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Recruiters have a big problem with the obese

Meredith Hurst Tuesday, August 5, 2014

We recently conducted a poll which revealed an interesting insight into the pervasion of obesity prejudice at the recruitment stage.

In light of the ongoing case of Karsten Kaltoft V Billund Kommune, we at Thomas Mansfield sought to gauge the level of negative stereotyping of the obese during the recruitment process, polling 100 HR and recruitment professionals.

The statistics reveal a preference for candidates who are perceived as being of a ‘normal’ weight, as well as a tendency to judge candidates seen as being ‘obese’ as having a negative impact on the workplace and levels of productivity.

Over half of the respondents admitted to finding obesity to be an undesirable trait, using it as a marker of personality and predicted work ethic. This highlights a potential disparity of attitudes towards obese candidates and may lead to workers potentially missing out on opportunities based on a superficial and stereotypical assessment, not a calculated experience and performance review. Senior Partner, Neill Thomas, explained: “The findings of the study reveal the problem of bias faced by obese people during the recruitment and selection process which potentially means that the most suitably qualified candidate does not get chosen.”

This response becomes especially worrying when recent NHS figures suggest that 61.9%* of adults in the UK are either overweight or obese. This is clearly a sizeable amount of the country’s workforce, the talent of which may be squandered by a tendency to negatively stereotype. This point is further compounded by the poll’s finding that 32% of respondents found it hard to be impartial towards obese candidates. Mr Thomas added: “This highlights that people continue to hold stereotypical assumptions that obese people are responsible for their own weight and any problems they suffer are self-inflicted whereas it might be the case that there is an underlying medical condition.“

The case of Karsten Koltoft V Billund Kommune is set to be a landmark case not only for Denmark but also for all EU states, as the case is being heard by the European Court. This means that a ruling in favour of Kaltoft could impact UK law for the benefit of the obese as, at this point in time, there are not explicit laws protecting against obesity prejudice. Conversely, a ruling against Kaltoft’s case could see a continuation of the potential inequality facing many obese yet capable candidates. Mr Thomas went on: “I envisage that the judiciary would not want to enshrine in law any protection for people who are obese without any underlying medical condition as this could open the floodgates to other groups who consider they need special treatment such as short, tall, thin or people with ginger hair.

“Another problem to consider would be the side effects of any legislation protecting obese people. Smaller businesses could be the worst affected in having to pay the cost of adapting the workplace to accommodate obese people such as special car parking spaces, lifts, more rest breaks, wider chairs, adapted keyboards, choice of meals in the canteen etc.

“In order for obesity to become a protected characteristic in the same way as other disabilities it would need to be defined in law. Potentially, this is a difficult task and arguably not a task for the law makers but the medical profession.”

Partner at Thomas Mansfield, Meredith Hurst, added: “The Judiciary is likely to require unequivocal medical evidence to support a finding that obesity is of itself a disability in any particular case. The claimant whose weight 'yo-yos', and therefore whose associated difficulties subside, may find that they are unable to satisfy the long-term aspect of the definition.”

Other findings from our study also include:

  • 46% of HR and recruitment professionals believe that obesity can have a negative impact on workplace activity.
  • 56% of respondents found obesity to be a valuable marker when determining candidate character and predicted performance.
  • When faced with the option of two candidates with identical qualities, the only difference being that one is obese, 51% said they’d prefer to hire the ‘normal’ candidate.

* Overweight/obesity level statistic: https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/reducing-obesity-and-improving-diet