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CON: BMI flawed, unfair way to make hiring decisions

By Sonny Long
April 22, 2012 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated April 22, 2012 at 11:23 p.m.


To hear Stanford professor Keith Devlin discuss the body mass index go to NPR website

Any policy against hiring obese people is discriminatory, according to a national advocacy group.

"The use of BMI to determine eligibility employment is absolutely discriminatory toward individuals affected by the disease of obesity," said James Zervios, director of communications for the Obesity Action Coalition in Tampa.

"A potential employee's qualifications should not be based on their BMI. It is not a determinant of knowledge or expertise," Zervios said.

In a news release, the obesity coalition elaborated on its role in the policy change at Citizens. David Brown, Citizens chief executive officer, notified the coalition's president and CEO, Joe Nadglowski, about the hospital's decision to suspend its weight-based hiring policy, the group reported.

"OAC leadership reached out to Mr. Brown and expressed their concerns that this hiring policy greatly perpetuated weight bias and stigma often associated with the disease of obesity," the release said.

The coalition acknowledged that obese employees may cause increased healthcare costs, absenteeism and workers compensation. However, instead of a hiring ban, companies should provide comprehensive obesity prevention and treatment programs for their employees and incentive programs, such as discounted health club memberships and availability of healthier food choices at work, the statement said.

"While incentive programs should be encouraged, we believe that punitive measures ... should not be utilized as a catalyst for individuals to address their obesity,'' the release stated. "Further stigmatization and penalization of this population often elicits a response counter to the goal of the original penalty."

Yoakum fitness center owner Christie Talbert said the BMI should never be used alone as a measure of fitness.

"There are more critical measures than BMI," said the owner of the Yoakum Shape Shop. "Things like resting heart rate, resting blood pressure and overall cardiovascular fitness should be considered.

"To strictly use BMI skews the results. It's not fair."

Other employers in Victoria have some hiring requirements that might involve physical ability, but do not use BMI as a criteria.

In the Victoria school district, Victoria's largest employer with more than 2,000 workers, the ability to perform some physical tasks is a requirement for some positions.

"Victoria ISD does set some physical abilities in some job descriptions such as being able to lift, stand for long periods of time, etc. I am not aware of any weight restrictions placed on employees," said district spokeswoman Diane Boyett.

Stanford University math professor Keith Devlin, who debunked the entire BMI method in a July 2009 segment on National Public Radio, said using the measure for employment purposes is a potential legal land mine for a company.

"I would think that a company which denies someone employment based on a BMI value risks a lawsuit," Devlin said. "Sooner or later, there will be such a suit, and that may end up leading to the abandonment of the BMI."

In the NPR report, Devlin said the BMI failed on 10 grounds and minced no words in saying so.

"The BMI was introduced in the early 19th century by a Belgian named Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet," Devlin said in the segment.

"In other words, it is a 200-year-old hack," he said. "Because the BMI is a single number between 1 and 100 (like a percentage) that comes from a mathematical formula, it carries an air of scientific authority. But it is mathematical snake oil."

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