@Work Advice: How an overweight worker can deal with a workplace bully

July 26, 2012

Reader: I am a big guy. I will not lie — I like food, and I am responsible for the consequences. There are other factors, too: genetics, medications I take and activity-limiting health issues. Yet I have taken only one sick day in 20 years at my company. I go to medical appointments off the clock. My health has never affected my performance, and I have never asked for special accommodations. I have piles of commendations and awards to prove that I do my job very well.

I am working with a doctor, physical therapist and nutritionist, and have a diet and exercise plan. I have lost 45 pounds. My problem is a fitness nut co-worker (same managerial level) who has begun posting signs around the office about how ugly fat people are and how fit people are “more useful” than overweight people, etc. He makes nasty comments about my weight in front of my people and uses any reason to call me incompetent.

My employer is notorious for finding health-related reasons to let older workers go, so going to human resources doesn’t make sense.

I am usually laid-back, but I have had it. Nothing helps, from assurances that I am working on it to telling him to back off. How can I get Jack LaLanne Jr. to mind his own business?


Karla Miller (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Karla: First, you deserve a high-five for taking charge of yourself. But even if you sat at your desk horking down Boston cream doughnuts, you wouldn’t deserve Slim Goodbody’s catty vendetta. Stop striving to earn his worthless approval by “assuring” him that you’re working on your weight. The only weight-related issues here are his.

If your weight is caused by a disability, or if you live in a jurisdiction (such as the District, San Francisco or the state of Michigan) that bans discrimination on the basis of personal appearance, it could be illegal for your company to allow co-workers to harass you because of your weight. Furthermore, Skinny Vinny’s non-work-related broadsides might violate office policy. Plus, he’s sowing discord. Those are issues HR should care about.

But you’ve said you don’t want to go to HR. And it might be more effective, and more satisfying, to block this cocky colleague yourself. First, however, you have to reject his “fit vs. fat” battleground and address this as a professional issue: He is undermining a fellow manager.

Next time Skeletor picks a bone with you, say: “Look, if you have a legitimate issue with my performance, let’s talk about it with my manager. Otherwise, stop taking swipes at me in front of my people. It’s disrespectful and unprofessional.” I doubt he’ll be willing to spout his snark in front of a higher-up.

Standing up to Jack LaLame will empower you and others. It’s time to throw your professional weight around.

Thanks to Sharon Snyder of Ober|Kaler for legal insights.

Karla L. Miller is ready to hear your work dramas and traumas. Send your questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com. You also can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork, or Facebook, www.facebook.com/KarlaLMillerAtWork.

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