More than two thirds of employees (69%) think weight discrimination exists in their workplace, with nearly half of respondents (47%) considering it to be a problem, according to a report from diversity and inclusion training provider Pearn Kandola.
More than three in 10 workers said they had witnessed discrimination against someone else because of their weight and over a third of people (35%) who reported weight discrimination at work saw no action taken as part of their complaint.
Binna Kandola, partner at Pearn Kandola, said HR needs to take action to address weight discrimination’s impact on UK employees’ careers, experiences at work and pay.
Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “The first thing that needs to happen therefore is for organisations, and the HR departments, to acknowledge its existence.
“We need to ensure that those people involved in recruitment, promotion, identifying talent, etc, are all made aware of weight discrimination, how it manifests itself in the workplace and what we can all do about it.”
The study found 40% of employees did not report incidents of weight discrimination as they did not consider it serious enough to report.
Zofia Bajorek, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, said many people still feel weight discrimination is acceptable.
Speaking to HR magazine, Bajorek said: “To many, weight-based discrimination feels like it is the last acceptable form of discrimination, and there needs to be an urgent debate about what could and should be done to correct this, so that people living with obesity have the best chance to live fulfilling working lives.”
Weight is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, however, Bajorek added: “Obesity should be viewed as a disease in its own right, and should be included within the scope of the Equality Act as a protected characteristic for the purpose of employment law.
“Obesity is currently not included under this legislation, but if an employee has a medical condition that is associated with their obesity then they may qualify as having a disability in accordance with the Act.
“This complexity makes it very difficult for employers to understand their obligations for employees living with obesity, and this simple amendment to the Equality Act could resolve this ambiguity as well as over time, hopefully making discrimination at work on the grounds of obesity less common.”
Weight discrimination also happens in recruitment processes, with 11% saying they would not hire someone who is overweight, believing they are unhealthy (31%), lazy (21%) and unmotivated (17%).
A fifth of people believe that their weight has had a detrimental impact on their career prospects.
Kandola said open discussions are needed to dispel these stereotypes.
He said: “It’s important that we recognise that the assumptions we make based on somebody’s weight and the stereotypes that we hold impact decisions that we make.
“Therefore we need to be able to discuss issues related to weight discrimination in our workplaces in a meaningful, respectful and safe way to help challenge the biases that we hold.”
Nicki Eyre, managing director of bullying prevention consultancy Conduct Change, said workplaces should not dismiss weight-related comments as “banter” without understanding the impact of those comments.
Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “Weight varies for so many reasons: physical health issues, mental health issues, unhealthy working places and practices, as well as life choices.”
The Bullying and Respect at Work Bill, proposed last month (11 July) would require employers to establish mechanisms for reporting, investigating, and punishing bullying.
It would also promote positive behaviours through a Respect at Work Code, which would specify behaviours classed as bullying, enforced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
Eyre added: “You never know what is going on for that person so don’t make assumptions about them. If the Bullying and Respect at Work Bill comes into force, then there will be greater clarity and protection for workers when subjected to abuse or differentiation because of their weight.”