Up to nine out of ten managers with responsibility for recruiting staff wouldn’t hire a candidate who is obese, says UK-based employment law consultancy.

According to research from Protecting.co.uk, bosses would rather employ the thinner of the two candidates, especially if the job involved working with the public. In the wake of a recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that obesity can in some extreme cases be a disability, it opens up a whole new area of concern for businesses.

The Protecting.co.uk company says that not only are managers concerned about their company image, but they also think that obese people are more likely to have health problems that might result in time off work.

Mark Hall, spokesperson at Protecting.co.uk said:

“It looks like weightism is becoming one of the last bastions of discrimination in the workplace and it’s proving to be a make-or-break for people applying for jobs, no matter how well qualified they are.”

The firm surveyed 480 managers with responsibility for recruitment and found:

  • 78 percent wouldn’t employ an obese person if there was a thinner, equally qualified candidate
  • This rises to 89 percent of managers working in retail and public-facing business sectors
  • 56 percent were concerned an obese candidate might need more time off work for illness

One manager’s views were typical of many who were surveyed by Protecting.co.uk: “Of course I’d go for the healthier-looking candidate. If you’re too lazy to look after yourself, why should I employ you?”

A shop owner told Protecting.co.uk: “It’s off-putting for customers, as simple as that. It makes them feel uncomfortable.”

Another shop manager who was quoted on condition of anonymity said: “It sounds awful, but I don’t want a morbidly obese person as the public face of my business.” They went on to admit that they are on morally difficult ground: “But if you replace ‘fat’ for ‘black’ or ‘disabled’, I know how wrong it sounds.”

Many managers and business leaders only agreed to be quoted anonymously, suggesting how difficult it is for them to balance the morality of their decision against both their company image and the practicalities of employing somebody who might be a risk on health grounds, Protecting says.

Mark Hall suggested that, rather than conscious prejudice, this may actually be an in-built defence mechanism:

“There have been peer-reviewed studies that show how we react to outward signs of disease, such as rashes and wounds. The same appears to be the case for obesity, because we’ve long been unconsciously trained to consider obesity as an illness.”

This is reflected in the fact that Protecting’s survey found that more than half of managers thought an obese person is more likely to take sick leave than a thinner employee.

December’s ECJ ruling on obesity as a disability in extreme cases opens up an area of concern for employers, so managers need to be wary of using a candidate’s weight as a means of disqualifying them in the recruitment process.

Hall added:

“It’s clear that ‘weightism’ is one of the last unspoken prejudices in the workplace and managers need to be careful that it doesn’t become company policy as it might leave them open to expensive tribunals and legal fees.

“It might well be best to carry on recruiting the best people for the job, no matter what they look like.”