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Workplace Discrimination | Peer-Reviewed Research

Heavy Losses

Weight-Based Stereotypes In Retail Settings Harm Product Perceptions And Organization Outcomes

Based on research Michelle "Mikki" Hebl, Enrica N. Ruggs and Amber WIlliams

Weight-Based Stereotypes In Retail Settings Harm Product Perceptions And Organization Outcomes

  • Over the past few decades, U.S. obesity rates have spiked. So has discrimination toward heavy people.
  • Research about this prejudice abounds, but it centers on overweight women and overlooks overweight men.
  • New research shows that obese males face significant discrimination in retail settings, both as clients and employees.

It's an American paradox: While more and more of us are obese — one-third of U.S. adults — discrimination against heavy people has spread. Studies show just how toxic this stigma is: Overweight people are judged to be less hardworking, less attractive and less conscientious. They get shabbier treatment in practice as well, and are more likely to be discriminated against in health care, interpersonal relationships and the workplace.

While decades of research have anatomized these issues, it has focused on overweight women. There's good reason for this. While heavy women and men report equal levels of mistreatment from friends, family and co-workers, heavy women report higher levels of mistreatment from strangers and the general public. Women are also badly treated at lower levels of heaviness than overweight men.

But overweight men face serious prejudice too, according to new research by Mikki Hebl, a professor at Rice Business, and two co-authors. To measure that prejudice in the workplace, Hebl and her colleagues launched a novel study at a mall in what they describe as a large southern city. Deploying researchers who presented themselves first as ordinary-sized men and then, with the use of prosthetics, as men who were obese, the researchers tracked how obese men fare in a variety of retail settings.  

Heavy men, the researchers found, face striking mistreatment in such environments. For their study, the team asked research assistants, also called confederates, to pose first as obese job seekers and then as obese shoppers. First the men visited stores wearing size medium shirts and pants with a 30-inch average waist. They revisited the same stores wearing special obesity prosthetics, size extra-large shirts, and pants with 40-inch waists.

Using formal training and memorized scripts, the men arrived at 112 stores pretending to apply for a job, and 111 stores where they headed to the center and waited for service. If no employee approached, the faux-shoppers followed a script in which they sought an employee, asked for help buying a present and then asked for a second recommendation.

The results? Whether asking for jobs or customer service, the subjects faced no weight-related difference in what is called formal treatment: overt and illegal actions such as giving unequal access to resources. But when the "heavy" men applied for jobs, they faced far worse interpersonal treatment than the ordinary sized men: That is, subtle behaviors such as hostility that aren't illegal but can still drive off workers and clients.

Heavy men, in other words, "are not immune to interpersonal discrimination in retail settings," the scholars wrote. These subtle aggressions, they pointed out, undercut not only people who are heavy — but the businesses that engage with them. Just as excluding women saps whole nations' economic vitality, driving off people who are heavy limits businesses' access to brainpower and dollars. Both types of loss are too heavy to make business sense.

Mikki Hebl is the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Chair of Psychology at Rice University and a professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Ruggs, E. N., Hebl, M. R., & Williams, A. (2015). Weight isn’t selling: The insidious effects of weight stigmatization in retail settings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(5), 1483-1496.

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