Fat Discriminating Leading


Fat!So?  Hmmm.  This past Saturday, on my radio show Everyday Leadership: Making Work Work, Marilyn Wann talked about the unfair treatment of fat people at work.  She’s no whiner.  She is the author of a book, magazine and website, which all go by the name of Fat!So?  (Note: Avoid her website if you can’t handle the sight of exposed derrieres.)  She said she doesn’t like the term “overweight,” because that implies fat people are over some norm, and are bad or wrong or weak for being so.  She noted that many people are big or fat, just as some people are black, female, old, young, or homosexual.  Being fat is part of the wonder of genetic diversity.  She says fat people shouldn’t apologize for it, and we shouldn’t discriminate against people because of it.

The naked truth is that discrimination costs us in productivity.  If I’m an owner or executive director, I want everyone fully involved.  I don’t want anyone feeling like they’re not being listened to, or are being passed over for jobs.  I want pathways to ideas and leadership open to all talent, irrespective of irrelevant considerations of appearance.  I want them fired up and feeling fully engaged and excited about our work. 

Some would say “bias is just perception, and often false perception.”  I would say: perception is truth in this case.  When people FEEL like they are being treated unfairly, a few of them will respond by working that much harder to prove themselves.  But many will start to check-out, complain behind your back, and feel justified in giving less, because they feel they’re getting less.

So, what do we – especially managers – do to keep everyone in the game?  Four things:

1. Examine our own thinking, and our hidden biases, and root out those biases.  Workplace culture follows leaders.  If we think and speak and act in ways that promote diversity, people will follow.  I know I have negative thoughts about some “different” people, because I live in a culture that creates that noise.  I don’t ask for those thoughts but there they are, so I have to catch them and choose to set them aside as irrelevant and unhelpful. 

2. Clearly and frequently articulate that “diversity is in” and discrimination is unacceptable.

3. Proactively ask others whether they feel included and engaged and whether opportunities are fairly given.  You can build your own (free) surveys easily with sites like www.surveymonkey.com, but I strongly recommend the use of diversity trainers who can help you work with the data.

4. Finally, we need a totally different attitude than our typical right-wrong mentality.  Instead, we need to seek first to understand.  I may say something with the best of all intentions, yet someone could have been deeply hurt, or “heard” a message I never intended.  If my culture is safe enough for them to talk to me, and if I listen well, I can hear that they were hurt and learn in the future.  And by listening to me, they can understand what I really meant.  Both perceptions are real.  Neither was “right” nor “wrong” in the first case.  The more hospitably we share ideas, and the more powerfully we seek to listen and learn, the more we can create a shared reality that works for both or all. 

You get everyone fully in the game, when you

Lead with your best self.



  • Dan:

    We are constantly bombarded with messages, images, and social constructs that shape our perceptions. It is so important to understand and to challengs ourselves about some of the assumptions and biases we hold toward others. We need to ask ourselves why we believe certain things and think about whether there is any real basis, or is our opinion primarily based on perception or public/social influence?

    It is also important to find opportunities to dialogue and build relationships with others who are different from ourselves. I believe it is only through the sharing of personal stories, perspectives and experiences that we begin to break down barriers, build understanding, and start to realize that we have more in common with others than we think.

    Trish Hubbell

  • Note: I have removed Dean K’s comment about my wife’s leadership activities. Dean, if you are following along: As I have said here before this is not a political blogsite. Where there are comments that are relevant to the topic of the day (or relevant and posted to a prior week’s) AND are connected to my wife’s or my leadership, then that is totally fine to post.

    Jennifer’s and my activities are there for all to see, and there should be connections between my basic thinking and my wife’s actions. But this site as I have often said is about “everyday leaders” leading with their best self, and not about people randomly criticizing those in charge.
    – Dan

    • Let me reframe the comment in regards to the context of this week’s Reading For Leading and bias.

      Race, size, hair color, religion may all play a role into ones mind regardless of whether the like it or not when sizing up an individual. We may make decisions with our best intentions in mind of who we think we are getting when making that decision. It may turn out that our biases are wrong or we simply misjudged. We may not get the work, or in some cases, the leadership that we believe we contracted out to do.

