The hidden career cost of being overweight

July 26, 2023

Looking back, Michelle Matthews says she often internalized co-workers’ comments about her weight. At one work lunch, a teammate remarked on how much she was eating. A higher-up told her she needed to “show up physically as a leader” after she failed to win a promotion, reports The Wall Street Journal.

It wasn’t until the tech-product design director switched to remote work in 2020 that she grasped how much such slights had colored her office career.

“I didn’t realize how much I was thinking about my physicality,” said Matthews, 38, who describes herself as a big person. “It took up a lot of my mind.”

Weight stigma is rarely talked about at work, but it pervades workplaces everywhere, employees and hiring managers say. Indeed, study after study has found that heavier people are paid and promoted less than thinner colleagues and are often stereotyped as lazy or undisciplined.

In a spring survey of more than 1,000 human-resources executives, 11% said an applicant’s weight had factored into hiring decisions. Half of managers surveyed in a separate poll said they preferred interacting with “healthy-weight” employees, according to SHRM, the human resources professional network that conducted the surveys.

Now, as New York City and some states move to outlaw weight discrimination at work, companies are beginning to focus on the experience of overweight workers. Many managers are unprepared for the wave of complaints the legislation could bring, advocates for the laws say.

Weight “is still not looked at from a [diversity and inclusion] perspective,” says Jessica Richman, founder of the Visible Collective, a group that advises companies on supporting workers and consumers who are considered obese.

Signed into law in May, the New York City ban adds weight and height to the list of characteristics protected from discrimination, alongside race, gender, age, religion and sexual orientation. Several states, including New Jersey and Massachusetts, have introduced similar bills. (Michigan is currently the only state to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of weight.)

Nearly two-thirds of employers haven’t addressed weight-related stereotyping or bias with their employees, according to SHRM. Although a small number of employers, such as Amazon, have formed employee groups to support overweight workers and raise awareness of “fat-shaming,” they remain the exception.

Even business leaders who have been vocal advocates of inclusive workplaces say they have given little thought to weight biases until recently.

“It wasn’t on my radar,” said Jonathan Mildenhall, co-founder and chair of global brand consulting firm TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, who says his company and its corporate clients will have to give the issue more attention. Employers may also need to reconsider workplace weight-loss challenges; or other programs and benefits, including reimbursement for drugs such as Ozempic, he said.

The body-positivity movement that championed fat acceptance, plus-size fashion models, and extended clothing sizes over the past decade helped fuel the recent weight-discrimination legislation. Now, the rise of Ozempic, Wegovy, and similar treatments may lead some people to conclude obesity is a choice if losing weight is a matter of taking a drug.

But, the problem is not going away: Pressure to be fit is already intense for anyone aspiring to rise through the management ranks, some executives say. The Internet is awash in images and reports of how tech leaders such as Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg have achieved their now-buff physiques.

And some leadership coaches say staying trim is virtually a requirement for getting on the CEO track.

Research contact: @WSJ