When obesity discrimination is legal

My friend didn't get hired and I think it's because he's obese. Is obesity discrimination (or any form of discrimination based on appearance) even legal?



The title to this post isn’t a typo: obesity isn’t a protected class, meaning an employer could discriminate based on weight or any other appearance-based criteria at almost any time. Let me first say, however, that discriminating against a job applicant because of weight has never been a best practice. That goes for discrimination of any form. An applicant should be selected because they’re the best fit for the position - not for any other reason, period.

So how do you know when obesity discrimination is legal and when it isn’t? As with most answers, it depends on the situation.

Is discriminating against a job applicant ever legal? Stratus HR consultant Brad Fagergren takes on this topic in this video

ADA and illegal obesity discrimination

Obesity discrimination in hiring is illegal when it violates the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). But is ADA discrimination a big deal? Well, to give perspective, there were 24,605 claims filed with the EEOC in 2018 for ADA violations alone, with employers paying over $136,500,000 in monetary benefits. In other words, yes -- ADA discrimination is a big deal.

An issue of ADA discrimination for an obese applicant would be of concern in the following two situations:

  1. An obese or overweight applicant is turned down for a job because the hiring manager perceives the applicant will or may require disability accommodations.
  2. The job applicant has a physiological impairment or disorder that results in weight gain or obesity (such as diabetes) that may require an accommodation for work and is rejected based on the supposed need of accommodation.

In both of these situations, the common denominator is an assumed need to make an accommodation for the applicant. Although this could be difficult to prove, the key takeaway for hiring managers is to never reject an applicant based on a perceived assumption. Simply focus on the applicant’s ability to perform the required job duties, with or without an accommodation.

Difficult situations arise every day that may require professional guidance to steer you and your management team in the right direction and to help you avoid paying a bundle in legal fees. For help with your specific situation, please contact our certified HR experts at HR@Stratus.hr.

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