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(CareerBuilder.com) -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 65 percent of U.S. adults -- or about 129.6 million people -- are either overweight or obese.
Does weight have any bearing in the workplace?
According to Miriam Berg, president of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, it does.
"The biggest obstacle larger-than-average workers face is prejudice, and the second biggest obstacle is the fact that many large people believe that prejudice themselves," Berg says. "Our culture is obsessed with weight loss, and there is a tremendous amount of bias against people who do not fit into the narrow definition of what is attractive.
"Obesity in current society is a stigmatized condition," notes Cornell University researcher and nutritional sociologist Jeffery Sobal. "People who are obese are rejected and discriminated against."
In addition to the emotional cost, the financial costs of being overweight can be high, too.
In a study by Charles L. Baum, Ph.D., of Middle Tennessee State University, obesity was found to lower a woman's annual earnings an average of 4.5 percent. Over a lifetime career, that can be as much as $100,000.
Baum found that obesity for men could lower annual earnings by as much as 2.3 percent. In a separate study by John H. Cawley, associate professor at Cornell University, a weight increase of 64 pounds above the average for white women was associated with 9 percent lower wages.
CSWD says that heavier workers are also not given raises as often as thinner workers, citing a study of more than 2000 adults that found wage growth rates were 6 percent lower in a three-year period for heavier workers.
One factor that seems to drive this bias is the cost of health insurance. The CDC has reported that obesity and overweight costs an estimated $117 billion in both direct medical costs and indirect costs, such as lost wages due to illness. Whether conscious or not, some employers may offer less pay to obese workers to offset higher health insurance costs.
"The research showing less productivity and more health problems in large size workers is flawed," Berg asserts. "The false idea that larger workers are less productive is a blatant attempt to deny the fact of weight discrimination. Large workers are denied promotions, are paid less, and are subject to being fired simply because of their size, no matter how excellent their qualifications are or how well they do their jobs."
A 2005 survey by TheLadders.com, 75 percent of executives said that being overweight is a "serious career impediment."
Berg says she's heard many versions of the same story from her clients: "After reading his or her resume, the company was eager to hire the applicant. The phone interview went very well, and the person was practically assured of the job. But when he or she came face to face with the interviewer, everything changed. Suddenly the job had 'already been filled'."
Those who apply for positions that interact with the public may feel the biggest sting.
"Many employers are not prejudiced themselves, but are afraid that customers may be put off by a plus-size employee, especially in jobs such as receptionist or salesperson," Berg notes.
Jim McSherry, managing partner of McSherry & Associates 2, a recruiting firm in Westchester, Illinois, says that extremely overweight applicants may indeed struggle in their job search, especially in companies that are very health conscious.
"When two competing candidates are equally qualified, often it is not their appearance that ultimately hurts the overweight candidate, it is his or her self-confidence," McSherry says. "[But] if a candidate is really outstanding, their size will not be an issue."
"When a large person is looking for a job, we recommend doing your homework, dressing for success, putting your best foot forward, and, most importantly, addressing any potential objections a potential employer might have," Berg suggests. "There is no reason not to bring up your size -- it's the elephant in the room, so to speak. If you are healthy, tell the interviewer that you have not missed a day of work in five years, or however long it is. Point out how strong or fit or flexible you are, or mention that you have great stamina."
Being healthy doesn't simply mean losing weight. "Our advice to large size people in general is to be as healthy as they can be," Berg declares. "Some of the ways we suggest are enjoying life, reducing stress, being physically active, and eating a variety of nutritious foods."
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