Employers turn to lawyers for guidance on obesity

Employers are increasingly seeking legal advice about hiring overweight job candidates, according to one employment lawyer.

Stephen Robinson, an associate at law firm DWF, said HR professionals were legally within their rights not to employ obese applicants, providing there was no medical reason for being overweight.

“Unlike discrimination on grounds of race, sex or religion, the law offers no specific protection against ‘fattism’,” Robinson told Personnel Today. “With the nation’s waistlines getting bigger, weight is increasingly becoming an issue for employers, and some have sought our advice.”

The number of people classified as obese has doubled over the past decade, according to government figures. At the current rate, 28% of women and 33% of men will be officially obese by 2010. Department of Health figures estimate 18 million working days a year are already lost due to obesity-related health problems.

“You can choose not to employ an overweight candidate, provided there is no underlying medical reason for it,” Robinson said. But a candidate with an obesity-related disability would automatically be protected under the Disability Discrimination Act. Employers would need to ask applicants whether they suffered from a disability at the interview stage to avoid costly claims.

In a Personnel Today survey of 2,000 HR professionals in 2005, 93% admitted that they would choose a “normal weight” applicant over an obese applicant with the same experience and qualifications.

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