Firing Due to Obesity: Skinny Minnie

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cheerful chubWith summer just around the corner we are once again seeing a noticeable increase in advertising whether it be on television, radio, newspapers, magazines, or social media related to losing weight (the last onslaught was, of course, during the months of December, January, and February – when was the last time you checked in on your resolutions?)

Certainly we support the notion of maintaining a healthy weight for, well, health reasons. And small business owners should as well, considering that obesity is the underlying cause of a plethora of diseases (diabetes, heart disease, and chronic pain being three major culprits) as well as the fact that people who are obese take more sick days that those who maintain a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index.)

It may seem “mean” to discriminate within hiring and firing due to obesity. However, it actually can have a negative impact on a small business owner’s bottom line. According to “the most obese men take 5.9 more sick days a year; the most obese women, 9.4 days more. Obesity-related absenteeism costs employers as much as $6.4 billion a year, health economists led by Eric Finkelstein of Duke University calculated.”

This same article also notes that there are substantial increases in medical costs noting the “obese men rack up an additional $1,152” per year in medical spending and obese women “account for an extra $3,613” per year. Increases in health insurance premiums are, of course, borne by both small business owners as well as the non-obese.

Can You Discriminate in Hiring or Firing Due to Obesity?
At this juncture, people who are obese are not considered a “protected class.” The term protected class refers to people who meet certain characteristics and/or factors that make it illegal to discriminate against someone who meets those characteristics and/or factors. For instance, you cannot refuse to hire or fire someone based on the fact that they are a paraplegic if that characteristic does not prohibit them from performing the duties and responsibilities in their job description.

Which begs the question: Should you not hire, or even fire, someone due to the fact that they are obese?

Men’s Health reported on a survey conducted by Yale University that indicated 65% of men would support legislation that protected obese workers from being discriminated against based on their weight or BMI. Now, those surveyed by Yale University certainly weren’t all small business owners. Most likely, most of those surveyed were employees rather than business owners. So, the question remains, what IS a best practice for small business owners as far as hiring or firing obese workers?

Does it Truly Make Good Business Sense to Discriminate Against Obese Employees?
We tend to agree with that 65% – which might surprise you considering that the numbers we’ve reported thus far seem to support that having obese employees on the payroll is likely to have a negative impact on your bottom line. But let’s take a closer look. If obese employees are costing business owners $6.4 billion dollars a year there’s no getting around that this represents a ton of money. However, there are approximately 27 million small businesses in the United States. $6.4 billion divided by 27 million represents about $237 per small business per year. That sounds a bit more manageable. When you add to this that the $6.4 billion includes ALL American businesses, that number gets even smaller.

And the math doesn’t take into consideration the contributions of obese employees to the success of your small business. For instance, which is going to cost you less – an obese woman who takes about 6 more days’ sick leave – or a “skinny” employee who takes the (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) average 4 days of paid sick leave per year – yet doesn’t have the skills set or the work ethic of your obese employee who produces twice as much on the 250 days there do report to work?

Suzanne Lucas of does a great job pointing out some very good reasons not to discriminate against obese employees:

1. You will lose out on some great candidates
2. BMI is actually a poor predictor of health.
3. It may be illegal — although not in the way you think… African-American women are more likely to be overweight, according to BMI. You do not want a policy that will end up discriminating against any group, especially one built on shaky science.
4. What do you do when your star employee gains weight?
5. It’s bad public relations.

Rather than discriminate against obese employees – how about taking the same tack as when you know you’ve got a great employee who just needs a bit of mentoring? Instead of discriminating offer voluntary wellness programs. While the U.S. health care reform law of 2010 says it’s OK for employers to make obese workers’ pay 30 percent to 50 percent more for health insurance if they decline to participate in a qualified wellness program – it might make more sense, and encourage participation by obese employees, if you don’t force (embarrass) an employee to participate. If you’re going to make it mandatory, how about a wellness program that is mandatory for ALL employees?

However, there are going to be situations where an obese employee is going to cost you more than they’re making for you. For example, in the Reuters article Eric Finkelstein of Duke University points out that even when obese employees aren’t taking time off work, their obesity can render them inefficient at work and lower productivity. But it doesn’t seem to make sense to have some “blanket” policy against obesity. It would only make sense if in the course of evaluating a specific obese employee’s performance you note that they are, in fact, not meeting expected productivity.

Employees come with different profiles and work styles – some that work, some that don’t. In those cases you would evaluate whether or not mentoring and/or additional training would remedy the problem. There are costs associated with employee obesity, but there are also costs associate with employee turnover. For example, reports that turnover costs anywhere from 50 to 150% of the position’s base salary.

Employees also come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and BMI’s. It seems to make better business sense to carefully evaluate the true cost – if any – any individual obese employee may, or may not, be costing your business and handle each case individually after carefully calculating whether or not that person is costing, or making, money for your small business.

Last modified: April 26, 2013
Annie Kile

This story is part of our Small Business Corner, a peek into the life and trials of small business owners.

Category: MPR Authored, Small Business, Small Business Corner, small business owners, Tips

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