      I think the people of Michigan might make such a case when they hired a certain person to lead their state. Instead, they have someone who is now going to devote four days to preparing a person for a debate (Joe Biden). So let me ask a question: those of you in leadership roles: how would you lead a report of yours whom you assigned a pretty important task but always found them working on something else that was either less important or completely personal business? Perhaps we can all learn from this blog.

      • I like it that posters are assuming a leadership role on the blog and asking questions for us too.

        A) I hope I don’t get caught writing this because my boss would probably consider this “something else that was either less important or completely personal business.” 🙂

        B) When I find someone who reports to me (I have 40 direct reports), I have a mannernism in which I let people think I might know what they’re up to but not them know for sure. Often, this is enough to get them to stop such activities without causing a “showdown.” After that, a simple conversation in which the person pretty much answers the questions for me and we come to a mutual agreement that this must stop. Finally, we get involved with HR and follow a formal path that would include write-ups and potentially, firing.

        I never thought about the question you posed regarding political work versus being the leader in a governmental position. Now that it is out there, yeah, I guess I do feel a bit cheated if our governor spends four days prepping a candidate for a debate instead of doing the work of our State. We surely need all the help we can get.

        • I guess I would take the broader view of that, Greg. If I were a governor of a state that was trying to reposition itself as a “green” manufacturer corridor, a state that has suffered more than most by the flight of jobs overseas, a state where unemployment and underemployment leave an unprecedented number of people with health benefits — well, I guess I would consider four days helping support a candidate who I thought would address all those Michigan problems on a national level a good investment of my time.

      • being the ceo of a small non-profit, and having some understanding of the political life by way of an x-husband who was a legislator, I would guess that the governor of almost any state works far more days and hours than should be expected of any person and probably does not take all the “vacation” time that is stated in the contract or job expectations, not to mention two days a week or the normal holidays other workers experience. Even that begs the mental stress that can almost never be left behind.

        To begrudge such a person 4 days to contribute personally to their choice of civic participation is truly lacking in basic perspective, and lacks the very kind of fair practices this column encourages.

      • Dean K,
        You were resourceful 🙂 Touche!
        I like the way you framed this: i.e., the voters are the governor’s boss. Well done.
        So, let’s continue with that metaphor. You sit down the employee – as you are metaphorically doing – and say: “We have great needs, we expect lots of work, and we notice you are spending time on politics. What do you say about that?”
        I assume she would say two things:
        Boss, I’m totally committed to Michigan. Although you may not know it, I don’t think I have taken a day off this year (perhaps one or two Fridays, but even then I was working the blackberry and computer). (I, her husband would add in: “I work my rear end off, and I can’t hold a candle to her in terms of work ethic.”) Further, dear boss, I wonder about your assumption that being at a convention or helping Senator Biden is not work. My sincere hope is that I am helping the next vice president of the US. If he and his colleague win, I assume that they will remember me, return my calls, and pay attention to Michigan. I assume they will keep coming here to learn about our people. I think it’s a pretty good investment. Finally, I am learning more every day about BOTH candidates’ views on health care, energy policy, trade, etc., which will be of immeasurable value to me as I lobby for what is best for Michigan.”

        I imagine this is what the governor might say in a job performance review. And I suspect she would add:

        And, I think it’s great that you would raise these questions!


        • And if I were her boss in a performance review I would of course listen without interrupting (see previous Reading for Leadings regarding being a good listener). 🙂

          I would try to find common ground and say that I appreciate that you are taking this time to be able to do your job better. But then I would try to peak into the conscious and the sub-conscious of the person’s mind and ask: “Are you really doing this for the common good of helping our company, our non-profit, our State (whatever the case may be) or is it that you feel this may be personally gratifying and may lead to a better job for you personally? The time that my company/non-profit/government dept. invested in this is really all for naught but could bring you a job with a new company/non-profit/Washington DC position in the Obama administration or on a Court Bench? If that was truly the real motive for doing this work outside of the job description said employee is hired to do, then I’m not sure it is a good deal for the company/non-profit/government dept. to let her do this. I would feel pawned — I lose a good employee and now am stuck trying to hire a new person to do the job. I lose the investment of (in this case) six years of training.

          I also would wonder how my company will look should the other side win? If someone was plotting to beat me so hard as to take 4 days off work, I’d be concerned about getting my phone calls returned and being remembered in a positive light when we’re in need.

