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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Making it Harder to Get Hired

People like to get their knickers all twisted up over discriminatory hiring practices. (And for the record, it's not illegal to discriminate in hiring; it's only illegal to discriminate based on certain protected classes. Certainly you can discriminate against idiots, if you would like. You can also discriminate against smart people, which I have known some bosses to do on the misguided theory that they'll look smarter if all their underlings are dumb. But, that's an other topic.)

But, what about the things we do to ourselves to make us less hireable? Liz Wolgemuth over at U.S. News asks if being a smoker makes you a less desirable candidate. Right now her poll is running very strongly towards smoking being a career killer. I have to say I see smoking as a huge negative. Here are three reasons:

1. The smell. I'm sorry if this is offensive, but it's a rare smoker that doesn't smell like smoke.
2. Multiple breaks throughout the day.
3. Higher health care costs.

Is it fair to discriminate against smokers? What about fat people? Putting food in the communal fridge doesn't generally cause smells (unless you are a gourmet cheese aficionado, in which case, why are you eating something that smells like gym socks?). But, there are negative connotations associated with being overweight.

1. Implied laziness and lack of self control.
2. Higher health care costs.
3. Lack of "professional" appearance.

Now, I write this as someone who used to be bona fide fat. Now, I'm just slightly overweight. (I blame that on the baby though. 14.4 pounds to go.) I know full well that there are medical conditions that make it easy to gain weight and difficult to lose weight. I know that some people have no problem quitting smoking and others can never quite break the habit. I also know that I ate too much and exercised too little.

So, do you HR types, do you see evidence of people who smoke or are overweight having a hard time getting hired? Has it impeded your job search? And what if you have ummm, less than traditional parents who stick you with a bad name. Does that hurt your job chances?


Anonymous said...

I don't know about hiring, but I would prefer (as an employee) to work with people who don't smoke (am totally with you on the smell) or aren't fat (I don't want to hear you complain about being fat all the time).

I am posting this anonymously because I know I am a horrible person.

Rebecca said...

Not an HR person, just an EHRL fan... but had to say that when I have kids, every considered baby name will have to pass the "will it look good at the top of a resume?" test.

Evil HR Lady said...

Anon--it's the skinny people who complain about how fat they are. But, to their credit, that means that they have to say, "Ohh, I'm so fat, I couldn't possibly eat that brownie." So, I get to eat their share.

Rebecca--I think that is a very important thing to do.

Mandatory Vacation said...

I'm with anonymous. Even if they go outside to smoke, they bring some back in on their clothes, which can be enough to trigger asthma or headaches (which is my problem- I'm sensitive enough that certain brands give me a headache from the whiffs people carry with them, and I share an open office with a smoker). And yes, the health effects from that kind of exposure are minimal, but they're not non-existant, and I don't see how my co-workers have any right to expose me to them at all.

So I'm fine with smokers, as long as they do so in a sealed box that ventilates away from me, shower, change their clothes, and brush their teeth before they come back into the office.

Anonymous said...

See "You Stink at the Interview" on

Kevin said...

As a fat person who recently went through a long job search, I am about 95% sure that I did not get some jobs at least partly because of my weight. So yes, people do discriminate against fat people and there is nothing illegal about it (in most states...there is one state...Michigan or Minnesota I think...that just passed a law expanding protected classes to include physical characteristics including height and weight). I also completely understand why it is done...but it is very frustrating from the side of the applicant who is qualified for the position.

Kevin said...

Mandatory need to not only consider the resume test when picking a name for a child...but also the playground other words how badly will my child be teased for this name...and that goes for Initials as brother contemplated naming his daughter with the initials A.S.S. Not a nice thing to do to a child.

Volly said...
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Volly said...
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Stone Caster said...

Three 'fat' friends and I were on holiday in Tunisia. Whilst we were at the souk, a local offered to 'buy' one of the fatties for a couple of camels. Amused by this, someone asked how many camels each one of us was worth. Sure enough the fatties were highly valued, one in particular being much prized and too expensive to own. Little me, small and not fat, wasn't worth a single camel. So, there you have it, 'fat' is a cultural issue.

Wally Bock said...

I think I have to go the other way on this one, folks. I don't think we have near enough good producers in the companies I've seen that we can afford to start eliminating people because they're over an arbitrary weight standard or because they smoke. It seems to me that the hiring criteria boil down to "can he or she do the job?" It's a very slipper slope when you start adding other factors into the mix that you can't justify with anything other than a "feeling."

Anonymous said...

