Am I Too Fat to Get Hired?

Last Updated Aug 18, 2010 3:32 PM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I'm an experienced professional person who weighs close to 400 pounds. I believe that I am routinely passed over for positions I interview for because of my weight. I excel at phone interviews but it seems that when I get into face to face interviews, that interest all of a sudden dries up. I have considered that it is my interviewing skills. However, I have been interviewed recently by my boss for a promotion (I know it was the political game that ended that opportunity) and he told me I interviewed well. He has always been honest with me in the past and I do not believe he would lie about that. So, that means that either the rest of the candidate pools are that much better than me (which doesn't seem likely), or there is something else preventing me from getting positions. I am not one to jump to excuses or blame other people.

If I had indications of something I needed to work on, I'd work to address the issue. I just don't have those indications. I know that there are negative stereotypes about overweight people...and all things being equal I can understand why they would choose someone who is not overweight. However, I am not the typical overweight person. I am very active, I get involved in lots of physical activities and I can even do the splits. I'm also very organized and do whatever is necessary to get the job done. Any thoughts on how to proactively approach a hiring manager's concerns about my weight in the interview process? I don't want to introduce concerns that are not there or make the hiring manager uncomfortable as those are both ways to end my chances for the position. Any advice you have will be welcome.

Do I think that being close to 400 pounds is hurting your job search? Absolutely. As George Clooney's character said in that HR related film, Up in the Air, "I stereotype. It's faster." The reality is that we all stereotype. We have to. If we had wait for full information before making each decision, we'd never even pick a checkout lane at the supermarket. And then where would we be?

It's doubtful that people consciously say, "Gee, he's fat. Let's not hire him!" It's more likely that in those first few seconds all the negative things about overweight people come spilling into their subconscious and color their opinions of you. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that hiring decisions are made in the first few seconds of an interview. Consider this:

[A research project] conducted by Frank Bernieri at the University of Toledo in Ohio, dealt with job-interview impressions. This researcher selected two participants to act as interviewers and had them professionally trained for 6 weeks on interview techniques. These two later interviewed nearly 100 people of various backgrounds and filled out an extensive six-page interview questionnaire on each. Bernieri's goal was to determine whether there are particular mannerisms that could ingratiate some people with interviewers.

He found that wasn't the case. There don't seem to be any particular tricks one can use to win at an interview.

But then one of Bernieri's students asked if the videotapes of these encounters could be used for another purpose. She had heard that "the handshake is everything" and wanted to test that old adage. Using a 15-second piece of video showing the candidate knocking on the door, shaking hands, and being greeted by the interviewer, she asked a group of new participants to rate these applicants on the same criteria that the two trained interviewers had been using.

"On nine out of the 11 traits that the applicants were being judged on, the observers significantly predicted the outcome of the interview," Bernieri told The New Yorker. "In fact, the strength of the correlation was extraordinary."

This is a disturbing conclusion. Here were well-trained interviewers, knowing just what to look for and how to get the information they sought, filling out a detailed, five-part form ensuring a complete and unbiased interview. Yet total strangers, who viewed only 15 seconds of video, arrived at similar conclusions.

Yikes. Well trained interviewers do a similar job as untrained people who look at 15 seconds worth of video. So, what to do, what to do. First off, I'm going to say something that might cause the comments to explode with what a terrible person I am. Here it goes: You said, "If I had indications of something I needed to work on, I'd work to address the issue." The reality is, you do have an indication of an issue you need to work on and it's your weight. You're right that walking in and saying, "Hey, I may be overweight, but I can still do the splits!" is probably not the best way to go about it. But confusing the ideal (people should be judged on their skill and value they bring to the company) with the reality (people hold negative stereotypes about overweight individuals) doesn't get you anywhere. I have no idea if you have underlying medical conditions that make weight gain easy and weight loss nearly impossible, or if you just like eating too much. Either way, though don't delude yourself saying, "There's nothing I need to work on." This is, undoubtedly, affecting your career and most likely you can work on it.

But, even if you can lose weight, it's not instantaneous. You need to know what to do right now. First of all, I would stop worrying that bringing it up will make the situation worse. This isn't like walking in and saying, "Oh, by the way, I'm diabetic." This is an obvious situation and it's best to address it straight out. I honestly don't know if addressing it head on will make it better, but it won't make it worse. After all, right now you aren't getting the job offers, so in a worst case scenario, you address it and you still aren't getting job offers. But, in a best case scenario, addressing it forces the interviewer to snap out of stereotype mode and analyze the information they have on hand.

Perhaps you should try a little experiment. The next time you have a phone interview, after they've set a time for the face to face interview, say something like, "I'm looking forward to meeting you in person. I'll be easy to spot. I'll be the 400 pound guy in the red tie." My reasoning behind this is that while being overweight is common enough, being 400 pounds isn't. By telling the interviewer before, the interviewer will have time to let the rational side of her brain take over, which will allow her to judge you on your actual qualifications, rather than having the surprise at meeting you force her into the stereotype.

I don't know if this will yield better results or not. And honestly, there are numerous skinny people who aren't getting jobs right now either. But, let us know if this helps. I'm sure there are other people in your situation.

Got a workplace dilemma? Email your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.

Illustration by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com, Flickr cc 2.0

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