Handling the Expanding Issue of Obesity Discrimination

Published last October in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a Duke University study estimated the cost of obesity among U.S. full-time employees to be $73.1 billion. According to the study, the cost of obesity accounted for (1) employee medical expenses, (2) job productivity loss (due to health problems), and (3) work absenteeism. Facing such mounting and costly challenges, an employer can hastily make adverse employment decisions against overweight or obese employees and thus jeopardize the business with risks of unfair discrimination claims. So, what responsibility must you as the employer exercise in order to provide a workplace free of weight-based discrimination and harassment?

Covering employers with 15 or more employees, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents discrimination based on a disability and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to a qualified employee with a disability. In general, obesity is not covered under the ADA, but morbid obesity is. Although no clear rule exists on whether obesity is a disability even under the recently amended (and more employee-friendly) ADA, employees have successfully made “regarded as” ADA claims. For example, if an employer refuses to consider a job applicant due to a perceived obesity of the individual, then the failure to hire may be deemed as an act of unlawful discrimination. Obesity-related conditions (i.e. diabetes and heart disease) may also be protected by the ADA. Moreover, be aware of state-specific laws which may provide additional or more stringent.

Whenever faced with hiring or managing overweight employees, some employer guidelines include:

  • Establishing employee handbook policies emphasizing equal employment opportunities regardless of personal appearances.
  • Reviewing job descriptions for any questionable weight requirements not related to the essential job functions.
  • Avoiding assumptions about which job tasks an overweight employee cannot perform.
  • Working with employees on mutually agreed-upon reasonable accommodations in order for the individual to perform the essential functions of the job.
  • Educating managers on, at minimum, the basics of the ADA and related federal and state discrimination laws.
  • Training periodically all employees and managers on how to address inappropriate or unprofessional behavior which may lead to weight -based discrimination.

In addition, to help counter the rising costs associated with obesity in the workplace, take a closer look at how you promote a healthy work environment. Your company could stock vending machines with healthy snacks instead of soda and candies, implement a voluntary weight reduction program, or partner with a local fitness center to offer special employee discounts. Maintain a healthier workplace culture over time, and your company could find the costs of employee obesity a diminishing issue that positively affects the bottom line.

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