The recent victory for 'fat' air hostesses against Indian Airlines has once again brought 'fattism' ...
The recent victory for 'fat' air hostesses against Indian Airlines has once again brought 'fattism' into the media. Thirteen air hostesses took Indian Airlines to court when the airline deemed them 'too fat to fly'. It might be said that it would be dangerous for an airline to employ 'overweight' air hostesses who might not be able to act swiftly, and with sufficient dexterity, in the case of an emergency, due to the confined nature of an aircraft. It is clear, in cases like this, that a business must balance its health and safety concerns with the needs and rights of an individual.
According to Government figures, the number of people classified as obese has doubled over the past decade. A survey conducted by www.personneltoday.com revealed that 93% of HR professionals admitted they would hire a 'normal' weight candidate rather than an identically qualified obese applicant. The rationale behind this might be explained by the results of a poll by consultants The Aziz Corporation, which showed that employers generally believe that people who are fit and healthy are better able to cope with the stresses and demands of a senior role.
With obesity being an increasing problem in the UK it is, perhaps, surprising that the Government has not attempted to legislate specifically in this area. The challenge of supporting overweight staff will no doubt become an increasing problem for employers in the UK.
Employers need to be cautious when dealing with employees who may be suffering from obesity. Unlike sex, race, religion and age, the law offers no specific protection against 'fattism'. At present, an employer would be entitled to decide whether or not to hire an employee on the basis of their size. However, there is a risk where an employee's excessive weight is down to a medical problem that they may be covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA).
The DDA defines disability widely as "a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal, day-to-day activities" (s.1(1)). Obesity could in theory fall within the DDA's remit in certain circumstances. An employee would need to show that the obesity had lasted, or was likely to last, for at least 12 months. The DDA could also apply where a worker is suffering from an illness such as depression, with a symptom of overeating, their weight could then be regarded as "a reason relating to their disability". Accordingly, care needs to be exercised when dismissing an obese employee to avoid a costly disability discrimination claim.
If an employer decides to dismiss an employee for a reason relating to their weight, it must fall under one of the "potentially fair reasons" under the Employment Rights Act 1996. The "reason" that such a dismissal is most likely to fall under is capability. An employer would need to prove that the employee's weight was, for example, affecting productivity, performance or even perhaps having an impact on company image. This situation must be handled carefully to avoid an unfair dismissal claim.
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