I have a big, big (HAR!) problem with not hiring fat people. That bit about higher health care costs isn't convincing:

The idea that fat people can't look "professional" is misleading, too, unless you're hiring for Hooters. Yes, it is harder for fat people to find clothes that fit properly and look good - but the stuff is out there. If the interviewee makes the effort and shows up such an outfit and is still regarded as "unprofessional," merely because of her weight, well, the problem doesn't lie with her. Same with the lack of self control, or whatever. But those kind of assumptions just shoot the employer in the foot, not the employee. Talented people always find work.

There are also some odds in a fat person's favor. Almost everyone has struggled with weight at some point, it seems. And while some go to the "I beat it and you didn't so obviously you're a lazy fatty" extreme, many other people know how complex and frustrating weight loss really can be.

I've been fat and thin and everything in between, and I do think the job search is different for fat people. Just because everything is different for fat people. Same face, same work record, same personality - but if you're thin, more people are going to smile at you, more doors are going to be held for you, interviewers are more likely to linger with you in a positive way, etc. etc. The instant, unconscious reaction to you is better if you're thin, and you've got an extra hurdle to deal with if you're fat. It's wrong, but it's there. This stuff is insidious.

But I didn't find the job search harder as a fat person, either. Just...different. I mean, I always got a job in the end. In fact, one boss later admitted to me that the other job candidate I was up against was - as a former NFL cheerleader - too pretty. She would have distracted him too much. Really. While I was brutally hurt by the implication that I was ugly enough to hire, and gobsmacked that he'd actually admit his thought process on that, well, apparently it worked in my favor.

Evil HR Lady said...

Wally--I'm not advocating not hiring people because they smoke or weigh too much. I'm just saying that these attributes can make your job search more difficult.

And nectarines, way to be ugly enough to be hired! Reminds me of when I was in high school and interviewed at Wendys. The manager who interviewed me looked at my application, which proudly displayed my 3.98 GPA (not that I remember...) and said, "we actually prefer to hire people who aren't focused on academics."

So, I was too smart to get hired! Sigh. Their loss. I went across the street and applied at Burger King. They didn't care how smart I was. They cared if I could start NOW.

Anonymous said...

I think the smoking thing depends on the company and/or hiring manager. If the hiring manager is a smoker, her/she may not see it as an issue. I have also seen some smokers use smoke “breaks” with the boss to their own political advantage. I would bet more people have been discriminated against for being over weight then for smoking.

Anonymous said...

About six months ago, I interviewed a candidate and knew that they were PERFECT for the position. I was actually giddy - but scared to death that if the hiring manager knew this person smoked, that they'd find something wrong with the candidate and the search would continue. The problem isn't the five minutes three times a day the person is away from their seat. Heck, I lose about twenty a day chatting with people. The problem is that reeking of smoke IS unprofessional. As is reeking of White Diamonds. Or Indian food. Strong smells repel people. (except for the smells of pie + cake). If someone has a couple cigs a day, you generally don't reek of smoke (I used to have a couple a day and when people saw me smoke, they would be shocked because I never smelled). Smoking a pack a day DOES have effects. So I say, minimize the smoking, smoke outdoors, and wash your hair every day. Then prove yourself with your work.

Anonymous said...

I am the only non-smoker in a company owned & managed by smokers. I feel the disadvantage in being the odd one out; I know that a smoking employee is going to get asked to take smoke breaks with the smoking manager or owner, and that means their "relationship" with that person is better than mine, at least socially. I was even "informed" by my predecessor that I "would" take up smoking. (Uh, in my 40's? Right. I could stand up to teen peer pressure with no problem, but I'm going to cave in to be a brown-noser? I don't think so.)

The only time a candidate/employee's obesity would be an issue for me is if it disabled them or impaired their job performance, including professional appearance. I've seen/known plenty of people with weight problems who could still look professional and attractive, and do a fantastic job. But I've also seen/known large people who dressed in a way that accentuated their extra weight, didn't bother with a decent haircut or makeup/grooming, and spent too much time to do basic tasks while audibly wheezing as if to make their coworkers feel sorry for them, then they blamed discrimination if they got a poor review or passed over for a promotion, etc. Your mileage may vary.

Bonnie Lowe said...

No one yet has mentioned the thing that would probably stop me from hiring a smoker and/or someone who is obese: both imply poor judgment.

While there may be "extenuating circumstances" beyond a person's control where obesity is concerned, that's the exception, not the rule. MOST of us can be more fit by eating less and exercising more. What we eat and what we do (or don't do) shows our personal judgment... good or bad.

