How Being Overweight Can Weigh Negatively On Your Career

We often hear about the health ramifications about obesity. But what about the professional costs? Do they exist?

New research from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business indicates they very well might.

Knowledge@Wharton reports that Wharton operations and information management professor Maurice Schweitzer and Wharton doctoral candidate Emma E. Levine have written a new paper titled “The Affective and Interpersonal Consequences of Obesity.” The authors find that “people who are obese are widely seen as less competent in a workplace setting than those who are of a normal weight.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 35 percent of American adults over the age of 20 are obese and 69 percent are overweight. The Wharton authors found a real bias: Obese people are unfairly judged more often as incompetent. In fact, not only does this bias hold against obese men and women, but also it holds among obese people themselves — they, too, will unfairly find other obese people less competent.

For senior and even junior managers, the implications are clear.

Says Schweitzer: “As a manager we want to think about ways in which we can judge other people in a way that is unbiased. That might mean changing the way we interview or promote people. Specifically here, I’m thinking about trying to make things as objective as possible — so, really judging people on the objective merits rather than some other holistic judgment that might be subject to bias.”

The Wharton work follows a 2012 study, “Obesity discrimination: the role of physical appearance, personal ideology, and anti-fat prejudice,” published in the International Journal of Obesity.

This study concludes: “Discrimination against fat targets was significant for all measures related to employment… Few studies have assessed attitudes about equal rights for obese individuals, but the present results suggest that beliefs in the innate superiority of some individuals over others is related to the perception that obese individuals deserve fewer privileges and opportunities than non-fat individuals.”

Interestingly, the Wharton research found that one characteristic that helps overcome the bias — even discrimination — against being overweight is to demonstrate warmth.

Added Schweitzer: “Again, if we’re a manager, if we’re recruiting, if we’re promoting, we want to think about relying on the objective criteria as much as possible. And the way we’ve moved, for example, to try to make things more gender neutral as we do recruiting and promotion, we want to think about the same kinds of procedures for judging people based upon their size and weight.”

This video interview with Professor Schweitzer offers additional insights into their study and findings: