrimination in terms of lower compensation, fewer promotions, denial of health insurance and other aspects of employment. Some employees are required to meet weight requirements in order to qualify for full healthcare coverage, and studies show that overweight people earn less in their lifetimes compared their colleagues.
The mental health consequences of weight discrimination should not be overlooked as they can affect spiritual well-being and the ability to operate while working, Allen said.
“Trauma can occur in a workplace environment from peer to peer or from managers to direct reports and vice versa,” she said. “There's a very real connection between a feeling of inadequacy or imposter syndrome and the work climate and conditions in which a manager or supervisor, for instance, may not grant you certain opportunities because they don't feel you are 'the right face' for the organization or the brand.”
Weight discrimination should be on the radar of every organization’s DEI strategy as a matter of policy, practice and social justice, she advised. A native of historic Selma, Alabama, Allen grew up in a space where discussion around social justice advocacy and activism was “as normal as learning how to read a map.” For her, weight discrimination fits into that space.
“Any form of harm, injustice or oppression is an injustice,” she said. “And so, any commitment we make to bettering the world for humans is social justice work.”
While in the U.S., weight discrimination might more commonly affect those who are of a heavier weight, Allen points out that it depends a great deal on context and geography.
“Different countries present different realities for workplace climate and conditions,” she said. “In certain countries, there are body types that tend to be ‘the average’ or what one would consider to be the 'normative' body type or weight. It’s not just about being heavier. In some cultural contexts, being too skinny or small can be the target of discrimination, where being more voluptuous is the norm and seen as a sign of being healthy.”
There are few legal protections specifically targeted at weight discrimination in the U.S. Michigan is the only state with a law making weight a protected category. And discrimination based on weight is banned in only a few cities such as San Francisco, Madison and, most recently, New York City.
Without much legal recourse, the onus is even more so on organizations to ensure this issue is acknowledged and addressed in their DEI strategies, Allen said. The first step is being aware that this type of discrimination exists and that a thoughtful approach is required to solve it.
“It takes a lot of intentionality for organizations, when they make a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, that they are not pigeonholing diversity and inclusion to only be about one identity and one lived experience,” she said.
Once weight discrimination becomes part of an organization’s awareness, it is a matter of creating the right conditions and climate for change. A helpful approach that Allen recommends is liberatory consciousness, a concept developed by thought leader Barbara J. Love.
The framework uses four elements — awareness, analysis, action and accountability/allyship — to change systems of oppression. And it is a way for an organization to be conscious of all forms of oppression before it applies any action, Allen said.
“It could include being mindful even in the process of planning events — for example, an outdoor physical team-bonding activity — and giving everyone an opportunity to raise concerns confidentially if needed, to be as accommodating and thoughtful as possible to every individual who works there,” she said.
For Allen, the bottom line is that “every organization should be open to an intersectional approach or a diverse way of thinking of identity and lived experiences.”
Along with awareness raising, the right policies and practices are critical, she adds. Capacity building and learning opportunities give people the knowledge of what an equitable policy actually is and bring to the forefront any biases they might be operating under.
“A change in practices and policies is vitally important because it pushes the organization to ask if they are being true to what they believe,” Allen said. “And it certainly gives protection to those who are on the receiving end of harmful acts and treatment because it gives them a sense of psychological and emotional safety, that they are cared for, that they do matter, and that the organization is invested in making sure that they are 100 percent part of this team.”
When organizations undertake an analysis, like auditing their practices, they can better understand the experience of their employees, Allen said. “That can be through a survey, focus groups [or] one-on-one interviews, but you have to ascertain and understand the current state before you move to action and develop a real plan to shift your policies, to shift your language and other unconscious forms of bias around weight discrimination.”
The good news is “that we're incrementally getting better when it comes to this topic," she said. "I invite all organizations to have more intentionality around weight discrimination as a way to evolve their DEI approach.”
Image credits: Hannah Busing/Unsplash and Krystal Hardy Allen
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.