Last year, a medical center in Texas quietly instituted controversial rule — a hiring policy that bars any applicant from consideration for a job there if they have a Body Mass Index of over 35 or if they project an image that somehow conflicts with how patients think doctors and nurses should look. And even though the rule's both crappy and unnecessary, it's totally legal.
Citizens Medical Center is located in Victoria, Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico between Corpus Christi and Houston. Last year, the hospital enacted a rule that requires that potential employees have a BMI of less than 35 and that applicants' physique "should fit with a representational image or specific mental projection of the job of a healthcare professional." The rule further specified that employees' appearances should be "free from distraction."
While the rule could be construed to mean that doctors and nurses who work with patients should try to be as nondescript as possible — no weird face piercings, no Amanda Bynes mug shot My Little Pony with emphysema-colored hair, no sexually graphic hand tattoos — the rule's true purpose was to exclude from the hospital's staff men and women who are noticeably obese. Basically: no fatties.
Unsurprisingly, advocacy groups oppose discriminating against potential employees on the basis of weight, since it's not okay to discriminate against people based on their race, sex, age, or other factors (and, arguably, obesity is much less subject to individual choice than, say, religion).
Lynn Grefe, President and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, sees nothing good about the guidelines and sees the rule as a dangerous and frightening foray into employer overreach into the private lives of their employees. "Health issues are between a patient and their doctor. Employers should not have a say in their employees' health decisions," she explains. "You cannot tell by looking at someone whether or not they are healthy."
The rule would be odious enough if the hospital's rule was a misguided attempt to encourage health among the facility's workforce. But it's not; in fact, the rule was designed specifically with patient perception rather than employee health in mind. Hospital chief David Brown helpfully explained to the Texas Tribune, "The majority of our patients are over 65, and they have expectations that cannot be ignored in terms of personal appearance. We have the ability as an employer to characterize our process and to have a policy that says what's best for our business and for our patients."
So, hiring practices should be based on the preferences of geriatric jerks?
Grefe finds this angle — that any distracting aspect of a person's appearance can be grounds for non-consideration for employment — particularly disturbing, noting that guidelines that allow employers to discriminate against applicants based on appearance can end up harming applicants of all sizes. She mentioned that an employee recovering from an eating disorder, for example, may be singled out for being "too thin" by the hospital. A doctor that's distractingly sexy could feasibly be denied employment as well. And basing employment on whether or not an applicant conforms to acceptable appearance standards can lead the vulnerable to disordered eating patterns, or exacerbate existing disorders. "They're abusing people," says Grefe.
NEDA has issued a press release condemning the policy of Citizens Medical Center, and Grefe told me that if they'd be open to it, she'd be willing to help educate the hospital on why their policy is harmful. After that, she'd like to see them issue an apology.
Depressingly, NEDA's view that employers discriminating against potential employees based on weight isn't echoed by the general population. In an op-ed for The Houstonian, Jessica Furdock writes,
While I sympathize with those who have been denied a job due to their weight, I side with the hospital. As with any company or organization, the employees create and represent the image of where they work. This isn't any different from not hiring those with visible tattoos or piercings.
Hm. Starting a sentence with "while I sympathize" doesn't grant the writer sympathy, and this mindset sounds pretty damn unsympathetic. And employers do not have the right to discriminate against employees based on appearance factors they can't help. If this policy were mirrored at other facilities, what's to stop a hospital from refusing to hire anyone but Scandinavian-looking medical doctors or require the nursing staff to have black hair? Should it be okay for hospitals to discriminate against hiring fat people, but not any other sort of person?
CMC hasn't responded to my request for comment. Maybe if I called back and made sure to tell them that I'm very nondescript-looking in a way that totally wouldn't offend a 72-year-old getting a catheter installed, they'll be more open to talking.
Image via Olaru Radian-Alexandru/Shutterstock