Monday, 20 May 2013

Weighty issue for employers

Overweight employees who are struggling to carry out their job effectively have been warned they do not automatically have the right to claim their weight is a disability.

John Mehtam, our employment law specialist, said an Employment Appeal Tribunal had ruled that obesity itself wasn’t a disability.

“But if the employee’s weight is causing serious health issues, it could be that a tribunal would decide they did have the right to claim disability discrimination, so employers need to handle such a situation very carefully. The best way forward if you face a claim like this, is to always ask a medical specialist if your employee’s symptoms would improve if they lost some weight.

“Of course bringing up a tricky issue like an employee’s weight is difficult enough at the best of times, but if they go on to claim it’s a disability then things become even more uncomfortable.”

John said the ruling followed a claim made by an employee who weighed nearly 22 stone and suffered from a whole host of medical problems including asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.

“The employee agreed to a health assessment which revealed that despite his symptoms, he had no underlying medical condition that would have caused his problems.

“But the employee disagreed and made a claim for disability discrimination, which was turned down at an employment tribunal. Still not happy with this decision, he took his case to an employment appeal tribunal which overturned the ruling and said he was disabled, even though his symptoms all appeared to have been caused by his weight. They stopped short though of defining obesity as a disability in its own right, but said someone who was overweight may be more likely to be considered to be disabled by a tribunal.

“Employers must tread very carefully as this topic is a minefield and can be a legal nightmare if a case does actually go before a tribunal. It’s vital to take professional advice at the earliest opportunity as such cases are not clear cut and given the sensitive nature of the subject, they can be awkward to handle before, during and after the hearing itself.”