And there's no excuse for anyone under 40 to be a smoker. People who choose to smoke these days are making a statement: "I know this is stupid and may kill me and cause harm to those around me, but I'm gonna do it anyway."

If you show poor judgment when it comes to something as important as your health, I'd suspect you'd show equally poor judgment when it comes to your job.

That may not be fair, but I bet I'm not the only one who thinks that way.

class factotum said...

Bonnie, I would judge someone with a tattoo or multiple piercings way more harshly than someone who is fat or a smoker. THOSE are signs of really bad judgment!

I have worked with some very good, very professional-looking fat people. I never know who the smokers are unless they smoke very heavily. So I would not count those attributes against someone who was otherwise professional looking and qualified.

jaded hr rep said...

I've seen less evidence of smokers being affected since not all smokers reek at the time of the interview. I have, however, heard of plenty of complaints afterwards; every co-worker or manager notices when an employee needs to take a break every few hours. I'm a rabid anti-smoking fiend, so I try hard not to show my bias, but it does make me mad that an otherwise intelligent person can't read the sign "no smoking by the main entrance" (or something to that effect) yet they ALL crowd around the front door. Hello - can you read? Sorry for the side track, but yes, many employees have complained about their productivity and on having to work (physically) closely with these individuals because of the smell.

I see if more with obese candidates, and it will always come back to overall presentation. True, not all obese candidates present poorly, but many do if they don't take the extra care on dress and hygiene. Smokers aren't the only ones who can have odor problems - many large people I've worked with have that problem too. We had one candidate struggle during a presentation because he had to stand for 45 minutes and talk, but you could see this person get tired or winded if he had to move around. We had legitimate questions on whether this person could really energize a room full of clients, because this person was losing steam after 15-20 minutes.

I won't get into whether these biases are right or wrong either, but there are legitimate points to both sides and I see them affect candidates and employees.

class factotum said...

Actually, I don't think tattoos show signs of bad judgment. I think they scream "I will not be a slave to THE MAN and his corporate minions!"

Just another HR lady... said...

lol...Bonnie...I have never heard anyone argue that being overweight or a smoker results in poor judgment at work. Thanks for the laugh!

As for the health issues of smoking and obesity, I'm sure there are many arguments and I probably agree with most of them, (I am neither obese nor a smoker), but there are many "skinny non-smokers" out there that do not take care of themselves health-wise, so I personally would have trouble targeting anyone in terms of obesity or smoking relating to employment. (unless it is physically impairing your ability to do your job). The only difference with these folks is that you cannot immediately identify them as you can with those who are overweight and/or smoke.

EHRL...I'm sure you're absolutely right, there would be people who make judgments on these kinds of candidates.

That's just my two cents. Personally when I hire, I'm looking for someone who's a fit into the dept/role, meets our requirements, and is professional and mature. You have an extra 50 pounds or I can tell from your nails that you smoke? Fine by me, but I'm going to tell you how much time you have alloted for smoke breaks per day. And if you have tats, I might show you mine, I look reasonably normal in my corporate day-to-day, these things are easy to hide. ;-)

amy said...

In response to Bonnie's comment, I just wanted to point out that when you meet someone overweight, you don't know what stage they're at in their weight gain or loss - you're just getting the snapshot that day. You don't know if someone who is 300 pounds used to be 400 and is very (rightfully) proud of their progress, or if they have steadily ballooned up to that level due to many years of careless eating and no exercise - it could go either way. So to make the snap decision that overweight people are victims of their own poor judgment is crazy. The bottom line is that the focus must be on skills - can this person do the job effectively?

Wally Bock said...

I'm back on my performance hobby horse. I've worked with a lot of people in forty years in business. Some have been way overweight and some way underweight. Some have smoked. Some have not. Some of them were great workers. Some were OK. Some were awful. I may be bad at pattern recognition, but I never saw any correlation between how well people worked and either way they weighed or whether they smoked.

And there's no reason your smokers should have more time off than other workers. Make rules. Enforce them. My wife works at a company that does that. Smokers can smoke on breaks and their lunch time. They cannot smoke in the building, and outside the building they can only smoke in designated areas. So that's what they do.

Sandi Mays said...

I think judging a book by its cover is always a crazy way to make a hiring decision.

Maybe the candidate is a smoker or overweight because of the stress levels at their current job. (Everyone has to cope)

Stack up the references and qualifications first and remember ... Sometimes the beautiful people turn out to be a less attractive once you get to know them (think of that hot boyfriend you dumped, who doesn't seem so hot anymore...)

Sometimes the non-beauties become more attractive the more you get to know them.

