Government comes under pressure to make discrimination against obese people illegal

The government is coming under increasing pressure to make ‘fattism’ unlawful after The Obesity Awareness & Solutions Trust (TOAST) stepped up its efforts to make tackling obesity a national health priority.

The charity has been drumming up support among MPs to press for action on obesity, which costs the economy up to £3.7bn and accounts for 18 million sick days per year, according to a Commons committee on obesity.

Dr Brian Iddon, Labour MP for Bolton South East, and a patron of TOAST, suggested the government should consider making it illegal to discriminate against people because of their size.

“This government has gone to great lengths in its efforts to abolish discrimination in several areas of social policy. Obviously, it will have to look next at discrimination against those who are overweight,” he said.

Louise Diss, the charity’s chief executive, added: “Anti-discrimination legislation is part of the solution, but it won’t stop people getting fat. It’s not just about a change in the law it’s about discussing how to deal with it.”

This move comes as we reveal the findings of our obesity awareness survey, carried out among 2,603 readers of Personnel Today, and 331 members of TOAST.

An astonishing 93% of HR professionals said there was a social stigma about obesity, yet two-thirds admitted the issue was not discussed enough in their organisation. Almost three-quarters said their organisation was not actively tackling obesity, and only one-third ensured that managers were vigilant for any teasing or bullying.

Yet the TOAST members who responded believed that employers were more likely to select obese workers for redundancy or pass them over for promotion, and were not sympathetic to obese staff.

When we last carried out this survey in October 2005, 93% of HR professionals said they would hire a ‘normal weight’ candidate rather than an obese one who was identically qualified. Nothing has changed since then: our new survey reveals that 93% would still make that choice.

TV personality Anne Diamond, who runs, said obesity should be “the new smoking”. “HR and bosses should blaze the trail,” she said. “This current attitude to fat has got to stop.”


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Feedback from the profession

  • David Bornor, head of HR, The Children’s Mutual: “I don’t believe good employers will discriminate on grounds of obesity. The stigma is more about visual aesthetics. Employers can only do so much: they should try not to make things worse, but it is down to the individual to address this issue.”

  • Andrew Marston, assistant chief officer (HR), Greater Manchester Police: “I don’t think you can have a policy on obesity, but HR professionals need to be alive to the issues and have some proactive strategies in place.”

  • Cara Davani, group director corporate services, Genesis Housing Group: “Appearance is critical to establishing credibility in an interview situation, but it does not mean that obese people cannot be well presented. This survey shows the importance of including access to information and advice on healthy lifestyles and diet in a health promotions programme. Ultimately, the employer and employee have shared responsibilities for health in the workplace.”

  • Stephen Hall, vice-president, HR, Metronet Rail: “Obesity has always been the ‘unspoken problem’, particularly with regard to recruitment. But selection for redundancy on grounds of obesity is a real myth.

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