A recent online survey carried out by Personnel Today magazine has confirmed what overweight people have suspected for years - that it is a handicap in the jobs market and that personnel officers and recruitment agencies are, in general, more likely to offer employment to those of a "normal" weight.

The principal reason given was that obesity affects productivity, presumably upon the basis that overweight people tend to be less healthy than slimmer people and are therefore more likely to take time off work on illness grounds. A significant number of respondents also thought that being overweight was a sign of lack of self-discipline - if one cannot control what one eats, then one ought not to be placed in a position of responsibility. Some felt additionally that they would not want obese workers to meet clients as they would not present their organisation in the correct light. This represents perhaps the last socially acceptable basis of workplace discrimination. There are rules specifically preventing discrimination of virtually any other kind - less favourable treatment based on race, colour, sex, sexuality, religion or belief or disability are all outlawed. There are, however, no plans to introduce legislation to address "fattism".

Overweight people may be protected by the Disability Discrimination Act if their condition is sufficiently serious. This might, for example, be because they develop mobility problems or a secondary condition, such as clinical depression. Because of the very specific definition of disability, cases where this protection is available are likely to be few and far between.

Overweight people who do manage to find work will, however, acquire normal protection from unfair dismissal once they complete 12 months' service. To dismiss an employee for being, or becoming, overweight will be unfair unless the employer can demonstrate the employee's weight compromised their ability to do their job or can show some other substantial justification. This is likely to be difficult in all but the most specialised cases.

* Stephen Elliott is a solicitor in the employment team of North-East law firm Ward Hadaway. He can be contacted on 0191-204 4000 or by email at stephen.elliott@wardhadaway.com

Published: 15/11/2005