Obesity discrimination in the workplace

Obesity must be regarded in the same way as any other disability.

In February this year a UK employment tribunal became the first to rule that obesity is a disability. In the case Bickerstaff v Butcher, the tribunal in Northern Ireland unanimously decided that the claimant is disabled and upheld his allegation of harassment. Mr Bickerstaff, who worked at Randox Laboratories in Co Antrim, claimed he was being harassed by colleagues because of his weight.

The UK ruling follows last year’s landmark judgement by the European Court of Justice, which ruled that being severely overweight – i.e. with a body mass index of more than 30 – can be considered a disability if it affects an employee’s ability to work. Whilst being overweight is not in itself classed as a disability, the judges said that any long-term disability caused by obesity – such as impaired mobility – should be protected by disability laws.

But it is not only random colleagues who discriminate against obese people. A study conducted by Personnel Today revealed that in some cases it is institutionalised. The survey of some 2,000 HR professionals showed that overweight people are passed over on everything from job applications to promotions, and are more likely to be made redundant.

More than 90 percent of respondents said they would select a ‘normal weight’ applicant over an obese applicant with the same qualifications. Around a third of those surveyed considered obesity a legitimate medical reason for not employing someone; while 15 percent said they would be less likely to promote someone who is obese. Most worryingly, 10 percent believed they could dismiss an employee because of their size – which is in clear contravention of employment law.

What the ruling could mean for your business

The ruling means that obesity must be regarded in the same way as any other disability. To this end, organisations will be expected to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that obese staff members are not impaired in their work. This might include enlarging doorways, changing office furniture, improving access to fire escapes, enlarging staff parking spaces, and even introducing flexible working hours so that obese employees can avoid the stress of rush-hour commuting.

How vulnerable is your business to claims resulting from discrimination in the workplace?

In the event of a discrimination dispute of any kind, it is important that you seek advice from a qualified expert. This way you can be confident that you are following the right processes, and are not leaving your business exposed to costly claims.

Need help?

Why not consider becoming a Cluer HR retained client? It’s highly cost-effective, and you’ll have the confidence that our employment law experts are always on hand to resolve staff issues the instant they arise – before they escalate into a serious problem!