Post-Christmas diets – don’t allow banter around weight in the office

Today may well be the day that many diets start following Christmas excesses and the World Obesity Federation has revealed that one in four adults admit they’d be less likely to hire someone for a job if they were overweight. In a survey, 62% of respondents said they had been discriminated against because of their weight.

According to the NHS “obesity is generally caused by eating too much and moving too little”, arguably reinforcing the perception that obesity equals greedy and laziness. However, there is no evidence that people who are overweight are any less productive or take more time off work. In many cases, the causes of obesity go beyond the obvious and can be attributed to, for example, genetics, side effects of other medication or psychological factors.

In terms of equality legislation claims, disability discrimination is only likely to be found on the basis of someone’s weight where this results in such serious health issues that the definition of disability is fulfilled (where the physical impairment is so significant that it is long term and has a substantial effect on the individual’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities).

European case law has already found that obesity might fall under the definition of disability if it hinders a person’s “full and effective participation… in professional life on an equal basis with other workers”. There is therefore scope for disability discrimination claims to be brought around obesity in the future as case law develops.

A good working environment can and should allow for laughter and joking – the law doesn’t stop that, but it does protect those who feel humiliated or demeaned by the behaviour going on around them, and it is a subjective test. The defence of “it was just banter” will not be accepted by tribunals. There is therefore a balance to be struck.  Disability discrimination law aside, taking care of your employees’ welfare, both directly and vicariously, is part of an employer’s duty.

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