Fighting Back: Bullies and Obesity

Some people are real jerks. Anyone who deals with the general public for a living knows that this is an indisputable fact. For those who work in sales or service positions know that the theory "the customer is always right" can be a bitter pill to swallow. Every waiter, store clerk, and receptionist has had a moment where they had to swallow very hard to resist firing back at an irate and/or irrational customer who's decided to take out his or her frustrations on whoever happens to be in their line of vision. Most of the time, it is not possible or not wise to fight back.

But, sometimes, it is.

Take, for example, Jennifer Livingston, a TV news anchor in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. A viewer with, apparently, way too much time on his hands, took it upon himself to write Ms. Livingston a note to express his displeasure with her weight. "Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain," wrote the viewer. "I leave you this note hoping that you'll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle."

I think it's fair to say that Ms. Livingston didn't find the viewer's "concern" all that heartwarming. Heck, it may have even hurt her feelings. But, instead of hiding her pain, she elected to take a different approach and responded to the comments on the air. Her response took the form of an articulate call to arms in which she accused the viewer of being a bully.

I think the story is inspiring for a number of reasons but it also highlights a few different current issues in employment law.

First, there's the continuing discussion surrounding bullies in the workplace or, as I like to call them, "jerks at work." Legislation has been introduced in numerous states over the past five or so years that would, in short, make it unlawful to be a jerk at work. I think there are obvious problems with trying to legislate "jerkiness" but I also recognize the high costs that jerks can have on workforce morale, creativity, and overall productivity. This post at Above the Law provides a recent summary of the various legislative efforts.

Second, there's the as-yet-unresolved question of whether obesity is a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Historically, courts have been unwilling to include obesity as a protected disability. With this precedent in mind, some employers have refused to hire applicants who are obese and charge higher health-care premiums for overweight employees. But the EEOC has said that the ADA does protect individuals who are morbidly obese. A case filed last year by the EEOC asserting that "severe" obesity was a protected disability under the ADA, recently resulted in a $55,000 settlement for the employee. And a recent decision by the Montana Supreme Court seems to further support that the trend has shifted towards protecting obesity as a disability.

Read more Labor and Employment Law insights from Margaret (Molly) DiBianca in the Delaware Employment Law Blog.  

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