I caught a packed plane back from Glasgow last month. There were only two aisle seats left - one next to me and one just behind - when on sidled the fattest man I have ever seen on an aircraft. As he shuffled down the aisle, my blood pressure rose at the prospect that he might be in the seat next to me, or at least part of him might - unkind, maybe, but this wasn’t so much someone who needed two seats, as someone who should have been going air freight.
Thankfully, I got away with it and he, and his carrier bag of sandwiches, cakes and soft drinks, settled next to the poor little old lady behind. Now, it might seem politically incorrect to tell such a tale, but it is simply unfair that other passengers should be overwhelmed by an overflowing neighbour - let alone the injustice that he had the same baggage allowance as the rest of us.
So it won’t come as a surprise that a new study has found that fat people are discriminated against in the workplace. In a survey conducted by Personnel Today of 2,000 HR professionals, 93% said they would employ a ‘normal weight’ person ahead of an obese one.
OK, we may be in the minefield of ‘normal’ and ‘obese’ here, but I think we’re all pretty clear that people come in all shapes and sizes and some people come in ‘large’. But there is a clear difference between that and ‘obese’.
The study has now sparked a debate in HR about fat-ism and whether employers have a responsibility to address discrimination against obese people. Of course, I can accept that there are a few medical conditions that can cause obesity (and are therefore covered by the Disability Discrimination Act), but the simple fact is that we are, as a nation (he says pulling in his own stomach), more obese than we used to be - with most of it being down to not enough exercise, poor lifestyle and plain laziness. Hence, if I become obese and inactive, that’s surely my responsibility, not my employer’s.
But why stop at fat-ism? What about height? Instinctively, we are all short-ist - how often have you heard someone complain, on meeting a celebrity, that he/she is so much shorter than they had imagined? Well, it’s true, short-ism is just as real as fat-ism and the vertically challenged are disadvantaged when it comes to (if you’ll excuse the expression) getting to the top.
Paul Wilson, a psychologist, conducted an experiment where he introduced the same man to five classes of students, his introduction varying only by the status he ascribed to him. To the first group the stranger was introduced as a student, rising incrementally through the academic hierarchy to the fifth group, where he became a professor. Among various other attributes, Wilson then asked the classes to ascribe height to the stranger. When introduced as a student he was judged on average to be 5’10”, when as a professor he had grown 4” to 6’2”.
Height-ism spills over into the world of business too. An American survey of Fortune 500 companies found that more than half of their CEOs stood six foot or taller, while only 3% were 5’7” or shorter. Recruiters are just as prone to it. Another study found that 72% of the time the taller man was hired.
But why stop at height? There is a far more sinister ‘ism’ that lurks beneath and dare not (yet) speak its name: ugly-ism.
That’s right, ugly people earn less than good lookers. Barry Harper of London Guildhall University looked at 11,000 British 33-year-olds and found that the pay penalty for unattractiveness for men was 15% and for women 11%.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he found that good looks in both sexes mattered, especially in sales jobs where buyer meets seller face-to-face. But Harper is not alone. A Dutch study of advertising companies found that good-looking executives brought in more revenue than their plainer colleagues.
Of course, what all these studies confirm is that we all discriminate all of the time. And what’s more, successful recruitment is all about discrimination - in favour of the candidate most likely to succeed. And what could be fairer than that?
n Simon Howard is a founder of Work Communications and writes the Jobfile column for The Sunday Times.