On the news recently there was a discussion about a hospital somewhere that established a policy that they would not hire anyone who applied for a job whose Body Mass Index was greater than 30. While that sounds simple, it hides a whole range of issues.
For the uninitiated, a BMI score above 30 means you are obese. Although I’m all for fitness, that’s a pretty low bar for an very definite label. A 35-year-old jogger might have a BMI of 20 or 25! There are other issues, as well.
The pendants and commentators were startled to learn that such a policy is NOT illegal under the Department of Labor’s rules. Almost anything else that employers try to do to employees is illegal but discrimination against the obese is not…at least not yet. The pendants and commentators described the policy was “wrong- headed” and bad policy. They were speculating regarding the motivation of the hospital executives in designing the policy having something to do with the hospital’s image. They even made the statement that a policy like this would mean that the employer would close themselves off from hiring the “best and the brightest. ” I think they missed the point all together!
The hospital is obviously a health care institution. Health care institutions are certainly interested in their image. All organizations except the federal government (witness the GSA) care about their image. What they care about more though is establishing a healthy and health conscience environment and obese people are not healthy people. Additionally, hospitals, like all other businesses care about controlling costs and their bottom line. Having obese employees fundamentally negatively impacts costs and the bottom line.
Obese employees are more expensive to care for when they get hurt or injured. Bariatric care giving is already a big burden in the way of equipment: oversized beds, chairs, lifts, etc are even more expensive to buy then the normal sized stuff. Obese employees often get hurt more often because their bones, joints, and heart is over burdened by their size; often have less energy, and are often slower than their counterparts with normal BMI scores. Obesity is often (not always) the result of lifestyle choices like smoking. Smokers cost more to insure and to treat (medically) then nonsmokers. The same is true of the obese.
It is not surprising that employers try to reduce their exposure to higher costs by discriminating against the obese or smokers. They should, however, make sure they do so correctly.