An Empirical Investigation of Discrimination against Overweight Female Job Applicants in New Zealand

Article excerpt

Significant discrimination against overweight people has been shown to occur in a variety of settings, including employee selection. Negative personality characteristics attributed to overweight job applicants because of their body size are thought to result in inaccurate perceptions of a mismatch between a job and a candidate, resulting in unfair discrimination. This study, the first of its kind in a New Zealand setting, investigated the presence of discrimination against overweight female job applicants. A balanced design was used in which 56 human resource/recruitment consultants in Auckland, New Zealand, ranked fictitious CVs on suitability for a specified position. Two weight conditions, normal and overweight, were created by the rotation, on the CVs, of photographs of the same four women before and after weight loss. Each consultant ranked a set of six CVs, including two normal weight male distracter CVs. Analyses of the rankings confirmed a general bias against overweight applicants. Further analysis revealed that this outcome was mainly attributable to the rankings given to the poorest quality CV. Contrary to expectations; consultants' years of experience did not significantly influence the effect of weight on rankings.

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It goes without saying that personnel in an organisation are vital to its success, so that the selection of suitable employees is of paramount importance. Within the process by which some individuals are selected and others rejected, discrimination is necessary (Arvey & Faley, 1992). However, there is a clear distinction between discrimination that is considered to be fair and necessary, and that which is unfair or biased. Arvey and Faley (1992) claim:

   Unfair discrimination exists when
   members of a minority group have
   lower probabilities of being selected
   for a job when, in fact, if they had
   been selected, their probabilities
   of performing successfully in a job
   would have been equal to those of
   non-minority group members. (p.7)

There are two broad reasons why unfair discrimination needs to be identified and addressed. Firstly, it results in ineffective utilisation of human resources for organisations, who may miss out on acquiring effective employees because of discrimination against a job-irrelevant characteristic or attribute (Arvey & Faley, 1992). Secondly, for the targets of unfair discrimination, the economic, social, and psychological effects are detrimental, unfounded, and can be severe (Gortmaker, Must, Perrin, Sobal & Dietz 1993).

One factor known to promote unfair discrimination is being overweight (Roehling, 1999). Approximately fifty-three percent of New Zealanders are considered overweight or obese, and this figure appears to be climbing every year (Ministry of Health, 2003). The increasing occurrence of overweight individuals in the population is considered a significant problem because the consequences of obesity include negative health outcomes, as well as detrimental economic (Loh, 1993), social (Benson, Severs, Tatgenhorst & Loggengaard, 1980), and psychological (Friedman & Brownell, 1995), effects for the affected individuals. Among the consequences of being overweight that have an economic, social, and psychological impact, is weight-based discrimination in employee selection (Rothblum, 1992).

The prevalence of overweight individuals is greater in lower socioeconomic groups (Sobal & Jeffery, 1989). This is generally assumed to be a result of lack of education about healthy eating, or lack of money to buy healthy foods (Rothblum, 1992). However, it is quite conceivable that it is attributable in part, to other factors such as the inability of overweight individuals to progress as far, or as fast, in their careers as their normal weight counterparts (Gortmaker, Must, Perrin, Sobal, & Dietz, 1993). Gortmaker et al. (1993) found that, compared to normal weight counterparts, overweight people completed fewer years of education, were less likely to marry, had lower household incomes, and higher rates of household poverty. …