HR · 17 January 2019

Can employers tell their employees to lose weight?

Placing a requirement on staff to lose weight may only be advisable in specific circumstances

Employers need to evaluate if an individual’s weight impacts their ability to carry out day to day tasks associated with their job, writes Kate Palmer, associate director of advice at Peninsula.

A recent news story has revealed that cabin crew members working for Pakistan International Airlines were told they needed to lose weight or face repercussions from their employer. This story raises the question of whether an employer can place a requirement on staff to maintain a certain weight or level of physical fitness.

Weight can be a sensitive issue in the workplace and employers should be careful when approaching this topic due to the risk of discrimination.

Although not specifically a protected characteristic in itself, a 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice, in the case of Kaltoft v Municipality of Billund, found that obesity could qualify as a disability where it limits a person’s full and effective participation in professional life. This means that an individual recognised as obese would be protected under the Equality Act from any mistreatment at work.

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An employee may be able to claim that a specific disability such as diabetes or hypothyroidism accounts for their weight. Therefore, it would be wise to steer clear of dismissing, disciplining or treating an employee any less favourably on account of their weight to reduce the chance of discrimination claims.

Given the risks, associated employers should really consider if an employee is required to be a certain weight to carry out their role effectively. If not, and it is purely for personal or aesthetic reasons, then it is likely to be considered inappropriate to ask staff to lose weight on this basis.

With this being said, there are of course exceptions and employers may require staff to maintain a certain level of fitness if they can justify that it is intrinsic to the job role. To assess this, employers need to evaluate if an individual’s weight impacts their ability to carry out day to day tasks associated with their job.

As an example, police officers are generally required to pass personal fitness tests as standard to prove they are able to meet the practicalities of the role. However, this is unlikely to be the case with regards to the cabin crew members, as it would be difficult to argue that their duties of tending to passengers during plane journeys will be adversely affected by their level of fitness.

Less intrusive approach

As an alternative, employers who are concerned about staff obesity levels and personal fitness should consider introducing less intrusive measures that promote a healthy lifestyle, such as providing free fruit or offering subsidised exercise classes. These initiatives are becoming increasingly common in the modern workplace with employers recognising this as an inexpensive and effective way of maintaining good health amongst their workforce. 

Ultimately, placing a requirement on staff to lose weight will not be advisable aside from in specific circumstances. Therefore, employers must seriously consider whether an individual’s weight significantly impacts their ability to perform their work duties before proceeding with any action.

Kate Palmer is associate director of advice at Peninsula

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Kate Palmer CIPD is the head of advisory at law firm Peninsula and is a member of its senior leadership team. She joined in 2009 having held a senior HR manager's role in another large company. With a specialist background in facilities management in the NHS, Kate offers a wealth of employment law experience. She's an expert negotiator - one notable case was with the NHS's trade unions over terms and conditions in the Agenda for Change pay system.

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