Fired for being obese? It’s perfectly legal.

Fired for being obese? It’s perfectly legal.








Employers can fire you, or even refuse to hire you because you are obese. It’s unfair, but it’s not illegal.

Most people believe that in our “sue happy” country you can sue for anything at anytime.  But the reality is that discrimination is only illegal when it’s for certain things, like race, religion, age, sex, etc.  Without this you have no case.  If any of this happens to you, you can take legal action against the employer. The difference is that lawmakers and courts have decided that it’s against public policy to allow discrimination based on those categories (race, religion, etc.). There are arguments that obesity should be protected too as a disability, but that hasn’t held up.

Some employers actually have formal policies that say you can’t work for them if you fit a certain profile. I just read about a hospital in Texas that says you can’t work for them if your BMI (body mass index, based on height and weight) is above a certain number. It might be morally wrong (or not), but it’s not illegal.  And once you take out any emotion that you’d feel if you got fired for being overweight, it’s simply a question of is this legal or illegal.  If it’s not illegal it’s not a case.

Aside from the legal aspect, it just seems awkward to measure BMI at a job interview. The Texas hospital is probably missing out on some great potential employees with excellent healthcare skills, but legally that doesn’t matter. Some employers argue that they discriminate in order to hire healthy employees. The hospital in Texas comes right out and says it. They want to have a “healthy” image. At least they’re being honest. BMI is a pretty basic calculation and doesn’t necessarily determine whether you are in good health, so presumably it’s about appearance. They say they are doing this to cater to their patients. Really? I’d rather have an excellent nurse than a thin one.

The other side to all this is that even if it was illegal, you can’t go after an employer unless you can prove it. Most aren’t as blunt about being fatists as the hospital is. The reality is that employers are going to hire and fire whomever they want, regardless of what discrimination law says. It happens all the time. They’ll fire someone because of their race but say it’s because they came in late; or they’ll fire someone who is overweight and claim they weren’t performing enough or in the right way. The law can only go so far in protecting people from discrimination and if you don’t have actual evidence of illegal activity you are out of luck. 

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  • "I’d rather have an excellent nurse than a thin one." I get both sides of the argument but when all is said and done, if I were in an emergency, I'd want to know the person working on me has a little hustle in him/her. If I were on the board at this hospital, I probably would have insisted that not only do we hire staff with good BMI, but they also had to graduate in the top 10% of their class. That ensures thin AND excellent. And then I'd promote the hell out of those hiring policies.

  • In reply to GabbyEsp:

    Full disclosure - I'm a 5'1 female with about 60 lbs to lose. I fully understand that I would be on the unhappy side of the hiring process at this hospital but I still agree with their policy.

  • People with hatred in their hearts have only one group that is politically correct to lash out on with their pitchforks and torches. We shouldn't take it away from them, by any means! I think when one is facing a life crisis at a hospital, that big coronary, for instance, who will care that the person who brought him back to life is Marilyn Monroe-like, or Melissa McCarthy? Some big nurses in hospitals have been more brilliant than their skinny coworkers, and there have been great RNs that are thin. It would be a shame, as you're gasping your last, if the fat person who could help you says, "I'm sorry. I'm obese and you didn't want me working here." It would be so nice, if humans could evolve to the level that we could respect all people.

  • A high BMI does not always correlate with being "large". You can even be "skinny fat", whereby you look thin but you don't have much muscle. At least the hospital is focusing on health and not just size.
    There are also a lot of employers these days who won't employ individuals whom they see as deliberately putting their own health at risk, such as smokers. Overweight people generally have health issues that could be alleviated were they to drop a few pounds. An improvement in health in many cases means less cause for treatment, which in turn, affects the premiums charged to certain groups of insured people. With the bottom line being as tight as it is these days, I'll bet many employers are choosing between two candidates with a thought to how much they might cost in health insurance.

  • In reply to Expat in Chicago:

    You may be right. Employers may refuse to employ people who put their own health at risk. But, truthfully, if employers who do this are honest with themselves, it's just bigotry unless they're applying this standard across the board.

    For example, riding a motorcycle is putting one's health at risk, but employers don't even ask the question. Being under and unable to manage chronic stress is the biggest health risk factor of all - regardless of body size - but I don't think we're seeing pre-employment stress screening. Failing to get proper sleep is another way we frequently put ourselves at risk in this culture, both for accidents (in the workplace, even) and chronic illness, but employers are not even addressing sleep.

    Until I start seeing a lot of risky behaviors addressed, I'm left with the conclusion that we've unfairly identified fat people in hiring practices.

  • In reply to tiahani:

    It's definitely a form of bigotry, but because obesity is not a protected class under the law employers can do it. Some places won't hire smokers and that decision of course brings much less sympathy.

  • In reply to Michael Helfand:

    Yup. No argument there. It's a shame, though, that only certain people are targeted by employers when it is impossible to evaluate someone's health by his or her weight.

    I'm against discriminating against smokers too, fwiw.

  • First I think you're article is missing a key point about obesity with regards to obesity specifically: Morbid Obesity, which is a protected class under ADAAA refer to
    The interesting point that could have been made is what if a morbidly obese person loses weight only to lose their protected status and then suddenly find themselves outside of the ADAAA scope? So in essence there's a benefit to not putting down the jelly doughnut!?

  • Putting aside the image issue, which I think a hospital, workout center, and a host of other businesses have a right to require their employees to project a certain image.... obese people generally cannot move or even react as quickly as slimmer individuals, and often cannot perform the tasks required of their jobs -- a former employer hired an obese woman who, AFTER she was hired, told the us that she could not climb up and down stairs and therefore, would not be able to retrieve files she needed to do her job. Unfortunately, we didn't know that we could've fired her without worry of being sued. They are a greater health risk to employers' insurance providers (that is, if there are any employers left who actually provide their employees with health insurance -- but that's another issue to be ranted elsewhere!) and are likely to cause premiums to rise which the employer passes along to employees.

  • In reply to Jules:

    Jules, the problem here is your company has incompetent level of knowledge of HR rules, not that your company hired a fat person.

    I'll hire fat over incompetence any day.

  • Wow, hadn't heard that one before. You can bet that case is headed for the Supreme Court where any favorable decision for the plaintiff will be overturned. But it is odd that a lawyer could tell a client, "You would have had a case if you were much, much heavier."

  • "project a certain image" THEY can not ..., they are a greater risk, "cannot perform the tasks required of their jobs" - "Overweight people generally have health issues that could be alleviated were they to drop a few pounds." "They steal" "They aren't as intelligent..." "They are unworthy" Let's keep going!

    Thank goodness the author chose a more compassionate approach and I am frankly grateful for that.

  • My father was in the hospital about 10 years ago, and one nurse was saying that she moved from the ER to intensive care, in part, because she was having knee problems. Intensive care didn't require standing for the long periods that working in the ER did.

    At the same time, she probably could have stood to loose about 50 pounds.

    My pediatrician, who was a crotchedity fellow, probably would have told her in no uncertain terms that her knees probably bothered her, because they were supporting too much weight.

    And while someone who is overweight may be in good health, the potential for future problems (high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, high colesteral) is probably greater than a person who is of normal weight.

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