  • Did you know there is no such word as “irrespective?” Its use is a common mistake by many.
    That said, thank you for your reminder of how far-reaching discrimination can be, i.e. what one things is just a comment can be construed as discrimination.

  • When it comes to changing the way we interact with our peers and direct reports, we often fail to recognize the steps required for ongoing results.

    Ask anyone who works about bosses, and you’ll hear ready recollections of the two types they’ve worked for: the ones they’ve loved and the ones they couldn’t wait to escape.

    According to Social Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, the best bosses are those who are trustworthy, empathic and who connect with us. They make us feel calm, appreciated and inspired. The worst bosses are distant, difficult and arrogant. They make us feel uneasy, at best, and resentful, at worst.

  • I have never felt myself to be a biased person, discriminatory based on race, color, religion. However, as an owner of a construction company that framed homes in Florida, I had a strong preference towards not hiring fat guys to work for me. It was not based directly on their weight stature, but more on the tangibles associated with their exessive weight, mixed in with the presence of hard physical work and soaring heat/humidity. The overweight guy could not provide to me the kind of work ethics that I expected from an employee. The more trim and in shape worker could withstand the rigors of heat much better, thus being more productive, thus making me more money. Plain and simple….I’d hire the best qualified to do the job that I expected from them.

  • Speaking as a person who is almost big enough to have my own zip code, I was very interested in this topic.

    It seems there is a risk that bias and unjust discrimination will in some cases be confused with the sort of positive discrimination that is expected of all leaders. We are called upon to discriminate between sound and unsound decisions in all areas including hiring and promotion.

    It is a reality that 70% of the population of our country is now, by definition, overweight. It is also a reality that there are some jobs and tasks that may legitimately screen out overweight candidates. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that a workforce comprised of a higher proportion of overweight persons, especially those medically defined as obese, will incur higher incidents of health care use, health related lost time, and job related injury than will those with a workforce more closely alligned to healthy body weight and BMI (Body Mass Index).

    The risk, it seems, is that these factors will spill over into baseless biases about overweight persons including a perception that weight is indicative of laziness, lack of initiative, lack of creativity, or lack of intelligence.

    Weight is not per se a factor comparable to issues of race, gender, and religion. It is, however, comparable to issues of smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, riding motorcycles or bicycles without helmets, and other matters of choice that may or may not accelerate into questions of dependency and deterioration of health. These issues are indeed shaped by factors of economic status and cultural background, but they are not defined by them.

    The AMA and the National Institute of Health have identiified obesity as one of if not the major health crisis facing our society today. It seems that “leading with our best selves” calls us to avoid simplistic responses to the crisis and challenges us to explore the role of the leader/employer in facilitating its resolution.

  • This message is for everyone’s information, contact the Southern Poverty Law Center which is based out of Montgomery, Alabama. This organization supports any agency or people who would like to learn how to teach tolerance or start a teaching tolerance program. All of the material will be mailed to you at no cost. I have started the groundwork for my program, and the information that was provided from the SPLC is very resourceful. Anyone interested may contact the SPLC by searching the Southern Poverty Law Center on the internet. I had the pleasure of visiting the center, and I tell you, you don’t, want to miss it.

    Mr. Mulhern, may I suggest that you get as many agencies involved with the SPLC, you will not regret this, I have not. Any one inetrested about the progam before hand, may contact me at stoney616@hotmail.com

    Thomas K. Burke
    Corrections Officer

  • My dear friend, author, TV producer and stand-up comic Janette Barber recently released her latest book “Embracing Your Big Fat Ass” for many of the same reasons Marilyn Wann offers “Fat!So?” Thanks again Dan for shining a light on this category of discrimination that continues to be way too acceptable in our culture.

  • There are various reasons why people are overweight, such as longer working hours, mundane work, low salaries keep people from memberships in a fitness center, food is a source of enjoyment are some reasons for being overweight. People will always have to battle with weight problems. A person can be overweight and still look presentable with the right hair style, proper fitting clothes, personal hygiene, and personal pride in appearance. Persoal pride means to not come across as a slob.

    Discrimination will be an obstacle for the overweight person.

  • This is just a short comment on how much I appreciate your insights as expressed in the messages I receive. Being retired there are times when I might feel that your message will not apply. However, there has always been some “nugget” from what I read that helps me be a better person. Thank you for taking the time to organize your thoughts so that the message I receive is applicable to my life.

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