Fat chance for overweight workers in HK

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 September, 2009, 12:00am

When an overweight insurance agent, who did not want to be named, kept hitting brick walls in her career, she became convinced that her appearance was the cause of her failure.

She opted for reconstructive surgery to shed the extra pounds. Soon after, she noticed she was finally getting somewhere with her job interviews and also achieving better sales.

'I earned more than 50 per cent more after I had shed the weight,' she said. 'Losing weight really enhanced my competitiveness.'

Worryingly, this has become increasingly common in the workplace, where people are convinced that rebuilding their image can enhance competitiveness.

A study commissioned by the Hong Kong government, published in January, showed that more than 40 per cent of local professionals would consider reconstructive surgery in order to enhance their competitiveness.

From an employer's perspective, Alexa Chow Yee-ping, managing director of Centaline Human Resources Consultants, said that appearance was becoming much more important these days.

'There is no doubt that appearance is very important, especially in this competitive working environment and economic downturn,' she said.

Many employers are beginning to get more concerned about employees' appearance, especially their weight.

She explained that some employers thought that overweight staff could have too many health problems, such as high blood pressure, abdominal problems or diabetes, while those who were severely underweight could be perceived as having a serious illness. All of this becomes a cost on the company in terms of image, productivity, sick leave and medical claims.

Ominously, a study from the Department of Health showed that obesity in the city has been on the rise - from 21.6 per cent in 2007 to 22.2 per cent last year. The study was released in April last year with a sample of 2,100 people aged from 18 to 64.

Kwan Lai-yee, a nutritionist from Modern Beauty Salon, said: 'The obesity problem is becoming serious and workers need to look at this squarely [as this is a major health issue].'

She said that the pressures on Hong Kong workers were high, especially in this economic climate, and the problem was that many people did not exercise. 'Even on weekends, many can't be bothered to go out and do something active - they are more interested in staying home.'

Even though appearance and work abilities were not directly related and employers knew this, somehow first impressions still counted, she said.

Dr Benny Lam Wai-lun, a psychologist from Hong Kong Psychological Counselling Centre, explained why this could be the case. 'People are ingrained in social norms and generally have their own social perceptions. They can be prejudiced and affected by first impressions and many seem to perceive fat people as negative and lazy,' he said.

Thin people were generally regarded as having more self-esteem and self-confidence, he added, so it reinforced what people thought, that they needed to lose weight in order to enhance their image and competitiveness.

'But, in fact, these traditional social perceptions are not right,' he said. 'Experience, knowledge, skills and academic results show your work abilities. The way a person looks doesn't tell any of these things.'

This problem is particularly pervasive in service-oriented jobs, such as public relations, receptionists and secretaries, where a beautiful image is always expected. 'People always prefer attractive employees to meet and greet others,' Lam said.

He advised people who were considering shedding a few pounds to do it for the right reasons, not for a job, because sudden weight loss could cause health problems.

Sadly, this trend of judging on appearance is also apparent in Japan, Taiwan and the mainland.

Toshio Okada, a famous Japanese author, said that appearance was becoming the most important element when hiring in Japanese society.

'Outer appearance is even more important than workers' academic background.

'If you are not attractive, you are considered inferior even though you have a very strong academic background.'

Academic background and experience, he argued, had essentially been cast aside.

This problem is exacerbated by public perceptions that beauty equals brains.

Research conducted by human resources portal TMS Asia-Pacific, published in October last year, showed that 70 per cent of Taiwanese people surveyed agreed that a beautiful appearance could help build good relationships with colleagues, while 69 per cent felt that it could boost their self-confidence.

Chow of Centaline reinforced that while outer appearance was somewhat important, experience, talent, ability, performance and mentality were the most important.

'Interviews have always been recognised as a subjective process in which employers can end up making decisions based on first impressions,' she said, cautioning human resources professionals not to ignore a person's academic and professional background.

Mariana Law, spokeswoman for the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), had the same message for employers.

'Outer appearance should not be a barrier to one's working abilities,' she said. 'Employers should avoid acting unlawfully during an interview.'

The EOC expects employers to treat everyone equally. Staff recruitment should be an objective process and employers should base a decision on a person's work abilities and whether they are the right person for the job.

'Employers have the responsibility to eliminate discrimination, harassment and provide equal opportunities for all employees,' Law said, stressing that it was unacceptable to judge a person's work performance based on their appearance.

'Employers should be against applying non-essential requirements or conditions for a job as this may result in [them] breaking the law.'

Health tips

Try to use less seasoning such as pepper, salt, oil and chilli

Do not put too much salt in your dishes as this can lead to high blood pressure

It is recommended that you stop eating when you feel 80 per cent full

Try to choose healthy food and restaurants when you eat out, it is bestto avoid high-calorie foods

Excercise every day as it helps boost your health and immune system