Anonymous said...

So if the hiring manager is concerned about potential health care liability and use that to discriminate against the overweight and smokers, then it would be totally fine to discriminate against women. Health care for women tends to be more expensive, especially if they choose to have children. If they do, they're gone all the time, and sick because they caught something from their kid, therefore making the entire office sick. So it's ok to discriminate against smokers, fat people, and women. Woe to you if you are all three.


jaded hr rep said...

A lot of right on politically correct postings here, but unfortunately not very representative of the subconscious discriminations most people have (including HR professionals). Again, not right or wrong, but just fact that these subconscious associations exist. Most studies will completely support that more attractive people (whatever that standard may be) are more successful in many areas of life and work. Sure, that reality sucks, but it is true. We are a superficial society and these advantages/disadvantages play itself out in countless ways.

David said...

anonymous wrote "then they blamed discrimination if they got a poor review or passed over for a promotion"

Discrimination causes chips on shoulders.

Some people reveal those chips.

Relax. Your complaints reveal just as much about your character as they are revealing.

Anonymous said...

I think smoking is a disgusting habit that negatively affects your health.

And I smoke.

I can count on one hand the number of times I have taken more than 2 smoke breaks in an 8 hour work day - even as an exempt employee.

If I had a dollar for every person in and outside of work that has said to me, "YOU smoke? I had no idea. You don't smell like you smoke" I would be a heck of a lot further along with my 401k.

If I cause my employer to have higher experience ratings on their health plan due to my smoking, then that is just too darn bad. It's still none of their business. Much like infertility treatments, being overweight, not taking prescribed medication appropriately, domestic abuse emergency room visits and other "lifestyle choices" are none of their business.

Lea Setegn said...

I can't believe the number of comments on this post. EHRL, you've opened the can of worms!

I decided to post here because I'm at the first job ever that required that employees do not smoke.

I work for the American Lung Association of the Atlantic Coast.

And by the way, my Mom died of lung cancer this year AND I'm fat.

I'd like to point out to the folks who don't like working with well-groomed obese people that it takes a LOT of personal time to shop for fresh groceries, cook, visit the gym, and wash the gym clothes and the dishes so we can do it all over again. I'm an exempt employee, and I work as a writer with lots of deadlines. I have days when I can barely leave my desk to go to the bathroom, let alone the gym or the grocery store. And while I do have a female fiance, I don't have a wife -- she works, too, so we face the same time crunches.

I have never been thin. I was a plus-size in high school. The smallest I've been since college is a size 14/16. However, I've always had plenty of girl/boyfriends, a huge social life, and no problem getting a job. I also kick ass at what I do. Would you rather I look pretty or meet your deadline with wit and flair?

Anonymous said...

Bonnie -

You're on a very slippery slope. Do you want to get into who has the exceptional medical condition that requires medication that caused them to gain weight? I sure as heck don't want to know.

I think judging others by the cover of the book shows worse judgement than someone with a tattoo or who is overweight or smokes. In speaking of judging such "decisions," would you discriminate against an Indian woman with a nose ring? How about someone who doesn't look it, but is? You've discriminated based on a protected class. Sure, I know that people based some of their judgements on outward appearance - it's part of life, but my rule is two standard deviations. If you're in the realm of acceptable, it'll generally be okay.

Bonnie Lowe said...

I haven't actually made any hiring decisions based on smoking or weight; my earlier comments were hypothetical. But if a hiring decision was between two candidates with EQUAL qualifications, one a smoker and one a nonsmoker, I'd be more likely to hire the nonsmoker. Same if one candidate appeared to be fit and the other was obese... if their qualifications were EQUAL, I'd chose the fit person.

Like it or not, as EHRL says, we DO discriminate all the time. And of course we tend to judge a book by its cover if we don't have time to read any of the pages or get opinions from others who have read it. If that were not the case, we wouldn't advise interviewees to wear nice clothes or worry about making a good first impression.

I know it is NOT fair. But isn't it human nature? At least my bias is based on my perception (warped though it may be) of an individual's judgment... NOT on any protected class, not directly on any health-related reasons.

I can't help it. When I see a young, smart, professional, talented person who impresses me suddenly light up a cigarette, I'm surprised and disappointed.

I'm not saying I don't like smokers and/or obese people. I've never smoked, but I married a smoker, my mother and brothers smoked. My brothers are obese. I've struggled to control my weight my whole life. I know and love many smokers and obese people who are not only wonderful individuals, but excellent workers.

The point is, I KNOW them. When you're hiring someone, you DON'T know them. So first impressions and biases will often come into play.

