Expert Advice

Weight Discrimination in the Workplace: Am I Being Passed Up for Promotion?

| Updated November 28, 2017

Is weight discrimination hurting my career?

Nonprofit experts Gary G. Godsey, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, have teamed up to create MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

Am I being passed up for promotion because of my weight?

I work for a local nonprofit and seem to have been sidelined in my job. I’ve applied for three promotions, all within my education and abilities, but have never been selected.

I acknowledge that I am quite overweight and have been since I was a teenager. I’ve tried hundreds of diets, but nothing worked and I have accepted that I am going to be “big” the rest of my life. I have come to an uneasy peace with my body. Nonetheless, I am always coping with hurtful comments and smart remarks about my size from family and strangers. I must say that It never occurred to me that this same attitude would prevail at my nonprofit. Aren’t we all here to do good in the world? Aren’t people who give their lives to a mission above a bias about “fat” people?

I’d like to talk to my manager, but I feel sure she will never admit that my size is influencing her decisions.

Do you think I should give it a try?

Gary says ...

Absolutely, you should talk to your manager. If your record of accomplishment is stellar and your qualifications are as you outline, you deserve to hear why you haven’t received a promotion. Clearly you are very self-conscious about your weight to the point that you've decided that your weight is the single reason you have not been promoted. While that may be true, you will not find anyone that would be willing to admit it to you personally.

I would suggest trying a new approach. Ask your manager directly to outline for you the things you need to do, professionally, to make yourself more attractive for a promotion. Go into the meeting with a list of your accomplishments, your career goals, and your short and long-term ideas for the organization. It’s always good to see someone who can see the entire organization and the impact they have on the overall work and mission.

Ask for regular check-ins with your manager and seek feedback, good or bad, to help you grow professionally. Honestly, if I were as self-conscious as you seem to be, I would seek outside professional counsel to guide me through a process for addressing the weight issue. That would be two positive moves you could make for yourself. One would be internal and one external, all aimed at helping you be the best you can be.

Good luck in your endeavors.

P.S. Tell the family to back off with the comments. People who truly care about you would never make those kinds of hurtful comments.

Kathryn says ...

FYI, as a rule: don’t expect nonprofit managers or staff to be any less prone to bias and prejudice when compared with the general population. Both nonprofit and corporate folks alike can make damaging assumptions about others.

It's hard to know what is going on here without more information, but weight-related bias and discrimination is certainly very real. In that case, you need a lawyer, as laws vary regarding your avenues of legal recourse regarding size discrimination. Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the University of Connecticut and the Deputy Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity reports: “… research in the U.S. has found that among women, weight discrimination is comparable to rates of racial discrimination.”

We are all aware that ugly, snarky and regrettable commentaries on women’s weight are becoming all too common. President of the United States, Donald Trump, has more than once made public, disparaging remarks about women based upon their weight. If the president feels comfortable expressing these opinions, is it a surprise that others do too?

In your question you say you’ve always weighed more than you wished, which means that you were initially hired at your nonprofit based upon education and experience, rather than dress size. Has something or someone in your nonprofit changed? It seems at least remotely possible that the three promotions for which you applied were not the right positions for you.

But it isn't entirely unreasonable you feel discriminated against. Forbes Magazine tells us that “thin is in” for executives and weight discrimination can lead to an unwelcome and unexpected crash into a career glass ceiling. This may be what is happening every time you reach for a management spot.

Now, to your question — should you talk to your manager? I say absolutely, yes! I’d ask her to honestly provide feedback on why you were passed over for those three promotions. She may surprise you by giving you a reality check on your job performance.

On the other hand, she may tell you it is weight or appearance related (or some other thinly masked discriminatory statement, such as “we worry you won’t have the health or stamina for these stressful positions”). Hear these statements for what they are: unjust and prejudicial. If she goes in the latter direction, call that lawyer.

Oh, and I think it is time to let family members know you will no longer tolerate nasty comments about your weight. It’s your body and you have a right to be proud of who you are. This type of shaming is not love and undermines your confidence and peace of mind. Be prepared to put some emotional (if not physical) distance between you and anyone that has more of an interest in knocking you down than appreciating who you are and your many gifts and talents.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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