Fat shaming by bullies doesn’t just happen in the school
yard – it’s a growing problem in the workplace, too.
How this form of workplace harassment impacts employees and
employers is the subject of ongoing research by Jaclyn Jensen, who has been
named a DePaul University Humanities Center Fellow for 2018-20 to study the
In this Q&A, Jensen, an associate professor of
management at the Driehaus College of Business, tells us what she hopes to
accomplish with her study, titled “Weight-Based Bullying at
Work: Exploring the Personal Consequences, Organizational Costs, Cultural
Context, and Victim-Focused Interventions.”
What interested you about
researching weight-based bullying at work?
My interest comes from a collaboration with my colleague Dr.
Grace Lemmon (associate professor of management at DePaul), and combines our
collective interest in workplace harassment, employee engagement, health and
We got to talking about ways to study the effects of
bullying and health, and whether employee health and healthy habits might
impact who becomes a victim of bullying in the workplace. In our discussions,
we came across research on physical health and weight in the U.S., and the
statistics on the growing epidemic of obesity in America. Collectively, these
pieces got us thinking about taking a closer look at the daily hassles and
experiences of overweight workers, and the extent to which being bullied at
work because of weight is a problem.
How widespread is
There is quite a bit of research on formal discrimination
faced by overweight individuals— discrimination in hiring, promotion and
compensation—and also work suggesting that overweight individuals are viewed as
lazy, unmotivated, sloppy individuals who are less capable of self-control,
less competent and less worthy social interaction partners. These stigmatizing
attitudes should also be particularly troubling for organizations as they
foreshadow a number of challenges that the overweight and obese may face in the
workplace, notably in terms of the likelihood that individuals will be bullied,
teased or harassed at work because of their weight.
Thus, we want to really examine the daily experiences of overweight
employees. As nearly three-fourths of the U.S. population is overweight or
obese, we suspect that the problem of weight-based bullying is significant,
given what we already know about the stigma of obesity.
In the work context the problem is also somewhat unique in
that criticizing someone for their weight may be viewed as unprofessional, yet
we live in a society where fat shaming, or humiliating another person for their
size, has become culturally normative.
We plan to capture how widespread the issue of weight-based
bullying is, and also examine if the nature of the bullying is more or less
severe depending whether the worker is just slightly overweight versus morbidly
obese, and the extent to which organizational culture and climate impact the
prevalence and nature of the bullying.
What do you hope to
accomplish with your research?
I hope to accomplish a few goals with this research. It is
important to collect evidence on the organizational, personal and professional
consequences of weight-based bullying to make the case that there are real
costs, both personal and professional, to being mistreated at work. We live in
an era where employee engagement is emphasized in so many work environments.
Yet, if a significant proportion of the workforce is subject to bullying
because of weight (and experience lowered performance, poorer job attitudes and
potentially diminished health and well-being), I would argue that it makes it
harder for that population to engage, which undoubtedly has additional downstream
consequences for those workers as well.
We also hope to better understand how victims of
weight-based bullying cope with their experiences, with an emphasis on
emotion-focused (i.e., anger, anxiety) and behavioral coping (i.e., isolation,
social avoidance, reframing), along with impact of bullying on physical health
(i.e., sleep, fitness, nutrition). Exploring how victims cope is important to
illustrate the breadth of effects of bullying, notably that it is not
restricted to work consequences but personal and health consequences as well.
We are interested in exploring strategies to help victims of
weight-based bullying cope with their experiences through an intervention
focused on self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth. This draws from
research on the Health at Every Size movement, which is rooted in positive
Finally, despite so many organizations today focusing on
employee health, wellness and well-being, the topic of weight in business is
still a touchy subject as it crosses the personal-professional divide. For
example, organizations may not feel equipped to have a conversation with
someone about their weight, yet may also implicitly tolerate those who tease
others because they do not fully understand how personally defeating and
professionally isolating these experiences are. Shining a light on these
experiences, while also illuminating the costs to employees and their
employers, is my goal.
Do you have any
Our preliminary research asked overweight workers to tell us
about their experiences of bullying, how it impacted them personally, and how
they coped with their experiences. Our findings suggest that the bullying
described by most victims was overt and direct – there was little mistake that
the bully was intentionally trying to humiliate or inflict harm on the victim
(for example, a respondent wrote that they were “mooed” at by a coworker to
imply they were a fat cow).
Second, over 80 percent of victims reported depression and anxiety
as a result of being bullied. Third, the vast majority of victims withdrew from
work, including interacting less often with co-workers and being less vocal at
work, both of which have consequences for team functioning and learning.
Finally, victims often stated that they wanted to report the bullying at work,
but were fearful of the repercussions.
Collectively, these findings suggest that the consequences
of being bullied at work are significant, and that more work is needed to
understand the prevalence of this issue and what more can be done to support
How does the
fellowship support your work?
The theme of the 2018-2020 DePaul Humanities Center
fellowship is “Scale” and fellowships were awarded to scholars whose research
speaks to this theme. The topic of weight-based bullying clearly aligns with
the theme, whether you consider the idea of the overweight “tipping the
scales,” the scale of the issue, and the potential magnitude of consequences
faced by bully victims and their employers. The fellowship provides some
release time from teaching and also support for a research assistant, as well
as a platform to share my work through seminars sponsored by the Humanities
Center, and to connect with other scholars for feedback and support. So, I am
grateful for the opportunity to further explore these issues and the support
provided by this experience.
Your research in
general focuses on employee misbehavior in the workplace. What led you to focus
your scholarship on these issues?
My research is driven by a fundamental belief that all
individuals deserve to be treated fairly in the workplace. Thus, when I see
injustice, I am motivated to understand why and what can be done to remedy the
I’ve spent my entire career researching harassment and
incivility in the workplace, and I am acutely aware of how these denigrating
experiences can demoralize a person and impact their career. So, raising
awareness about the impact of bias, bullying and harassment, and what can be
done to value individuals for their competence and capability (irrespective of
size, race or gender), is worth the effort and where I feel my research adds
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