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Weight Discrimination
Runs Rampant in Hiring

A stellar career path, a solid resume and a call from a headhunter may be the ticket to a better job. But if you're overweight, there's a good chance you won't be selected as a finalist for an executive position.

The first article of a two-part series on weight discrimination in the hiring process.

Consider the plight of one well-qualified manager who was being considered recently for a chief information officer position at a fast-growing telecommunications company. "He had an ideal background and solid references. He was bright and witty. But he weighed 300 pounds and was short," says Bonnie Crabtree, a vice president in Atlanta with executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. "I spent two hours interviewing him, but my client wouldn't see him because they felt he wouldn't fit in." Ms. Crabtree adds that many of the company's employees are amateur athletes.

Adding injury to insult, a lean circumference can add heft to a less-than-ideal resume. In a search for a chief executive officer, recruiter Susan Bishop was reluctant to interview a candidate who had never run a business -- usually a prerequisite for a top executive. But once she met him, his resume gaps didn't seem so important.

"He was a knockout," says Ms. Bishop, president of Bishop Partners, a search firm in New York. "He was trim and didn't have the pot belly that men over 40 typically develop. His clothes fit him well. He was alert, vigorous and vibrant. We could see him meeting with the chairman."

As these examples illustrate, overweight executives face many challenges in the workplace, according to Bettye Travis, president of the board of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), a San Francisco-based advocacy organization. "Companies have a hard time hiring overweight candidates, even if they are highly qualified or better qualified than other candidates," says Ms. Travis. "Recruiters have told me that they've seen companies turn down strong candidates just because they didn't 'look the part.' "

Headhunter Rich Hardison, president of Hardison & Co. in Dallas, has seen it happen many times. "I once presented a superior candidate who was a smart, tough strategist with top credentials and glowing references. But my client rejected him because he was 'old, fat and out of shape.' " In fact, most recruiters recognize that hiring managers often let great experience and talent take a back seat to a candidate's looks.

"It's a shame that we still hire someone because they are good-looking," says Cheryle Elder, a senior technical recruiter at nwheadhunter, a Seattle-area recruiter.

Frances White was one candidate who didn't look the part. Formerly a catalog-sales representative in San Francisco, Ms. White also held a second job as a purchasing coordinator for KQED, a San Francisco public-broadcasting station, and she provided care for her sick mother. Despite her pressured schedule, Ms. White had never missed a day of work at either job and was described as a model professional in her annual reviews. Two years ago, she interviewed for a purchasing-management position at another company's corporate headquarters, and the organization expressed enthusiastic interest in hiring her until they met face to face.

"Despite my ability to juggle two jobs and manage a difficult personal situation, one of the interviewers told me he was worried about my stamina," says Ms. White. "I knew this was shorthand for 'You're too fat.' " And just as Ms. White expected, the company turned her down for the job.

Leaner and Meaner

It's been a long time since business leaders were "fat-cat executives," luxuriating in upholstered chairs as their emaciated line workers toiled on the factory floor. Today, managers who are overweight, out of shape or sluggish are the exception: Recent research sponsored by NAAFA showed that only 9% of top male executives are overweight. More often than not, being overweight can mean a slim paycheck -- and a loss of status and promotions. Overweight people report being employed in jobs with lower prestige.

The NAAFA study found that overweight men pay a salary penalty of $1,000 per year per pound they're overweight. Other research has found that upper-level managers who are 20% overweight earn about $4,000 less per year than their thinner peers. In addition, overweight people earn salaries 10% to 20% lower than their thinner colleagues and are less likely to receive promotions than slim people, regardless of their job performance, NAAFA reports.

The consequences of being overweight hit women harder than men. Most companies judge male executives against a medical standard - the most common being a table of desirable weights and heights published by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. But female executives, particularly younger ones, are expected to abide by an aesthetic standard that Berkeley, Calif.-based legal consultant Sondra Solovay calls "the size-eight straitjacket."

