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Overweight workers: Lazier than their slimmer counterparts?

July 23, 2008 | 12:41 pm

Think your overweight employees are lazy? Not as emotionally stable as their slimmer counterparts? More difficult to get along with? Not as outgoing?

OfficeThe perception might not equal reality, according to a new study comparing how people perceive overweight workers’ demeanors and how those workers actually behave. A body of research already exists about weight discrimination in employment and promotion decisions, but this study, published in the August issue of the journal Group & Organization Management, goes deeper to see if that discrimination has any veracity.

Results from two complementary studies were analyzed; in the first, 320 college students underwent two tests to determine body mass index, then given a test to determine five dimensions of personality, known as the "big five" personality traits. The study used information on four out of the five: conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (the fifth, openness, wasn’t considered to be applicable). In another, data was analyzed from a national survey of 3,400 adults who self-reported their weight, and also took the personality test.

In both, researchers found no evidence to support employers’ beliefs that overweight workers were less hard working, had more emotional problems, were less gregarious or less amicable.

Avoiding weight discrimination should be included as part of a company’s diversity program, says Mark Roehling, associate professor of human resource management at Michigan State University and lead author of the study. "Over time we recognize more facets of diversity, and this certainly is one of them," he says. "If you’re trying to develop a work force that tolerates diversity, this is something you’d address."

Some employers, says Roehling, might rationalize not hiring overweight or obese workers because they believe they’ll be a drain on health care costs.

"This is where it could become an irrational decision," Roehling says. "The costs associated with overweight people varies tremendously. Certainly there are some costs, but they usually kick in at higher levels of weight. Even at an extra $1,000 a year, if you can show that the employee was significantly more qualified, the value of having a better employee doing the job would be far more than $1,000."

While the landscape might be changing, with younger generations becoming more accepting of overweight employees, Roehling still cautions against making judgments founded on preconceived notions: "It’s a waste of human resources when you make a decision based on stereotypes."

--Jeannine Stein

Photo: Randi Lynn Beach/For The Times

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