WMU News

Weight discrimination in the workplace is pervasive

Dec. 3, 1999

KALAMAZOO -- Deep prejudice against overweight people in the workplace is identified in a soon-to-be-published study by a Western Michigan University faculty member.

Through careful examination of 29 different studies plus his own research, Mark V. Roehling, assistant professor of management in WMU's Haworth College of Business, finds that weight discrimination is rampant in employment settings and is especially damaging to women. At the same time, those committing acts of blatant weight discrimination openly admit it.

Roehling's findings are detailed in a paper to be published Dec. 15 in the scholarly journal Personnel Psychology. Results of all the studies and Roehling's own research lead to the same conclusion: overweight people are systematically discriminated against in all facets of employment, from applying to hiring to firing.

Roehling's conclusion is that weight discrimination on the job is worse than most people probably think and, perhaps more importantly, there's nothing most victims of weight discrimination can do about it.

His research shows that weight discrimination is more common than discrimination against other protected characteristics, including race and gender.

"If you have three people applying for two jobs and they all have the same objective qualifications, but one is an ex-felon, one is an ex-mental patient and one is overweight, the one person who won't get a job is the overweight person," Roehling says. "The overweight person is evaluated more negatively than the ex-felon or the ex-mental patient."

The worst-case scenario is to be overweight and female, Roehling says. Even slightly overweight women earn less money than other women, while the situation actually is reversed for men.

"Women who are even slightly overweight suffer a wage penalty," Roehling says. "In contrast, men who are slightly overweight experience a wage bonus. They actually earn a little bit more."

Unlike victims of race or gender discrimination, there's often little that victims of weight discrimination can do, Roehling says. Of all the states, only one ­ Michigan ­ has a law against weight discrimination; however, some cities have laws against discrimination based on appearance.

Roehling says there has been talk of passing more legislation on the state level, or possibly federally, to prohibit the practice. But Roehling has found that in Michigan, for example, most people are not aware of the law.

"People just don't seem to be aware of the law," Roehling says. "I've talked to managers and I've asked people to identify protected characteristics here in Michigan and weight is showing up less than 10 percent of the time. They'll identify race and gender and religion and the ones we think of under Title VII, but weight seldom shows up. Legislation alone might not do it."

Roehling also has found that victims consistently are too embarrassed to come forward and prosecute an offender in a public hearing.

That weight discrimination was so prevalent and that people so readily admitted that they discriminate against the overweight was shocking, Roehling says.

"I was surprised at the consistency with which weight discrimination is found," he says. "Often in studies you'll find something here or there or in one study but not in another. But the consistency was surprising, as was the magnitude of it.

"A third thing that surprised me was, in those studies where researchers asked participants about weight discrimination after their participation in the study, how forward they were in admitting that they were making decisions based upon weight. In a way, it appears to be the acceptable bias."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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