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Size and Prejudice – a survey of Recruitment and HR professionals

By Jo Hodge on 21 Oct 2014

Size Discrimination​Size and Prejudice – Interesting statistics from a survey of Recruitment and HR professionals

The ongoing Danish case of Karsten Kaltoft V Billund Kommune, together with the UK case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd, caused us to consider the issue, and discover the extent to which negative stereotyping of the obese occurs during the recruitment process.

We polled 100 HR and recruitment professionals, and the results 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.

The findings of the survey suggest a definite bias against obese people during the recruitment and selection process, which potentially means that the most suitably qualified candidate is not chosen. With current NHS figures suggesting that up to 67% of men and 57% of women are now categorised as being overweight to obese, the likelihood of ability and talent being overlooked on such a large scale due to a person’s weight is quite disconcerting.

What was also interesting from the poll was the fact that for many questions, when the responses were broken down into gender, it transpired that women were far less critical of obese people than men. 70% of men thought obesity was a non desirable trait in candidates compared to just 45% of women. 65% of men said if they had 2 candidates of equal ability they would choose the non obese one, whereas only 45% of women felt the same way.

Similarly, there were distinct geographical differences, and on the same two scenarios given above, 100% of those questioned in the East Midlands area felt obesity was a non desirable trait and that they would recruit the non obese person over the obese one. This compared against the London responses of just 47% and 41% respectively.
So how does this relate to the law? Recruiters are not allowed to ask candidates questions about health and disability before an offer is made, and occasionally obesity will result from an underlying medical condition. The purpose of the law is to ensure that candidates with a disability are not discriminated against on the grounds of health prior to receiving an offer. This could potentially be counter productive in the case of a person who is obese as a result of a disability such as diabetes or depression, as obesity in itself is not a disability within the meaning of the law.

The case of Karsten Kaltoft V Billund Kommune is set to be a landmark case not only for Denmark but also for all EU states. The Advocate General’s opinion in that case, which is due to be heard by the European Court of Justice, is that obesity of itself will generally not be a disability, although in an extreme case it could be, dependant on all the circumstances.

Similar questions were raised in the UK at appellate level by the EAT in the case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd UKEAT/0097/12. In that case, the fact the Claimant was obese did not render him disabled - rather, it was the ‘functional overlay’, compounded by obesity, that rendered him disabled. The Claimant suffered from asthma, dyslexia, knee problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, CFS, bowel and stomach problems, anxiety and depression, sacro-iliac joint pains, as well as many other conditions. All of these had an adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day to day activities. In other words, the functional overlay was the impairment and not the underlying obesity.

It was found in Walker that it was not necessary to focus on the cause of the impairments (obesity), in the same way as alcoholism is not a disability, but liver disease may be if it has an adverse effect.

The lesson from this case is that the effect of the impairment may be more important that the cause. That said, obesity may make it more likely for someone to suffer conditions that fall into the 'functional overlay' category, and which have an adverse effect, and employers should keep this in mind whenever they are dealing with an employee who may fall into this category.

Thomas Mansfield
www.thomasmansfield.com