Recruiters are discriminating against obese job applicants, using their weight as a marker of work ethic and personality – this is the finding of employment law firm Thomas Mansfield’s study into prejudice at the recruitment stage.

Over half of HR and recruitment professionals 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 could be leading to workers missing out on opportunities based on a superficial and stereotypical assessment, rather than a fair judgement of the candidate’s ability to do the job.

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

The findings 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.

Other findings from the 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.

These findings become 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 Thomas Mansfield’s poll finding that 32% of respondents found it hard to be impartial towards obese candidates.

Senior Partner at Thomas Mansfield, 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 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 Kaltoft V Billund Kommune is set to be a landmark case as a ruling in favour of Kaltoft could impact UK law for the benefit of the obese. At this point in time, there are no explicit laws protecting against obesity prejudice. Alternatively, a ruling against Kaltoft’s case could see this discrimination against obese candidates continue.

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.”