Too Fat To Work Here? Are You Discriminating Based on Obesity?

Kris Dunn Candidate Pool, Culture, Interviewing, Kris Dunn

I’m on the record as thinking any picture or video of a candidate prior to a phone interview is a bad idea.  Why?  We all have some image in our mind of what the right candidate looks like.  Maybe we’re thinking we want a sales person who looks like John McEnroe, or maybe we want an accountant who looks like Dwight from "The Office.  In any event, we’ve all got our own vision going, which rarely matches up to the best candidate for a job.

Get the phone interview in, and the candidate has a shot to overcome whatever we’ve envisioned.  PhoneCalipers interviews give you a great feel for the candidate’s communication skills, rapport-building capabilities and energy level, not to mention their qualifications behind the resume.  With a positive phone interview, hiring managers are a LOT more open to the candidate, regardless of what he or she looks like.

Weight, as you might expect, plays a role in perception.  Do companies discriminate based on weight?  Studies say yes… From Mark Toth at the Manpower Employment Blog:

"Discrimination against overweight employees is more common than discrimination based on disability, religion, national origin and sexual orientation and only slightly less common than race, gender and age discrimination, according to a new study by Yale University researchers.

The study also found that women are twice as likely as men to face weight discrimination.  Researchers found that women typically start experiencing discrimination when their body mass index (BMI) reaches 27 or higher, while men typically don’t experience discrimination unless their BMI is 35 or higher.

“These results show the need to treat weight discrimination as a legitimate form of prejudice, comparable to other characteristics like race or gender that already receive legal protection,” said Rebecca Puhl, lead researcher.

Federal law doesn’t prohibit weight discrimination.  Only one state (Michigan) and a few cities (e.g., San Francisco, Washington, D.C.) consider weight a protected class, although a bill pending in Massachusetts could add that state to the list."

Couple of notes from my diary.  First up, it’s good to see them use BMI, since that’s at least some quantitative measure on the overweight issue with candidates.  Second, as someone who pays invoices from a medical plan, 27 is not a crazy type of BMI.  I’m 6"2 and 170 pounds and would be called skinny by many, and my BMI is 22.  I could easily add 20 pounds to my frame (all muscle of course) without being seen as overweight, and then by BMI goes to 24.5.

The world doesn’t need another protected class, it needs recruiters who can sell the right candidate regardless of appearance. 

Here’s my final thought.  Most of use who write to this site are recruiters.  As a corporate recruiter, I have the ability to put a canndidate in front of a hiring manager without a phone screen.  Unless a position is a very entry level gig, I don’t do that. 

I want some buy-in from the hiring manager before they see the candidate.  That way, if appearance is a surprise, they’re much more likely to work through that quickly and get right back to the skills and knowledge that matters.  That includes multiple factors, on the fringe, that can influence selection – weight, attractiveness, hair style, nose size, etc. 

Help them help you.  And the candidate…

Kris Dunn

Kris Dunn is a Partner and CHRO at Kinetix, a national RPO firm for growth companies headquartered in Atlanta. He’s also the founder Fistful of Talent (founded in 2008) and The HR Capitalist (2007) – and has written over 70 feature columns at Workforce Management magazine. Prior to his investment at Kinetix, Kris served in HR leadership roles at DAXKO, Charter and Cingular. In his spare time, KD hits the road as a speaker and gives the world what it needs – pop culture references linked to Human Capital street smarts.