Great Careers Groups Career,Career Management,Career Transition What You Need to Know About Obesity & Weight Discrimination in Employment

What You Need to Know About Obesity & Weight Discrimination in Employment

What You Need to Know About Obesity & Weight Discrimination in Employment

Ah! Living large! The United States is a big country, and so many advertisements emphasize physical attractiveness and thinness with pencil-thin women and buff, muscular men.

We are here, according to our Constitution, created equally for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, if your Madonna body is twice that of your IQ, pursuing happiness may not come easily or without frustration, especially when it comes to employment. 

There is obesity and weight discrimination in employment. People who are obese can face challenges as they apply for jobs or if they want to move up the corporate ladder.

In the workforce, discrimination can probably be found at every stage of employment – recruitment, selection, hiring, placement, compensation, uniforms, hours and conditions of work, promotion, training, development, benefits, discipline, discharge, etc.

Discrimination is socially and economically harmful. Employers may deny a pool of very qualified candidates for employment, and workers may be deprived of valuable employment opportunities. 

If one considers Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, obese people may not develop their full potential in self-actualization because of weight discrimination. Indeed, this is not fair, but society has changed over time, and statistics don’t hide the facts. 

Weight stigma may be direct and overt, unspoken or covert, or subconscious, and it is certainly offensive and humiliating. There may also be physical abuse, such as bullying, violence, or other aggressive behaviors.  

Negative stereotypes of fat people may be viewed as less competent, disorganized, inactive, less successful, less productive, not industrious, or indecisive. Other descriptors may include low intelligence, gluttonous, poor health, laziness, lack of self-discipline, fatigue, frequent knee pain, reduced mobility, poor willpower, character defects, and poor role models, and they receive negative reactions from others (Kristen, 2002; Puhl & Brownell, 2003; Williams & Malik, 2005). 

Moderately and highly obese people also can experience wage discrimination as well as other forms of employment discrimination such as relegation of non-contract positions, demotions, being kept in jobs beneath their abilities, failure to promote, workplace harassment, or even getting fired. 

There are some laws written regarding discrimination in employment, and they have clear intentions.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibited discrimination based on gender for similar work under similar conditions in the Federal Law Category.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII, U.S.C. §2000 et seq.) established federal law for employment discrimination. Still, it does not identify weight as a characteristic, and therefore obese individuals do not have protection under this law if there are discriminated against by an employer. 

The Age Discrimination and Employment Act of 1967 and its amendments prohibited against discrimination for those over age 40, while Title IX of the Education Act of 1972 forbade gender discrimination in education programs, including those receiving federal dollars for athletic programs. 

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects against employment discrimination. Still a physical or mental disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities must be established within the meaning of the act. 

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, passed in the late 1970s, prevented employers from excluding childbirth and pregnancy from health benefits plans and sick leave. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a federal law designed to end discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, transportation, education, and communication for those Americans who suffer from physical and mental disabilities and affects three groups of disabled persons. 

The first group is individuals with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The second group is individuals with a record of that impairment, and the third is individuals regarded as having such an impairment. 

If there was intentional discrimination, The Civil Rights Act of 1991 provided for monetary damages. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is an independent regulatory body, government enforcer of the ADA, and is in charge of all the complaints filed. They define major life activities such as caring for oneself, hearing, walking, seeing, speaking, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks, and working. 

Specific states and cities (Michigan state; Madison, WI; Santa Cruz, CA; San Francisco, CA; Washington DC; Urbana, IL; and Binghamton, NY) have enacted ordinances and legal prohibitions against weight discrimination. You can refer to the chart in the National Library of Medicine that was last updated in 2020 to learn more. 

Questions yet to be answered regarding weight discrimination laws include the following:  

  • Is obesity a voluntary or involuntary handicap? 
  • Should obese people be a protected class? 
  • Is an obese person considered automatically handicapped by potential employers? 

A solution to this problem would be establishing anti-discrimination laws to protect people from weight discrimination. 

Why do fat people deserve legal protection? Mainly because of self-determination, equality, and fairness. This legal protection would not, however, come without costs to provide legal protection. There are costs in creating laws and well as enforcing them.

“Being fat is not just a matter of personal choice. Just like other chronic diseases, fatness results from the interaction between genes, environment, and personal choice” (Wang, 2008, p. 1910). 

It is a known fact that there is no miracle cure for obesity; if there were, someone would probably be an instant billionaire. 

Even people who are obese can be well groomed, personable, and appropriately dressed and lead healthy, happy, full, active lives, have good self-esteem, and be excellent employees. 

Not only should weight discrimination be illegal, but it should also be considered immoral. If you are a hiring manager, hire based on talent and qualified employees.


Kristen, E. (2002). Addressing the problem of weight discrimination in employment. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


Puhl, R.M., & Brownell, K.D. (2003). Psychosocial origins of obesity stigma: Toward changing a powerful and pervasive bias. The International Association for the Study of Obesity: Obesity Reviews, 4, 213-227.


Wang, L. (2008). Weight discrimination: One size fits all remedy? (Cover story). Yale Law Journal, 117(8), 1900-1945.

Williams, N., & Malik, N. (2005). The big issue. Occupational Health, 57(10), 20-22



Lynne M. Williams is the Executive Director of the Great Careers Groups, a volunteer-run 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides career development and networking connections for 1) job seekers in career transition, including veterans, and 2) employed and self-employed for career management.

Aside from writing keyword-focused content for ATS resumes and LinkedIn™ profiles, Lynne is writing her doctoral dissertation on LinkedIn™ for Job Seekers. She is a contributing author on “Applying to Positions” in Find Your Fit: A Practical Guide to Landing the Job You Love, along with the late Dick Bolles, the author of What Color is Your Parachute?, and is also a speaker on career topics.