There are many factors that may affect a hiring decision, including ones that, by law, are not supposed to be considered, such as race or sex. But there are other biases that may creep into a decision as well, including a bias against an obese person.
SBN talked to Paula Popovich, an industrial psychologist at Ohio University, who has studied this topic.
Q: Is an obese person less likely to get a job than an average-sized person?
A: There is evidence of stereotyped beliefs and discriminatory behaviors against the obese in the workplace. Some is anecdotal and some is experimental. Experimental evidence usually involves providing people in a study with information about a job applicant, including their weight or photo, and assessing whether this has any effect on hiring or other personnel decisions.
Q: Is this bias a conscious or subconscious factor do employers “know” they are not considering a certain job candidate because of his or her weight?
A: It is probably a conscious factor for some people, but not in others. In our research, we found that those subjects who tended to have negative attitudes toward obese persons were more likely to allow these biases to affect their personnel decisions. Although we did not ask for reasons, I would suspect that, if questioned, these subjects would probably be aware of their choices and justify them such as they really do not believe that an obese person could be a health club manager.
Q: In your opinion, why does this bias exist?
A: There are a number of theories that are used to explain bias. One of my favorites is that we use biases as shortcuts to understanding the complex world around us. When we meet another person in any setting, including a selection situation, we are faced with processing an enormous amount of information.
As humans, we have limits to our cognitive processing abilities, so we use shortcuts, including stereotypes, which allow us to think that we know a lot about a person by virtue of the group we can place them in, such as race, sex, age, weight, hair color, etc.
Some of us are able to process more information than others, so we are less prone to use these biases. However, no one is immune, so research like mine is designed to help make us aware of these biases, so that we can make more accurate decisions.
Q: Does the bias only appear in jobs requiring manual labor, or only those where physical appearance is important, such as sales?
A: Our research showed that the bias against the obese tended to show up most in jobs that were high in physical activity. Interestingly enough, other researchers have speculated but not tested the assumption that obese persons were hired for less visible jobs. Our research did not find that to be true.
Q: How does the Americans with Disabilities Act factor into all of this?
A: The ADA is rather general in describing disabilities, and has been open to interpretation. It includes criteria such as “physical impairment” that “limits” the person’s ability in “major life activities.” There have been some attempts in organizations, the media and in the courts, to show that obese persons fit these criteria.
If obesity is recognized as protected by the ADA, it would then be unlawful to discriminate against someone in any personnel function hiring, evaluations, promotions based upon his or her weight. As is true of any discrimination case, the organization would then have to show that body weight is a valid predictor of job success a bona fide occupational qualification.
Validity, however, is something that is not just based on an assumption, it must be supported with empirical evidence. That is, we might assume that an obese person cannot be a successful health club manager, but unless there is evidence that is true, then the validity of that assumption is questionable.
Q: What advice for employers do you have?
A: As an industrial/organizational psychologist, my advice is always to make sure that your selection instruments, including interviews, are reliable and valid, which should help to reduce the influence of biases.
In the case of characteristics like obesity, it is also useful to be aware of the potential for bias, and to recognize that stereotypes, while appearing to make processing information a bit easier, do not always lead to an accurate decision.
Todd Shryock (firstname.lastname@example.org) is SBN’s special reports editor.