There’s new confirmation of something we may not like to admit about ourselves: Many of us are biased against obese people in the workplace.  

We’ve all read reports of studies that show obese employees are routinely passed over for promotions, turned down for jobs they’re qualified for, and paid less when they finally get hired.

But a recent study out of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania illustrates a slightly different wrinkle: Obese people are often assumed to be less competent then their thinner counterparts.

Here’s a rundown of the research, from the UPenn website:

Using five experiments, [the researchers] document[ed] a clear-cut relationship between obesity and perceptions of low competence.

In the first experiment, they used photos and outcomes from the “Jeopardy!” game show to explore the association between obesity and perceptions of competence.

Ninety-eight women and 104 men were recruited to view photographs of contestants, rate the competence of each, and guess the winner.

The researchers found a systematic bias. Even though the weight of contestants had no relation to whether or not they won, study participants expected overweight contestants to be less likely to win.

The second experiment tasked 100 women and 68 men with rating digital resumes, which included a photograph of an obese and non-obese person. The researchers manipulated obesity by digitally altering the photos to make non-obese individuals appear obese.

Each study participant was asked to assess the candidate’s competence. After they handed in their responses, Schweitzer and Levine recorded each participants’ own height and weight.

The researchers discovered that obese job candidates were perceived to be significantly less competent than non-obese candidates, and also found that overweight participants in the study were just as likely to show a prejudice toward obese candidates as thinner participants.

Experiment No. 3 explored the unique role that cognitive perceptions of competence and affective mechanisms play in linking obesity with behavioral responses. Ninety-five women and 105 men read a two-page resume that a fictitious job candidate had submitted online, and rated the candidate on warmth and competence. The resume included candidates’ height and weight, but no photos.

All of the fictitious candidates were white and 25 years old. Females were listed as 5’4” tall and 132 pounds, and males were listed as 5’9” and 168 pounds, the 50th percentile height and weight for each gender. When the researchers manipulated the weight of the candidates to obese—220 pounds for 5’4” women and 243 pounds for 5’9” men, they found that participants rated obese candidates as significantly less competent.

Two other experiments dealt with how obese people can change people’s opinion of them by displaying a warm, engaging attitude toward colleagues.

An attitude that hurts everyone

Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer and Ph.D. student Emma Levine authored a paper on their findings, The Affective and Interpersonal Consequences of Obesity, which was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

“If somebody [mistreated or insulted an employee based on} race, people would be calling for them to be fired,” Schweitzer said on the Penn website. “Yet because many people perceive obesity to be a choice, discrimination against obese people is far more accepted.”

Schweitzer said all of society is harmed by the obesity bias. Companies who succumb to this bias – consciously or unconsciously — could be missing out on opportunities to hire good workers and promote exceptional employees.

“I think it’s harmful not just to the people who are obese, but to the rest of us,” he says. “We’re not giving them the chance. We’re being unfair.”

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