Many companies have diversity and inclusion efforts that seek to reduce bias in the workplace. But those efforts often neglect one of the biggest forms of workplace bias: weight bias.
Bias against overweight individuals remains prevalent in the workplace. According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, overweight workers are less likely to be hired for positions and earn less money than their thinner counterparts.
Weight bias is not illegal in general. While other factors like race, sex, nationality and religion are protected under anti-discrimination employment law, weight isn’t a protected class other than in a few specific cities and in Michigan, says Terese Connolly, a partner at law firm Culhane Meadows. That being said, weight bias is protected if the weight can be tied to a disability, in which case it belongs to a protected class because disabilities are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But for employers that want to create an inclusive work environment, adhering to the letter of the law isn’t enough. Here’s how employers can create a culture of inclusion for all employees, regardless of size.
Many organizations prioritize diversity and inclusion, but these conversations rarely include discussion of weight. “I know we talk a lot about biases in the workplace, but the one that I haven't heard has been around weight,” says Tawanda Johnson, principal consultant at RKL Resources. “It’s that silent thing that no one wants to tackle or talk about.”
Of course, conversations about diversity and inclusion didn’t come about naturally — pressure had to be applied to start a conversation about overcoming biases in the workplace. The same is needed on the subject of weight bias.
Start the conversation by including weight bias in your diversity and inclusion efforts, and show that your organization won’t tolerate bias of any type. By including weight bias in the discussion, you’ll create awareness throughout your organization.
Johnson notes that a review of your company’s marketing materials should be included within this discussion. Make sure you include a diversity of sizes so you show a truly diverse and inclusive image.
When addressing biases against weight and size, organizations should look to their previous experiences with issues such as sexual harassment. The subject matter is different, but many of the methods and goals are the same.
“One of the most important things is to have a top-down culture of inclusion and of respect,” says Richard Cohen, a partner at law firm FisherBroyles. Cohen suggests first training senior leadership so they’re aware of the issues and understand the importance of modeling appropriate behavior. Also, look at your hiring practices, and examine how you can eliminate weight bias when considering candidates for open positions.
Another important part of creating an inclusive culture is to conduct a physical audit of your environment. Make sure you provide any necessary accommodations to provide equal access for those struggling with obesity — and so that your workplace meets ADA standards.
Organizations need to provide training and resources to identify and reduce unconscious and conscious bias based on weight. But to truly be effective this effort must be ongoing, not just a two-hour training session. “It’s the same way you work through any other bias,” Johnson says. “It means creating a culture where you can all be honest with the person who’s signing your paycheck.”
And remember that bias doesn’t evaporate overnight. “It’s going to mean a commitment to creating that workplace culture of trust,” Johnson says. “It’s not an easy fix.”