Drawing the short straw – height discrimination in the workplace

When we talk about discrimination, most people think of those with protected characteristics such as disability, race or sex being treated less favourably. Should we be considering people being treated less favourably because of their height?

What is heightism?

The general premise of heightism is the act of forming beliefs subconsciously about someone’s mental and physical qualities because of their height. Heightism in the workplace is tricky to identify and is one of the most unknown biases.

Research studies have found that height in the workplace can correlate with higher income and influence promotion opportunities. It was revealed that taller men and women were perceived as more ‘leader like’ and therefore were seen as more intelligent and healthier than their shorter colleagues. Shorter colleagues may not be taken as seriously and can be the ‘butt of the joke’. It was further found that recruiters favour taller candidates over shorter ones seeing them as more capable and consequently employable. The research also revealed that gender and height can closely interlink, for example tall men were more likely to attain a managerial position than a tall or short woman.

While research suggests taller employees have an advantage over shorter employees in terms of status and leadership, it is not completely clear why this is. Could it be a confidence issue instead of a height issue?

For example, those who are shorter may feel the need to be louder and bolder with their views to be noticed more at work or in meetings. Shorter employees may also have to try harder to be listened to and seen at networking or work events where groups of people are standing up and talking. This will consequently impact their confidence at work.

It is important not to forget those employees who are taller than average. Men and women who are taller than average may have the opposite confidence problem and find they are too noticeable at work and in meetings. These employees may make considerable effort to hide to become invisible, in order to mitigate against the attention which comes with their height. Studies show this is particularly the case with females who are considered to be ‘too tall’ and that their height can be seen as aggressive dominance in some cases. The confidence of these employees will almost definitely be affected and in turn, any actions by these employees to blend into the background could have negative consequences for their career progression and general wellbeing at work.

Links to other protected characteristics

As well as linking with gender, it is also worth considering age and how that may play a part in heightism. Assumptions may be made about shorter than average employees being inexperienced because they present a younger appearance. This again could affect confidence if these employees feel they are not taken seriously because of their height.

Those who are older but shorter than average may be assumed to be towards the end of their careers or simply overlooked and seen as not capable compared to their taller colleagues. Taller than average employees may be assumed to be older or more experienced, which in turn could create imposter syndrome type feelings.

Another consideration here is whether height could be a disability and so employees would be protected from discrimination if they possess that protected characteristic. There will be some individuals, such as those that have dwarfism who will be classed as legally disabled and protected under the Equality Act 2010. However, for those employees who are shorter than average or taller than average, they may have more difficulty proving they meet the legal definition of disability. Employers should be mindful of this though, especially if an employee requires adjustments to be made to their working environment in order to work comfortably and safely.

Making adjustments in the workplace for those with shorter or taller height has featured in employment litigation previously. In the case of Sargeaunt-Thomson v National Air Traffic Services [2005], a graduate had a job offer withdrawn because he was considered too tall to fit his legs under the control room desks. The graduate was 6ft 10in (roughly 2.1 metres tall) and had passed his interview and relevant tests for a trainee position with the National Air Traffic Services (NATS). He had come out on top of thousands of other applicants. NATS said it was too dangerous for him to put his legs under the desks but the graduate suggested alternatives such as using a kneeling seat or getting the desks adjusted so he could comfortably sit at them. NATS said these options were not practical and withdraw the job offer because of the graduate’s height.

As height is not a protected characteristic, the graduate brought an employment tribunal claim against NATS for sex discrimination on the basis only a man could only be 6ft 10 inches tall. NATS won the case and it was held that NATS could withdraw the offer due to legitimate safety reasons. It is worth noting in this case that no other alternative arrangements were deemed practical. Employers should tread carefully and consider all potential adjustments and options before they treat someone detrimentally because of their height.

Top tips for employers

Recognising that height discrimination can be a real thing happening with the workplace is a first great step for employers to ensure everyone is treated fairly and with respect. Employers should consider the language and phrases used to motivate their workforces. Height is used inadvertently a lot in language, mostly tallness being promoted as good and shortness being seen as negative.

The increase in remote working since the pandemic may have actually helped decrease height bias in the workplace as it is difficult to ascertain someone’s height over a video call. Employers could consider keeping the first interview in their recruitment process a remote one to reduce any inadvertent height bias shadowing first impressions when recruiting.

Employers could also consider whether it is worth tracking height alongside gender, age and race. By tracking height, employers could identify any patterns between height and pay and also analyse how height interlinks with age, gender and race in its organisation. While not a mandatory obligated statistic to collect, it could make the employer more attractive especially in the current candidate job market.

It is worth stating that the purpose of this article is not to suggest that height discrimination is more important than other types of workplace discrimination such as disability or race discrimination. However, given how unrecognised height discrimination is currently in the workplace, it is important that employers are alive and aware of the potential implications that the subconscious bias of heightism can have and to put measures in place to counter it accordingly.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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