After the recent European Court of Justice case, my partner Tom Walker and I argued for and against using the Equality Act to protect obese and overweight employees. We also conducted a poll asking employers whether obese workers should be protected by disability law.
A vast majority of 98% of respondents made it clear that almost no one wants obesity to be classed as a disability and 89% do not make any adjustments for obese or overweight staff.
As the results were so clear, we are now reflecting on why employers think like this.
I do not believe that the population as a whole disagrees with Tom’s assertion that “the Equality Act is designed to ensure a level playing field both in the workplace and in wider society for people who might otherwise be held back owing to prejudice over their personal characteristics”.
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Nor do I believe that employers accept that people suffering from obesity can be harassed at work with impunity. I expect employers are already tackling such behaviour but do not want the law to do anything else to tackle harassment. I believe it is more likely that employers see this as the thin end of yet another wedge.
If overweight and obese staff could claim discrimination and demand adjustments, such as entitlement to parking spaces nearer the office or longer rest breaks, it would be even harder to balance the rights of one group against the entitlements of another.
In the main, whether this is right or not, it appears that employers still believe that employees who are overweight should take individual responsibility for their choices and understand that those choices are frequently denied to those who are genuinely disabled.
Hilary Aldred is an employment partner at Penningtons Manches