Study documents workplace bias against obese people

For a host of health reasons, such as a decreased risk for heart disease, stroke, and cancer, it is vital for people who are obese to lose weight. A new study from the Wharton School finds that there are professional and career reasons for losing weight, as well.

Wharton Ph.D. student Emma Levine and Maurice Schweitzer, the Cecilia Yen Koo Professor of Operations and Information Management at Wharton, found that people who are obese are widely seen as less competent than people who are of average weight in a workplace setting. They describe this bias in their paper, “The Affective and Interpersonal Consequences of Obesity,” which was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Schweitzer says it is much more socially acceptable for a person to make a negative comment about someone’s weight than it is to make a disparaging remark about someone’s race, ethnicity, or other physical features.

“People are routinely fat-shaming in a way that we find socially far more acceptable than other kinds of comments,” he says, pointing to Bloomberg columnist Michael Kinsley’s 2011 remark that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie “is just too fat” to be president as an example.

“If somebody said that about somebody’s race, people would be calling for them to be fired,” Schweitzer says. “Yet because many people perceive obesity to be a choice, discrimination against obese people is far more accepted.”

Using five experiments, Levine and Schweitzer document a clear-cut relationship between obesity and perceptions of low competence.

In the first experiment, they used photos and outcomes from the “Jeopardy!” game show to explore the association between obesity and perceptions of competence. Data was collected from 100 “Jeopardy!” games played between 2005 and 2012.

Ninety-eight women and 104 men were recruited to view photographs of contestants, rate the competence of each, and guess the winner.

The researchers found a systematic bias. Even though the weight of contestants had no relation to whether or not they won, study participants expected overweight contestants to be less likely to win.

The second experiment tasked 100 women and 68 men with rating digital resumes, which included a photograph of an obese and non-obese person. The researchers manipulated obesity by digitally altering the photos to make non-obese individuals appear obese.

Each study participant was asked to assess the candidate’s competence. After they handed in their responses, Schweitzer and Levine recorded each participants’ own height and weight.

The researchers discovered that obese job candidates were perceived to be significantly less competent than non-obese candidates, and also found that overweight participants in the study were just as likely to show a prejudice toward obese candidates as thinner participants.

Experiment No. 3 explored the unique role that cognitive perceptions of competence and affective mechanisms play in linking obesity with behavioral responses. Ninety-five women and 105 men read a two-page resume that a fictitious job candidate had submitted online, and rated the candidate on warmth and competence. The resume included candidates’ height and weight, but no photos.

All of the fictitious candidates were white and 25 years old. Females were listed as 5’4” tall and 132 pounds, and males were listed as 5’9” and 168 pounds, the 50th percentile height and weight for each gender. When the researchers manipulated the weight of the candidates to obese—220 pounds for 5’4” women and 243 pounds for 5’9” men, they found that participants rated obese candidates as significantly less competent.

“What we found across our studies is that obesity serves as a proxy for low competence,” Schweitzer says. “People judge obese people to be less competent even when it’s not the case.”

The fourth and fifth experiments deal with warmth and how people who are obese can change how others perceive them. Levine and Schweitzer found that by expressing warmth and describing their relationships with other people, people who are obese are more likely to evoke sympathy than other more harmful reactions.

Schweitzer says all of society is harmed by the obesity bias. Managers, coworkers, and friends who employ this bias could be missing out on opportunities to hire good workers and promote exceptional employees.

“I think it’s harmful not just to the people who are obese, but to the rest of us,” he says. “We’re not giving them the chance. We’re being unfair.”

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