IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Fat chance: It's not easy  for obese workers

The workplace is becoming an increasingly harsh place for overweight employees. Experts say more and more obese employees are feeling slighted by managers and coworkers. What’s causing the rise is unclear. Your Career by Eve Tahmincioglu.
Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC

America’s TV boss Donald Trump, who has been in a war of words with Rosie O’Donnell, told Entertainment Tonight recently that: “If I were running 'The View," I’d fire Rosie. I’d look her right in that fat ugly face of hers and say, ‘Rosie, you're fired.’ ”

Let’s say Trump was indeed Rosie’s boss and phrased his firing just like that, could he be charged with workplace discrimination? If he had said, “I’d look her right in that Asian ugly face” or “black ugly face” the answer would be a no-brainer.

But when it comes to obesity discrimination, the rotund among us have few if any rights when it comes to being hired, fired or promoted.

Take Annette McConnell. Three years ago, she was working in sales for a company in Arizona and was tipping the scales at about 300 pounds. She was successful in her job, even winning awards, but she often felt friction when she interacted with her regional manager. At one point he suggested she stop eating dinner and just read books in the evening.

She began to suspect the manager was out for her and went to a lawyer to see if her boss had crossed the line, but the attorney told her there was nothing wrong legally with discriminating against weight.

Soon her worst fear came true. “I was told by this manager that they were going to lay me off because people don’t like buying from fat people. He told me straight up in my face,” she recalls.

The workplace is becoming an increasingly harsh environment for overweight employees. Experts say more and more obese employees are feeling slighted by managers and co-workers. What’s causing the rise is unclear. Some say it could just be the increasing number of obese employees in the United States, while others speculate it may be a growing awareness of the problem and a rise in heavy workers speaking up about it.

Another factor fueling the fire could be corporate America’s stepped-up efforts to cut health-care costs by encouraging the rank and file to slim down, offering incentives to those who succeed. That leaves plump workers feeling demoralized and penalized financially if they can’t hop to it and hop off those extra pounds.

In a recent Yale University survey of about 2,000 overweight women, 53 percent of those polled said co-workers stigmatized them, and 43 percent said their employers stigmatized them. Being stigmatized translated into not being hired, being passed over for promotions, losing a job, or being teased or harassed because of their weight.

“Weight discrimination has been documented for decades, but more research is showing how prevalent it is in recent years,” says Rebecca Puhl, co-author of the survey and coordinator of weight stigma initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

And unfortunately it’s not just a perception. When it comes to the all-important wallet, heavy workers tend to make less than their thin counterparts.

Obese men and women can expect to earn on average anywhere from 1 to 6 percent less than normal weight employees, with heavy women being the biggest losers when it comes to their paychecks, according to a study by Tennessee State University economists Charles Baum and William Ford.

Given all this doom and gloom, what should the overweight do?

If there’s any truth to strength in numbers, the growing number of bigger Americans might have to make their voices heard by politicians.

Today the only state that bans discrimination based on weight is Michigan. That law, on the books in that state since 1977, has seldom been used but appears to be getting dusted off lately by overweight workers that believe they were given the shaft because of their weight.

For anyone who lives outside Michigan, the only recourse is going to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and seeking help under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Don’t expect a lot. Simply being overweight generally does not qualify as a disability.

Heavy workers also should ignore the bigots in their midst, advises Jeanne Henry, a government supervisor in Austin, Texas, who weights 348 pounds and faced her share of discrimination when she was an underling.

At a past job when she was working for a hospital an assistant director told her she should not apply for a management program because “no one would consider you because you are a fat woman.” Henry decided not to listen to the man and got into the program anyway.

And when colleagues make negative comments, she suggests not responding right away and taking a day or two to think. Then sit the person down and gently explain to them that they hurt your feelings and why. If it continues, document the verbal abuse and take it to a supervisor or human resource manager.

Another issue to keep in mind, and I’m not blaming the victim here, is that maybe your own low self-esteem may be hurting your chances when applying for a new job or a promotion.

In a study by John Cawley, an associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University, he found that obese white women had worse labor market outcomes than any other overweight workers.

“The obesity penalty for wages was much greater for white than black females,” he notes. He pointed out that research has shown that obesity tended to lower the self-esteem of white women much more than black women. “That could end up affecting your work potentially,” he speculates.

Indeed, Ann, a white mortgage worker from New York who declined to use her full name, says that after more than a decade with her firm she has been passed over for promotions constantly, and her weight might not be the only issue.

“My real problem is not accepting myself," she said. "Maybe that’s what they see ... a very insecure person.”

People who are overweight often share the bias of weight against them, says Martha Beck, a life coach and author of "The Four Day Win: End Your Diet War and Achieve Thinner Peace." So that means getting yourself to a place where you accept that you’re OK whether you lose the weight or not.

“Your expectations of yourself actually have power over other people around you. If you believe that someone can be ambivalent about you they will be, but if you have absolutely no doubt in yourself others can’t resist it.”

You don’t have to really believe it, she explains, but give yourself a mantra: “I’m fabulous. I’m great. I’m the best for this job.” She pointed to Oprah Winfrey, who has struggled with weight all her life but rarely shows any lack of confidence to her audience.

“Heavy people go into an interview thinking, ‘Please forgive me for being fat.’ They believe society’s condemnation of them. But during an interview there should be no apologies, baby!” she stresses. “You are there because you are damn good at this job. Don’t let weight into your consciousness during the interview or at work.”