Obese people should be allowed to come to work an hour late, in order to miss rush hour, as well as receive other protections, according to Professor Stephen Bevan, a member of Public Health England's advisory boardThe Mirror reports.

He suggests that obesity should be classified as a "protected characteristic," which would mean discrimination based on waist size would be illegal.

In the United States, protected characteristics are almost all "immutable" characteristics--that is, things you can't change. Federal law recognizes race, color, national origin, religion, gender (including pregnancy), disability, age (if the employee is at least 40 years old), and citizenship status. Only religion and citizenship are things that are changeable, although some would argue gender is also not immutable.

Obesity is not currently protected under U.S. federal law (nor under U.K. law, but this professor is arguing it should be), and it should remain that way. (Some local and state laws declare obesity a protected class.) Being obese is not an immutable characteristic, nor is it a fundamental part of your life the way religion is.

This is not to say that obese people don't face discrimination. They do. A 2017 survey conducted by Fairygodboss found that 84 percent of people wouldn't hire an overweight female candidate, describing her as "unprofessional" and "lazy." 

Of course, survey/studies like this have obvious limitations. These women were judged solely on their photographs. We don't hire on the basis of photographs and appearance alone, so it's hard to say how accurate this actually is.

Obesity is also not strictly a choice. While we all choose how much we eat and how much we exercise, we don't choose our genetic makeup nor do we choose our gut bacteria, both of which influence our weight. 

And while we should hire people strictly on their ability to do the job, without regard to their weight, age, gender, or anything else, and while some people are naturally skinny and others are naturally obese, the last thing we need to do is make our weight a protected class.

Amy Alkon brought the idea of "concept creep" to my attention. This is the idea as that life gets easier, we start to look for more problems to solve. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert and his colleagues explain:

Do we think that a problem persists even when it has become less frequent? Levari et al. show experimentally that when the "signal" a person is searching for becomes rare, the person naturally responds by broadening his or her definition of the signal--and therefore continues to find it even when it is not there. From low-level perception of color to higher-level judgments of ethics, there is a robust tendency for perceptual and judgmental standards to "creep" when they ought not to. For example, when blue dots become rare, participants start calling purple dots blue, and when threatening faces become rare, participants start calling neutral faces threatening. This phenomenon has broad implications that may help explain why people whose job is to find and eliminate problems in the world often cannot tell when their work is done.

So, as society becomes more accepting of differences, we start to look for additional differences in order to prove our original hypothesis that people discriminate against others. We have no problem hiring people who would have been almost unemployable 50 years ago, so we need to continue to look to find evidence of mean-spiritedness.

Because almost all of us can change our weight by changing our lifestyles, this isn't something we should consider putting into law. And even if we did, we shouldn't take Bevan's suggestions seriously. Coming into work late can certainly be a reasonable accommodation for someone with a specific health problem or a specific family situation, but being obese doesn't automatically equal can't get to work on time.

Saying that it does is discriminatory and rude toward people who weigh more than average and still do their work just fine. By putting that idea out there, Bevan is encouraging more discrimination in saying, "Obese people aren't as capable as thin people!" That's not helpful.

The best solution to any sort of discriminatory practice is a booming economy. Make it a job seekers market and businesses can't be picky about whom they hire. Add additional regulations, and you may decrease the number of jobs available. That doesn't benefit anyone. 

Published on: Jul 2, 2018