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Lessons in Avoiding Size Bias From N.J. Governor Christie to Abercrombie & Fitch

The perception of overweight people is a divisive issue that has been making headlines this week. After relentless jokes about his weight from late-night comedians like David Letterman and serious questions about whether he was "too fat to be president" from journalists like Barbara Walters, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently revealed he underwent weight-loss surgery in February.

Meanwhile, clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch faced controversy last week after a retail expert’s interview highlighted its no-XL policy in its women's line and CEO Mike Jeffries’ previous statements about not wanting heavy customers. And a 2010 study from the University of Florida found that overweight women earn less than their similarly proportioned male counterparts, while a 2012 study found that even doctors aren't immune to weight bias.

Discussions about weight are serious and can be heated. However, there's one clear takeaway for business owners: Stay out of it. Companies that take a stand based on the size of their employees or customers put themselves in the middle of unnecessary controversy, says Seattle-based management consultant Kathleen Brush.

Related: The 10 Magic Phrases of Customer Service

Just as business owners shouldn't discriminate against employees because of their age, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, they shouldn't treat people differently because of their weight. Check your company on these three points to make sure you're staying size-neutral.

1. Unconscious bias.
Are you biased without realizing it? "I've heard some good managers say dumb things about the physical characteristics of employees, that didn't make for a good boss role model, and was harmful to their ability to lead," Brush says. A superior role model is one that is totally accepting of all kinds of people, she adds.

Evaluate potential bias at all levels, Brush says sometimes businesses become homogeneous because it's natural for managers to hire people that are like them.

It's a good idea for business owners and managers to go through diversity training to help overcome biases they might not even know they hold, Brush advises. In addition, review your employee evaluation and hiring techniques to make sure your team is truly matching skills and accomplishments to the job rather than subjective physical measures.

2. Diversity in marketing.
What is the face you show to the world? Are the people featured in your advertising and promotional campaigns look-alikes or do you show people of different races, ethnicities, physical ability, sizes and other attributes? Marketing materials are designed to appeal to customers. Projecting diversity internally will have greater appeal to diverse buyers, Brush says.

3. Customer relations.
Whatever your personal feelings about weight, treat all of your customers with respect. Flim director Kevin Smith created a PR nightmare for Southwest Airlines via Twitter a few years ago when he was reportedly asked to leave a crowded flight because he was too big for the seat he was occupying.

These sorts of altercations can spell disaster for your brand. To avoid them, address the problem directly and delicately. For example in a clothing store, "if you don't carry the size of clothing that a customer needs, be truthful and say so," says Brush. "But then, offer to order it. You're in business to sell, not to exclude people."

Related: Tips to Go Above and Beyond With Customer Service

Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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