One recruiter recalls presenting a female candidate with a superb reputation for a division president position with a Fortune 100 company. "She was short, chunky and very outspoken," says the headhunter. "Our client told us he liked her but wanted someone who was taller and less aggressive." Ms. Solovay, author of "Tipping the Scales of Justice" (Prometheus Books, 2000), cites a study in which 16% of employers admitted they wouldn't hire obese women under any conditions; an additional 44% would only hire them under certain circumstances. An 1993 article in the New England Journal of Medicine reports that, on average, overweight women earn $6,710 less per year than thin women.

The Party Line

When asked, most corporations say that a candidate's looks and weight aren't factors in how they select new executives. Says Bobbie Gross, a recruiting specialist with American Express Co. in New York, "You can't discriminate based on whether or not the candidate is obese. The candidate should be given the same consideration as everyone else. You should base your decision on the candidate's credentials, not on the fact that they may or may not be physically fit." Dave Rosewall, senior recruitment consultant at the St. Paul Companies, a St. Paul, Minn., insurer, adds, "You simply cannot use a person's weight as a hiring criterion unless it can be proven to be job-related." How would Mr. Rosewall handle qualified, overweight candidates? "Thank your lucky stars and hire them."

But independent executive recruiters describe a different reality. "If you don't look the part, you'll rarely be allowed to demonstrate your expertise, experience or personality," says Jay Gaines, president of New York search firm Jay Gaines & Co. "A critical factor for success in corporate America is attractiveness, and if a candidate doesn't meet a minimum acceptable level, they won't be considered -- no matter how smart or effective."

Ms. Crabtree has met many candidates who "look the part" on paper, but not in person. "Clients can overcome a physical problem if it's untreatable, but they're pretty intolerant of physical problems that can be fixed," she says, adding that most companies don't view obesity as a handicap in the same class as blindness, dyslexia or other so-called "God- given" ailments. "Most clients think obesity reflects poorly on a candidate's decision-making skills and self-control," says Ms. Crabtree.

How Much Is Overweight?

How does a headhunter determine whether a candidate is overweight? Although the National Institutes of Health says 55% of Americans are obese, there's no consistent standard, so recruiters generally take four main factors into account:

Incumbent executives. Although organizations like to talk about new perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking, few have much tolerance for newcomers who are significantly different from their current executives. As a result, recruiters are reluctant to recommend candidates who don't look, walk and talk like a composite of the current management team. And if the company is recruiting a CEO, "He or she needs to "fit" with its board of directors," says Mr. Gaines.

"Airline pilot" looks. Most executive recruiters also try to present candidates who match a standard template: tall (six feet or taller for men, five-feet-six-inches or taller for women), slim and athletic. "Clients all want an airline pilot," says Ms. Bishop. "A tall, trim man in his 40s who is in great shape and has a little gray hair seems to inspire confidence."

Perceived energy level. Recruiters won't follow you to the gym to check up on your exercise habits or stamina. But an executive who appears to exercise regularly will beat out one who doesn't, all other factors being equal.

"Companies that recruit externally want to bring someone with fresh blood on board, and too many pounds makes a candidate seem stale and sluggish," says recruiter Kathleen Johnson, a partner with Barton Associates, a search firm in Houston. Ms. Johnson once interviewed a candidate who appeared to be 50 pounds overweight. "He just didn't look like a dynamic, aggressive go-getter," she says. "Although the weight had nothing to do with how well he could do the job, our client asked that we look for other candidates."

Wardrobe. Recruiters say packaging is an issue that many overweight professionals face. Because many retailers offer few products in larger sizes or do not cater to customers in that range, candidates may be hard pressed to find formal, conservative office clothing.

One headhunter who was recruiting for a high-level position at a growing consumer-products company was convinced his candidate would be a winner. "He was phenomenal on paper and on the phone, and he had glowing references," he says. But when the recruiter met the candidate for the first time, "Up walked a fat guy in a wrinkled polyester suit, with an ill-fitting, short-sleeved shirt and a wide neon-colored tie. Technically, he was right on but his grooming was lacking in the extreme."

-- Ms. Voros is president of Voros Communications, a management and career communications consulting firm in Fort Worth, Texas. She's the author of "Leadership Presence" (Adams Media,1999) and "The Road to CEO" (Adams Media, 2000).