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Companies Need to Re-Think Weight-Based Discrimination

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When hit film director Kevin Smith was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight in 2010 after the carrier declared him too overweight to fly, it dramatically illustrated the routine humiliations millions of Americans face. Research from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity reported that weight discrimination increased 66 percent from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. What’s more, at a time when more than two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese, the Rudd Center says obesity discrimination is now more prevalent than bias based on ethnicity, sexual orientation and physical disability.

No federal law protects workers from obesity-related workplace discrimination. Courts have ruled in favor of individuals who have successfully proved that their weight directly affected their job performance, but such instances are rare. At the state level, Michigan is the only state whose workplace anti-discrimination laws include body size bias – leaving most overweight workers with little recourse when it comes to protecting their rights.

With workplace protections still far from guaranteed — how can the overweight maximize their career potential while minimizing the possibility of discrimination? At the time of applying for a job, overweight people should take a hard look at any potential employment situation for clear signs of size diversity. Are there overweight people in senior-level positions? Does the workplace feel like a safe environment where such issues might be discussed?

Although Kevin Smith ultimately caught a later Southwest flight, the airline’s very public poor treatment is emblematic of the daily battles facing the overweight.

Last month, members of the Utah Legislature discussed House Bill 132, which would prevent employers from discriminating based on height and weight if signed into law.

The bill sparked a lot of discussion, and some laughs, in a committee meeting. The bill’s sponsor, Larry B. Wiley (D-West Valley City), said employers sometimes judge people by their height and weight when making decisions about employment and pay scale.

Current Utah law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age and disability. Utah law also prohibits employment discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or pregnancy-related conditions.

Committee members raised doubts about how height and weight discrimination could be defined and proven, calling the proposed legislation “poor public policy” and unfair to employers.

The bill failed in a 10-4 vote, but Rep. Wiley said he is not giving up.

“We start it with race, color, religion, age discrimination, those types of things. It’s a starting point. Weight and height is just a starting point that, eventually, we’ll get to that point when we have legislation that’ll address those issues,” Wiley said.

Wiley plans to continue to research the issue of height and weight discrimination. He said he’ll propose another version of the bill next year.

Overweight or not, when applying for a job, whether in an online job application or through email, put your best foot forward by having a clean design, no punctuation errors and lots of white space.

Once you land an interview, always look polished and well dressed no matter what your size.  If you look the part, you will have more of a chance of landing that next big gig, even if you have a few pounds to lose.

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