My column, Workplace Referee, is designed to help employees and managers gain better insight into one another's point of view (POV). Have a situation you'd like me to address? Please submit it by email here. Don't worry. I'll keep your identity private.
My Boss Refuses to Hire Overweight People
Employee POV: Our company is expanding, and we've been aggressively hiring the past few months. I've noticed a pattern with my boss. He doesn't hire people who are overweight. Several times now, we've had candidates come in that I thought had the right skill sets and personality. However, he turned them down saying their appearance came across as "unkempt," and that anyone that couldn't come to an interview looking "pulled together" would likely not be able to handle the job. Each of these people were obese. More recently, he shared with me that one overweight candidate we interviewed reminded him of an employee at his last job who called out sick all the time due to bad knees, and that it hurt productivity. I'm thinking of asking him outright about his feelings toward hiring overweight people. What he is doing feels wrong to me.
Manager POV: Our company is growing fast, and it can be stressful. Now that we are hiring a lot of people, I have to make sure each new hire can handle the intensity. I don't think hiring people who can't take care of their health properly is a good idea. What does it say about them? I worry they won't be able to keep up when things get tough. I can't afford to have that. Plus, they'll likely be out sick and have more health issues than the other staff. I've seen it before. We need to select people who can survive and thrive in our high-stakes environment.
Who's at fault?
You may assume the manager is totally at fault here, but studies show obese workers do take more sick days and are prone to more chronic illnesses that can cause them to be out for extended periods of time, and even go out on disability. Furthermore, obesity is not a protected class in workplace discrimination lawsuits. At the same time, there are situations where ongoing discrimination of obese individuals, coupled with some other variables, could be reason for a lawsuit. Still, it would be tough to litigate in this situation, because as an at-will employer, this boss has the autonomy to decide who gets hired. As long as he can find candidates that meet or exceed all the job requirements and aren't obese, then it would be tough to prove hiring discrimination.
What can both sides learn from this?
Employee takeaway: I wouldn't directly confront your boss about this issue. He's already explained to you his reasoning, so the likelihood of you changing his mind is slim. Instead, if you interview a candidate you think is ideal but may not pass your manager's weight standards, go to bat for the person. Discuss his or her strengths and make the case why this would be the best person for the job. You could even offer to be the new hire's on-the-job buddy to ensure he or she is successful.
Manager takeaway: Be very, very careful with your candidate bias. Your high standards could cross a line. Think twice about whom you are rejecting and why. Remember, if you were to hire someone who ended up underperforming due to being out often, there are performance standards you could enforce. Making assumptions about people's abilities based on their weight is a shortsighted leadership strategy that will ultimately make your staff respect you less. Consider this: Maybe joining your firm could be a health turning point for this individual. Being surrounded by people with healthy BMIs might be just what the person needs to take their wellness to the next level.