My supervisor bullies me for my weight. How can I strike back?
Q: I’ve never been as humiliated in my life as I was this morning at work. I went into the breakroom and reached for a bagel because I hadn’t had breakfast. In front of everyone, my supervisor grabbed the plate and moved it out of my reach, saying, “You don’t need this.”
I stood frozen. Several of my coworkers looked down and away, but a couple of others smirked. I know several of them have called me “fatty.”
My supervisor picks on many of us. He finds each person’s vulnerable spot. For me, it’s my obesity. I’ve been fat all my life. I’ve tried everything, but never been able to lose weight and keep it off.
My fat makes me his favorite target, and I’ve told myself I need to let the insults roll off my back, but this morning was my tipping point. I’m quitting, and I’ve promised myself I’ll get back at him. I thought you might know how.
A: In December, 2017, a California Appellate Court published a decision naming obesity as a disability. According to the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, 31.4% of all Alaskans qualify as obese, so this is an issue that affects Alaska employees and employers.
Before the 2017 ruling, courts in most states ruled that obesity didn’t constitute as a disability unless there was a physiological cause.
This California ruling was based on the Berkeley Tennis Club firing of employee Ketryn Cornell, a 360-pound, 5-foot-5-inch-tall woman, in 2012. The BTC had assigned a supervisor to Cornell who wanted to “change the image of the Club” and seemed to single her out. According to Cornell, this supervisor discriminated against and harassed her by telling the kitchen staff not to give her extra food because “she doesn’t need it,” suggesting she undergo weight-loss surgery, and telling Cornell not to eat certain foods.
The supervisor also provided Cornell with a size 2X shirt when she needed a size 5X-7X. He then alleged she resisted “policy” by not wearing the uniform, even though she emailed him and asked that he “understand her special needs/disabilities and help in being accommodating.”
Although Cornell had been employed since 1997 and had received positive reviews, merit bonuses and raises for 15 years, BTC management fired Cornell in 2012, alleging she had planted a recording device to tape record a board meeting.
According to the court, the supervisor’s actions constituted sufficient evidence that the obesity disability discrimination and harassment claims could proceed before the court.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said that severe obesity, defined as a weight that is more than twice the norm, is itself a disability. Also, the EEOC deleted prior language which had said “except in rare circumstances, obesity is not considered a disabling impairment.”
What this means to you is that if your excess weight results from an underlying physiological impairment, you may be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Your protection, however, doesn’t mean you’ll be immune from discrimination. According to surveys, 43 percent of overweight individuals believe they face bias from employers and supervisors and 54 percent of overweight workers report prejudice from coworkers.
Finally, you can get back at your supervisor by leaving and finding a great job. If you’ve been a good employee, he and your company lose when you walk out the door. You can additionally provide documentation of your supervisor’s regular target practice to both HR and his manager. They need to investigate and take action. Other employees, particularly those who looked down and away, may also follow you out the door. Too bad none of them said, “Cut it out.” Ultimately, we all have a stake in everyone in our workplace being treated with respect.
© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” and “Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at http://www.bullywhisperer.com.