Following my interview with ITV News Meridian on weight discrimination, I set out below my interview questions together with my full response to those questions. Please contact me if you would like further guidance or need help managing an obese worker.
How easy is it at the moment for people to take legal action against an employer because of ‘weight discrimination’?
There is already some case law guidance from the European Court of Justice and from the UK Employment Appeal Tribunal on when obese workers can bring a discrimination claim.
Workers or job applicants who are able to establish that their obesity qualifies as a “disability” will be entitled to protection against unlawful discrimination. “Disability” is of course 1 of 9 protected characteristics under the Equality Act.
An obese worker who is disabled and subjected to disability discrimination can bring various employment tribunal claims against their employer. These claims include direct and indirect disability discrimination, discrimination arising from disability, disability harassment and disability victimisation. A claim can also be brought against an employer if they fail to comply with their duty to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled worker who is placed at a disadvantage because of their disabilities.
If a worker is successful at the employment tribunal, they can be awarded damages for injury to feelings and in the most serious cases additional damages for personal injury. Furthermore, discrimination claims can be very damaging to an employer’s reputation and costly to defend as they tend to be complex cases.
How easy would it be to extend the Equality Act to make it illegal to discriminate against people because of their weight?
In my view, it would be difficult to extend the Equality Act to make weight a “protected characteristic” as it may be difficult to define. For example, would weight be measured against the Body Mass Index (BMI) or something else?
In my view, the Government should focus on providing employers with clearer guidance on which obesity-related conditions are likely to fall within the definition of “disability” under the Equality Act such as Type 2 Diabetes and Hypertension.
This would help employers comply with disability discrimination laws and in particular their duty to make reasonable adjustments at work to accommodate obese workers who are disabled.
For an obese worker, this could include a requirement to provide particular work equipment such as a special desk or chair or alter core working hours to support a worker suffering from fatigue or other physical symptoms.
Because obesity rates are rising, do you see a time when there is a law against discriminating against people because of their weight?
In my view it is unlikely, but given the increase in obesity amongst the UK population there is likely to be a corresponding increase in disability discrimination claims.
Employers certainly need to take a cautious approach when handling an obese worker to avoid the high risk of a successful disability discrimination claim being brought against it and if in doubt, seek expert legal advice at the earliest opportunity.