Even though more than 70% of adults in the U.S. are either overweight or obese, research suggests that those of us who are overweight or who have obese kids still sometimes stigmatize obesity.*

What’s more, people who are overweight typically earn less income than their thinner colleagues, and they are judged more harshly in employee selection and job training contexts. Overweight employees, in general, are often the targets of discrimination, but research hasn’t confirmed whether overweight senior executives — who have plenty of power and prestige — are subject to the same sort of biases and discrimination.

To address this knowledge gap, researchers at CCL, George Mason University, the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Rice University, and TIAA-CREF investigated whether overweight or obese executives were penalized in their 360-degree ratings of leadership.

Our study revealed some important findings:

  • Roughly half of the executive sample was overweight, while 18% of executives had a BMI that indicated that they were obese.
  • Controlling for gender, age, race, activity level, and organizational level, overweight executives received lower task and interpersonal leadership ratings than thinner executives did. Thus, regardless of organizational level or other demographics, body size and weight appeared to have a negative impact on leadership ratings.
  • In contrast, body size was not related to conscientiousness or extraversion. In other words, executives who were overweight reported being just as hardworking, meticulous, energetic, sociable, and assertive as their peers.
  • Age mattered. Being younger provided a small buffer against some of the adverse effects associated with the obesity stigma.
  • Gender alone did not matter; being overweight affected men and women executives equally. But when considering both age and gender together, gender did matter. Increasing in age was more detrimental for overweight female executives than for overweight male executives.

Our research shows that weight is a negative status characteristic that can have an adverse impact on the leader performance ratings of all leaders and executives, despite the fact that overweight leaders report being just as hardworking, energetic, assertive, and sociable as other leaders.

These findings are particularly interesting given that peers, employees, and superiors provided the leadership ratings of the study’s executives — people who knew the executives well and should not have been easily influenced by negative stereotypic beliefs.

Key Lessons

  1. It’s clear that overweight executives may face double standards in their developmental leadership evaluations. This is especially true for older female executives who are overweight.
  2. Executives who are overweight may find it beneficial to proactively address the stigma of being overweight or obese. Options may include directly addressing the stereotypic and incorrect view that overweight leaders do not work as hard as other leaders. Executives could emphasize their ambition, drive, and energy in their interactions with others to alleviate any unwarranted negative perceptions.
  3. It’s likely that overweight executives will face similar double standards when 360 assessments or other subjective performance evaluations are used to measure their annual performance, on which pay and bonuses may be based.

If this holds true, it would call into question the practice of solely relying on subjective performance evaluations for senior leaders. Organizations should consider using less subjective (and potentially less biased) metrics for assessing leader performance, including objective production and financial indicators.

While it may require personal efforts by overweight leaders and executives to counter the negative effects of the obesity stigma, organizations should do their part as well — namely, they should implement annual performance evaluations that are as objective and thus less biased as possible.

The content of this blog is based on King, E. B., Rogelberg, S. G., Hebl, M. R., Braddy, P. W., Shanock, L. R., Doerer, S., & McDowell-Larsen, S. (2016).  Waistlines and Ratings of Executives: Does Executive Status Overcome Obesity Stigma? Human Resource Management, 55, 283-300.


*According to 2014 stats from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics

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