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Body Weight – A "Heavy" Influence on Career Success

When it comes to job hiring or career advancement, a common phrase is “it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know,” but research on weight–based bias suggests “it’s how you look.”

Does being extra heavy or obese hinder the opportunity of getting a job or moving up the work ladder?

A recent study conducted at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, shows that, yes, obesity can and does have a denigrating effect in the workplace.

“There are a whole set of stereotypes that go along with being overweight, and a lot of them transfer into the workplace in terms of people’s judgment about others’ abilities and appearance in relation to job performance,” said doctoral candidate Cort Rudolph.

Researchers have studied the effects of weight–based bias in the workplace for more than 30 years, and Rudolph has completed a meta–analysis of many of the findings. “The results have been consistent. People who are overweight are viewed more negatively in the workplace than those who are of average weight, which is not surprising based on what we know about weight-based stereotypes,” he said.

Some of the basic stereotypes associated with being overweight include laziness, sloppiness, untidiness and lack of self–discipline and control. Overweight people are also regularly labeled as having increased health problems, which is an issue often considered cumbersome by organizations.

Rudolph will present his findings at the upcoming conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), April 10–12, in San Francisco.

But there is some good news for overweight employees. The bias effect tends to decrease as people’s tenure with an organization increases, Rudolph said.

In his study he found that stereotypes are most prominent in the initial selection process. Body weight seems to be less of a factor at the performance evaluation stage, and stereotypes have a minimum influence when it comes to promotions.

He also found that weight–based bias seems to be stronger as the amount of interaction with others, like customers, increases. For example, the effects of negative stereotypes appear more significant for face–to–face sales positions.  

So how severe is the influence of body weight in the workplace?

“From a societal perspective, there is a lot of evidence that suggests that Americans are getting heavier,” Rudolph said. Considering this growth, stigmas associated with body weight can become more and more of an issue, he added.

Dr. Boris Baltes, a psychology professor at Wayne State and Rudolph’s adviser, agrees that employees who are obese or very much overweight are victims of stereotypes.  

Baltes, who will also be at the SIOP conference participating in a panel discussion about weight–based bias in the workplace, has conducted studies of his own on this topic. Sampling more than 600 undergraduate students, he has specifically measured stereotype endorsement. 

He asked questions such as “Do you think obese people have less motivation?” Given the results, Baltes said, “We were amazed with the vast majority of people who strongly agreed with most of the negative statements.”

His research found that people tend to endorse weight–based bias more than other biases, such as race or gender. Baltes speculates that this may be because obesity is viewed as a situation within a person’s control. However, interestingly, studies suggest that if there is an explanation as to why a person is overweight, such as a thyroid condition, the stereotype seems to have much less of an impact.


For more information, contact Cort Rudolph at (313) 720-7082 or Cort.Rudolph@Wayne.edu. He will be presenting his research on weight–based bias in the workplace at the SIOP conference on Friday, April 11 at 10:30 a.m., and the media is welcome. Rudolph, along with a panelist group including Boris Baltes, will also be participating in a panel discussion about this topic on Saturday, April 12 at 9 a.m. Held at the Hilton San Francisco, this year’s conference is the 23rd annual event and is projected to attract more than 4,000 attendees. It will take on a three-day format with full-day sessions on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There will be hundreds of peer-reviewed sessions spanning a wide variety of interesting topics related to workplace issues.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of more than 6,500 industrial-organizational (I–O) psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning workplace productivity, motivation, leadership and engagement.  SIOP’s mission is to enhance human well-being and performance in organizational and work settings by promoting the science, practice and teaching of I–O psychology.  For more information about SIOP, including Media Resources, which lists nearly 2,000 experts in more than 100 topic areas, visit www.siop.org.