"Employers are assuming obese people simply can't do the job," said Paula Popovich, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio University and lead author of the study. "It's not attractiveness as many have speculated. But until now, there have been no studies showing this. We found that it's more a perception that they are fat and therefore they can't do jobs that require a lot of physical activity. It's a perception they can't do the job without actually testing their abilities."
The study has important implications in light of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which included obesity as a disorder which may meet the act's criteria.
"Discrimination against obese people in the workplace is an important resource issue and we need to know how negative stereotypes affect hiring," Popovich said.
For the study, 54 undergraduate students rated 40 jobs on several items, including the likelihood they would hire an obese person for each job. A person was described as "obese" if they weighed 50 percent more than the ideal weight, as described by the Body Mass Index, a widely accepted ratio of weight and height.
The students were given 100-word job descriptions and asked whether they would hire an obese person for the job, whether an actual personnel manager would hire that person for the job and whether the obese person, either male and female, could actually perform the job well.
The results clearly indicate people are reluctant to hire obese persons for high-activity jobs, choosing instead to hire obese persons for sedentary jobs, Popovich said.
"Basically the myth of hiring obese people for nonpublic jobs is false," Popovich said. "The stigma against hiring obese people appears to be more related to activity."
In the study, obese persons were more likely to be hired for sedentary jobs such as computer programmer, film editor or cheese blender than those at the other end of the activity scale, such as health club manager, industrial manager and landscape gardener.
"Although there seems to be some sex-role stereotyping in these jobs, associating food service jobs with women and jobs involving heavy lifting with men, we believe physical activity is a much more important factor," Popovich said.
The study was published in a recent issue of the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills and was co-authored by five former Ohio University graduate students.