Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Is Discrimination Acceptable? Fat People Need Not Apply

In certain instances, job discrimination is considered acceptable.

For example, a Catholic Priest would have a tough road to hoe to get hired as a Rabbi, no matter how extensive his career background. There’s really no reason NOT to hire him, but it’s just not going to happen, is it? We accept that.

So when is discrimination out of line?

obesity discriminationUnder federal law, employers generally cannot discriminate on the basis of several factors, including (but not limited to) race, sex, religion, disability, or age (for workers over 40). Yet only Michigan and six U.S. cities ban discrimination against hiring overweight people.

I understand — to a point. After all, a severely obese person might also be very unhealthy. She might not be able to perform her duties, especially involving physical activity. However, is it tolerable to discriminate against her because she doesn’t “look the part?”

Citizens Medical Center in Texas now requires potential employees to have a body mass index of less than 35 (about 210 pounds for someone who is 5’ 5”). Their controversial policy states an employee’s physique
“Should fit with a representational image or specific mental projection of the job of a healthcare professional,” including an appearance “free from distraction” for hospital patients.

Lifestyle discrimination has precedent.

For example, certain companies will not hire employees who smoke. That, however, is because of the side effects of their behavior, such as higher health care costs or insurance premiums. It is NOT because they do not approve of the smoker’s appearance.

What’s different here is that the policy doesn’t indicate costs or side effects; nor does it suggest that obese employees are incapable of performing their tasks. Mostly, it refers to physical form, placing overweight applicants in the same category as those with visible tattoos or facial piercings (which is a whole other discussion).

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance claims, “discrimination plain and simple.”

I agree.

If a qualified individual can perform her duties, she should be hired, irrespective of someone else’s “mental projection” of what that individual might or might not look like. Flipping the coin, I, being a male patient, might consider an attractive female staffer “distracting.” Therefore, should all health care providers be covered head-to-toe or fit my person “mental projection” of bland or homely?

In our not-too-distant past, we had no “mental projection” of African-American doctors, Hispanic lawyers, or even male nurses. We were ignorant. But this is not 1954 and (hopefully) such restrictive and antiquated notions no longer shackle us.

I realize one can lose weight but cannot change skin color. However, “fat discrimination” still falls under the same umbrella. I might not like the appearance of one who is morbidly obese, but — let’s be honest — we don’t like much of what I see. Yet there is no right that protects us from viewing what we find distasteful. (If only there was…)

Should a ban on obesity be linked to job performance, or even increased liability to the employer, I might be more sympathetic. Also, I don’t know how we would — or even if we should — regulate “appearance-discrimination” rules. Having said that, in civilized society, one expects a modicum of acceptance of others’ choices — especially from the health care field, which deals with us in our most intimate, personal spaces.

Ironically, it’s their policy that does not “fit with a representational image or specific mental projection” of such an institution and I would not hire them.

To hear the background behind this column, listen to the podcast. Find it here.

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