Employment law’s newest concept is fattism, which is prejudice against people who are fat. This includes bullying or harassing someone because of their weight or refusing a job or promotion for that reason. In the workplace this type of discrimination is common and studies have shown that it is seen as a social norm to make fun of overweight people.

Does fattism only happen to the clinically-obese?

A recent study suggests no. Fattism in the workplace occurs even when an individual is not fat. Women are more likely to experience weight-based workplace discrimination than men. The study revealed that even a slight increase in size had a negative impact on women’s job prospects. This study reaffirms that individuals are more likely to employ someone who they deem looks ‘right’ for the company. Unfortunately, this can be discriminatory as it is usually to the detriment of women, ethnic minorities and those who appear bigger (even if their BMI is in the healthy range).

From an ethical view the results from the study are unsettling as they reveal gender inequality in the workplace. They highlight the unrealistic challenges women face against expectations of how they should look. This could be a factor in the widening wage gap between men and women. However, the question remains as to whether such discrimination is illegal in the eyes of the law.

Employment law and fattism

We are aware of cases that have been in the news where employees have been threatened with the sack for not losing weight.

Employment law doesn’t explicitly ban weight-based discrimination. In the Equality Act 2010, only age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexuality are protected. However, recent case law suggests judges will step in to fill the gap.

In a case in 2014, the European Court of Justice had to decide as to whether a male Danish child-minder weighing 160kg was illegally discriminated against for being obese. The ECJ ruled that obesity is a disability if it hinders the full and effective participation in professional life on an equal basis with other workers. The UK followed suit in 2015 when a case in the employment tribunal in Northern Ireland unanimously decided that a morbidly obese employee was disabled, upholding his claim of harassment (he was told “you’re so fat you can hardly walk”).

What does this mean for employment law?

The legal ramifications are not that clear. To obtain the protection of discrimination law, obesity must me not just cosmetic but medical. The law offers protection to people who are obese if their weight affects their long-term health. At that point, employers will have to make adjustments  that could include bigger chairs, parking spaces closer to work, customised desks and so on.

People who are obese but have no health issues fall outside the protection of discrimination law.  But as mentioned earlier, studies show that you don’t have to be medically obese to experience fattism. Some employment solicitors argue that  weight-based discrimination should be protected under the same grounds as age and gender. This would include everyone who is discriminated because of their weight or size.


Employment law may not clearly state that weight-based discrimination is unlawful but the employment tribunals need to interpret discrimination law in line with European rulings, which means using disability discrimination to fill the gap in some cases. Employers need to be aware of weight-based prejudices and discrimination. They need to make sure to take action when any employee suffers from any sort of bullying or harassment because of their weight.

By Stephanie Stevens

Image courtesy of Hiroaki Maeda and licenced under CC