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Fat bias in the workplace

Monday, May 19, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

fat biasIt is likely not a surprise to you that there is a significant public bias against the obese. Frequent flyers are familiar with the feeling of dread as a morbidly obese passenger approaches your row and seems to slow down. But fat bias doesn’t just happen in confined spaces. Workplace incivility is often directed at obese employees–referred to as employee adiposity in this research. Maybe that’s nicer than the other things it’s called.

As a reminder, incivility is rude, impolite or discourteous behavior that does not necessarily rise to the level of open hostility or aggression. Often used examples of incivility include things like not returning a greeting, interrupting a coworker when s/he is talking, failing to refill the empty printer after using up all the paper, and so on. In other words, rather than having a clear intent to harm (as with bullying), incivility is characterized by an ambiguous intent to harm. Therefore, the experience of incivility is at least somewhat dependent upon the target’s perception, and it is often harder to prove, especially if the target is not well liked. A circular problem.

The researchers conducted two studies, one with undergraduates and one with community adults who were employees. The two studies had many of the same findings but we are going to report the results of the community sample here. A sample of 528 community adults (53% female, 68% Caucasian, ranging in age from 20 to 63 years with an average age of 35 years, with tenure in current employment situation ranging from 6 months to 35 years with an average of 6 years, and 70% in non-management positions) was used. Participants provided their height and weight (from which researchers computed their BMIs) and demographic variables (such as sex and race) and also completed measures of workplace incivility, negative affect, burnout, and job withdrawal. And here are the (again, likely unsurprising) results:

Overweight individuals reported significantly higher levels of incivility than did underweight and healthy weight individuals. (Reported scores for incivility toward women were highest in the overweight and obese categories but highest for men in the underweight category!)

Black respondents reported significantly higher levels of incivility when they were underweight or healthy weight (this is surprising) but White respondents reported higher levels of incivility when they were overweight or obese. The researchers say that being overweight or obese is especially problematic for employees who are both white and female–the more overweight/obese–the higher the report of incivility.

Finally, there were links between adiposity and the respondents tendency to withdraw from their job emotionally. While the authors stress they are not blaming the victim, they recommend employers help employees reach and maintain healthy weights and thus have the resulting improvement in negative physical, psychological and professional outcomes associated with adiposity.

This is an interesting study for trial lawyers, law firms, and employers in general. They go beyond potential employment discrimination litigation, and offer a new approach to the evaluation of office culture. We all have biases we need to monitor and for organizations, paying attention to how we respond (directly and indirectly) to differences is a matter of both civility and liability.

Sliter KA, Sliter MT, Withrow SA, & Jex SM (2012). Employee adiposity and incivility: establishing a link and identifying demographic moderators and negative consequences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17 (4), 409-24 PMID: 23066694

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