Would I hire a nonsmoker/fit person over a smoker/obese person who was better qualified? Absolutely NOT. But again, ALL ELSE BEING EQUAL, I'd go for the person who APPEARED to have the best judgment.

HR Godess said...

I wasn't going to respond but I feel compelled to. It's a good thing I've never applied for a job with most of the posters here because I'm fat. I'm not morbidly obese but I certainly could drop some weight. I'm also very good at my job, great with people and love pasta and chocolate (Hence the weight issue).

I still look professional and well groomed, work long hours, and can intellectually hang with the best of them.

I don't believe I've ever been discriminated because of my weight and would never do that if someone fell into this category and was well groomed.

I think for some, it's natural to discriminate. There are many HR people out there who make sure we don't.

MustacheBoy said...

I've always wondered if my weight would count against me. I used to be significantly overweight: now I'm underweight to the point where people have thought I'm manorexic. Despite the underlying medical condition causing that, I'm quite healthy. Do we often see discrimination on the other end of the spectrum?

Anonymous said...

I want to second the comment about not knowing how far along someone is with their weight loss. I am currently losing weight at the rate of about 2 pounds per week, which is a healthy way to drop weight. I was 55 pounds overweight; I've now lost 20 pounds. I still have a ways to go at this rate. But if someone met me now, they would not know about the positive steps I have taken or about my progress. They'd probably just think I was fat, but I'm trying to think of myself as a healthy person who is at a healthy weight because one day I will be there.

Furthermore, most people in this country are overweight. And now that I've learned about nutrition and portion control, I'm not really surprised. It's very difficult to find up-to-date nutritional information from restaurants, for example, and portion sizes are way out of control. I hardly think it is in any company's best interest to discriminate against someone based on a problem that many of us have.

By the way, at my heaviest, I wore a 14. I am tall and I have large breasts (but I had those when I was a size 6, too), and I have always taken steps to be well-groomed and attractive. In fact, none of my friends could even believe that I was over 50 pounds overweight!

Ron said...

I'm quite fat, and also an exceptional producer at a Fortune 100 company. Feedback from management, including formal reviews, is glittering; my salary is high, and my bonuses are outsized.

I suspect that part of the "appearance" thing is industry-dependent. I work in high-tech, in Silicon Valley. Our world is arguably more meritocratic than many: We've got some weird/weird-looking dudes in some high leadership positions.

But a lot of what we get away with wouldn't work at a white-shoe law firm, investment bank, etc.

Like several other commenters, I tend to be skeptical about the "higher health costs" argument. This is no more true than for the alcoholics (and other substance abusers), smokers (already covered in this thread), reckless drivers, unsafe-sex-havers, etc.

People Wise said...

As an HR Consultant, I am constantly counseling clients on using reliable tools such as actual qualifications for the job, behavior based interview questions, and hiring assessments when making hiring decisions instead of relying on their “gut” which usually equates to hiring someone who looks and acts just like they do.

This has become even more difficult lately with the myriad of “business coaches” who have cropped up. You know the ones, they pay $2,500 to buy a franchise to give business advice with absolutely no qualifications or experience under their belts…sorry a little vent there. Recently, I had a client who I was working with to hire a Project Manager. It was taking a while to find the right person but that is as it should be. He came to me one day and said “I went to a presentation by “______ Coach” yesterday and he said “Hiring is easy, you just need to hire someone that you like”. He ultimately ended up hiring his brother.

This is one reason why there is “discrimination” in hiring often times. It is not purposeful. People just tend to like people who look and act like they do. The problem? You end up with no diversity and hence, no creativity or diverse abilities in your workforce!!

Olivia Fox said...

There is discrimination. Very few of the possible criteria for discriminating are legally protected.

Back to the original thread of conversation, I think that smoking, being overweight, being plain-old-ugly, having poor taste in clothing, going to a school that your interviewer loathes, having tattoos, etc, etc, infinity, can have an impact on getting the job. Even when the interviewer is as fair as possible, when all other things are considered equal, how do we make a decision? It can very well come down to these things.

I disagree with Bonnie's statement that smoking/fat=poor judgement AS IT RELATES TO THE JOB. (there are several stellar examples of people who show bad personal judgement but are brilliant at what they do...JFK, Henry Ford, multiple doctors, etc.) I agree with everything else she said. We are talking about a snapshot - a first date, etc. Any savvy job hunter should do EVERYTHING they can to make the best possible superficial impression possible, just to avoid any of those things from disqualifying them from a job for which they are otherwise capable of doing.