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Scholar Studies Weight-Based Bullying at Work

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 phenomenon.

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 well-being.

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 this problem?

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 health habits.

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 preliminary findings?

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 victims.

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 situation.

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 value.  

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