Overweight men face discrimination when shopping and applying for jobs, according to new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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Larger men face subtle discrimination.

Previous research has looked at weight stigmatization or discrimination toward women, but less so for men.

Enrica Ruggs, assistant professor of psychology and colleagues from Rice University and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (UNCC), carried out two studies into biases toward heavy men in employment settings to see if men experience some of the same types of issues as women.

In the first study, non-overweight men first applied for jobs at retail stores in the southern US. The same men then applied for jobs at different stores wearing overweight prosthetics.

To investigate reactions to overweight men as consumers, the same men posed as customers and visited other retail stores. In both situations, the “actors” were given scripts to follow closely.

The actors rated behaviors on a scale of 0-6, with zero meaning no discrimination and six meaning extremely discriminatory.

Observers who were pretending to shop inconspicuously watched the interactions and provided independent evaluations.

Results showed that the averages were different when they were heavy compared with when they were not heavy. The overweight men rated stores at 2.3, compared with 2.0 when they were their average weight.

When the men applied for jobs or were shopping as customers in their overweight prosthetics, they experienced more types of subtle discrimination, termed by the researchers “interpersonal discrimination.”

The observers’ results were consistent with those of the actors. The authors say that a difference of 0.3 points may seem little, but is statistically significant, and suggests that men who are heavy are experiencing negative behaviors more often than men who are not heavy.

Ruggs points out that the types of discrimination were not formal or illegal. None of the men were prevented from applying for positions. However, they did face more interpersonal discrimination or subtle negative behavior.

Examples of discrimination included employees who interacted with them trying to end the interaction early, less affirmative behavior such as nodding or smiling, and more avoidance behavior, like frowning.

The second study, conducted in a lab setting, aimed to see how customers evaluated employees and to determine whether customers’ evaluations of an organization and its products are affected by having heavy employees.

Fast facts about obesity
  • In the US, 35% of people aged 20 plus are obese
  • 69% of people aged 20 plus are obese or overweight
  • 20.5% of 12-19-year-olds are obese.

Learn more about obesity

Researchers created marketing videos of five products that were generally neutral in terms of having wide appeal for a wide target market, such as luggage and coffee mugs.

The videos featured male and female actors, some overweight, some not. Test participants were told that the different videos would be used to launch a new product to be sold online; they were given a questionnaire to fill out after watching the marketing videos.

Again the discrimination was subtle, but this time the customer was the discriminator.

Participants who viewed the heavy employees’ videos reported more negative stereotypical thoughts about the employee. Overweight representatives were perceived as less professional, less neat and clean and more careless.

These stereotypical thoughts in turn led to negative evaluations of the employee as well as the organization and the products.

Ruggs says:

It’s really unfortunate. There are these really subtle influences that can have large negative effects on heavy men in the retail settings; that’s whether they’re applying for jobs, they’re actual employees or as customers.”

In view of these findings, Rugg would like to see more measures to create equitable workplaces for all employees, potential employees and consumers, and for organizations to take an active role in making changes.

She points to a lack of positive images of heavy individuals excelling in work settings, and suggests that organizations try to influence perceptions and attitudes about heavy employees by positively highlighting them more in overall marketing and branding efforts.

Riggs comments that overweight people may have fewer chances of finding employment, or their decision-making processes could be affected as customers.

She believes the narrative of what is considered normal, beautiful and professional needs to be changed. This could start with better role models presented in media adverts and more equitable hiring of employees of all sizes who interact with customers.

She also suggests better job training on customer relations for new employees, otherwise customers or applicants who experience subtle biases may not be so willing to use that store or recommend it to their friends.

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported that over two thirds of Americans are estimated to be either overweight or obese.