While anti-fattist campaigners condemned the supposed policy, staff members said they were bewildered by the managing director's words.
A couple of well-built waitresses at Granada's Woolley Edge service station in West Yorkshire, standing behind trays of sticky Danish pastries, scones and jam and salads heavy with mayonnaise, said they had not encountered any sizeism and had never been aware of any company policy on the issue.
The furore broke out when Gordon Towell, managing director of a division of the Granada entertainment and leisure group, told a radio phone-in earlier this week that "we do not employ very fat people" because "they do take more time off work and they tend to have a more slovenly, slothful attitude".
His comments unleashed a furious reaction yesterday from those trying to combat discrimination against overweight people, both in the workplace and across a society obsessed with being thin while simultaneously becoming fatter.
Mr Towell backpedalled furiously, saying the comments, made on a Radio 5 Live talk show, were "a joke". He attributed them to his "quirky sense of humour" and added it was "a complete non-issue how heavy people are". Unfortunately, the views expressed are so familiar to many that they did not sound like a joke at all.
Andrew Hill, a psychologist at Leeds Medical School, said the remarks were typical of the most commonly held prejudices against fat people. "There is no evidence whatsoever to support these views," Mr Hill said. "There is a wide social stigmatisation of fat people, held from childhood, that has nothing to do with job performance. When you have a culture that prizes thinness you find any deviation from that is discriminated against." The issue is likely to become an increasing concern in the workforce. In 1980, 7 per cent of the British population was clinically obese. Last year, the figure was up to 18 per cent and rising, the increase widely attributed to a more sedentary lifestyle and an abundance of unhealthy food.
Helen Jackson, an employment barrister and founder of the Sizeism Campaign, an anti-discrimination group, called yesterday for a public boycott of any organisation that discriminates against fat people.
"Someone in a personnel department told me once being fat was considered the next worst thing to having a criminal record," she said. "Only with legislation to protect fat people from discrimination, as there is for women and ethnic minorities, can we start to change society's views."
The final grounds for discrimination - that fat people are more likely to become ill - was challenged by Dr John Wilding, an obesity specialist at Aintree hospital, Liverpool.
Dr Wilding said heavy drinkers and smokers were as likely to suffer from sickness as the overweight and the idea that very fat people were to blame for their condition was "a fallacy".
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