The Last Acceptable Form of Discrimination

by DavalosMcCormack on July 22, 2008

You have to admit that when it comes to bigotry and discrimination we, as a society, have come a long way. We’ve still got a long way to go, but clearly we are making progress, at least in some areas. It’s now illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, age, gender, sexual orientation (in most places), and disability. But there’s one group left we can all still pick on without too much fear; fat people.

You only have to look at how they are portrayed in the media to see what we think of fat people. They are either portrayed as lazy, stupid, greedy, sad or all of the above. In the movies, Ed Murphy and Martin Lawrence have virtually made a career out of playing fat people and making them look ridiculous. In the new “Get Smart” movie, Steve Carell’s character is a ‘reformed” fatty who only succeeded in becoming a secret agent after losing 150lbs.

Those attitudes are common in real life too. At a time of rising airline costs there are debates over whether we should charge fat people more money because, as the argument goes, “they’re taking up more room in the plane”. There’s also a growing acceptance of the idea of charging fat people more for health insurance because they are at greater risk of a wide range of health problems.

And of course the world of business isn’t immune to bigotry. A new study highlights how many people have stereotypical views of obese people in the workplace. But the really good news in all this is that this study shows those stereotypes are all dead wrong.

The research, led by a Michigan State University scholar, basically pulls apart the view that obese workers are lazier, more emotionally unstable and harder to get along with than their ‘normal’ weight colleagues.

The study, which appears in the journal Group & Organization Management (there are way too many journals out there!) looked at the relationship between body weight and personality traits for some 3,500 people. The findings show that overweight workers are every bit as conscientious – and this is in general of course – every bit as agreeable and every bit as emotionally stable as other people.

The study is an important reminder, to managers in particular, not to judge someone purely by their appearance. There’s plenty of evidence showing that overweight people are discriminated against at every step of the employment process, from being less likely to get a job in the first place to less likely to get promotion or raises once they are employed. They are also more likely to be fired than other workers.

Regardless of what you think of the health consequences of being overweight, there’s no justification for discriminating against someone simply because they are overweight. There may be many reasons why they can’t lose weight. Or it may simply be that they don’t want to. Either way, when it comes to business, it’s no one else’s business.

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