Face to face with hidden discrimination

One in a hundred people of working age in Britain has a facial or body disfigurement. Against the preferences of many employers, visibly different people are working out front, no longer prepared to stay out of sight.

Angela Neustatter
23 June 2014

When was the last time you saw a film, a play or a show featuring someone in a workplace with a conspicuously disfigured face? Chances are, whether we are talking checkout counter or executive suite, the answer is so rarely, that it doesn’t count as a view of our world as it is.

This is curious, considering that one in a hundred people of working age in Britain, has a facial and/or body disfigurement? And most of these people will want and need to work, just like the rest of us. Yet this is where stereotyping and prejudice make nonsense of equal opportunities and anti-discrimination legislation. Recent research shows that employers all too often refuse to take on people with facial disfigurement fearing it will damage custom and relationships with clients, or because they do not understand that it is not contagious, or a sign of further disability or mental frailty.

Other employers who do offer work often reinforce feelings the disfigured may have of being unacceptable by keeping them out of sight.

Here are some of the stories.

Julie: “I was told I was sitting at the wrong desk and needed to move so visitors could not see my face when they were at reception.”

Bob: “A careers advisor told me with a face like mine I could never be a teacher, I was mortified.”

Megan: “I was asked to set up and organise meetings but not attend them as my managers thought my face would be more likely to upset older people, and that might cost them money.”

To the charity Changing Faces, which campaigns on behalf of the visibly different, it is vital that this lack of equal opportunities, which can profoundly affect the livelihood and lifestyle of a disfigured person, be challenged and changed. Their research reveals that nine out of ten people unwittingly judge those with disfigurements less attractive, less likely to succeed and less easy to work with than others.

Last  month, Changing Faces launched its This Is What Success Looks Like initiative to highlight the employers who have taken on those with facial disfigurement, and enabled them to progress through careers as anyone else might.

Loss of confidence

Getting work and going for interviews is tough for most of us. But fearing you will be harshly judged and discriminated against no matter how well qualified and hard working you are is at best dispiriting. At worst it can lead to serious mental health problems. One-third of those with disfigurements do not feel confident applying for jobs they are qualified to do. 

That fact led Anna Stone and Toby Wright at the University of East London School of Psychology to research the potential psychological impact of living with visible difference. Last year (2013) they published a report, When Your Face Doesn’t fit: Employment Discrimination Against People With Facial Disfigurement, citing evidence of marked prejudice and lack of equal opportunity.

The study was designed to investigate recruitment discrimination where there was no valid justification. Therefore, jobs were selected for which facial appearance and mobility were irrelevant considerations. This way any observed discrimination was due to employers’ attitudes. Stone and Wright found marked discrimination against people with facial disfigurement in jobs requiring high levels of customer contact.

And how far does the way disfigured people on screen (often actors made up to look grotesque) are so often presented as unpleasant and anti-social affect public attitudes to the social and practical abilities of people who are disfigured by skin afflictions or accidents? Think Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street, Rocky in Mask or Anna Holm, the character in the 1941 film A Woman’s Face.

In one study on the effect of facial appearance on recruitment decisions, Sarah Stevenage of the University of Southampton, with others, found that  “a person with a port-wine stain was judged less able than a non-disfigured person in a range of ways, including social confidence and skills and work-relevant competencies.”

What success can look like

Changing Faces has offered advice, practical and psychological support and gathered research for two decades now. In 2003, it launched a Face Equality initiative at the House of Lords, aiming to raise awareness. Today’s tough economic climate, and tough competition for jobs makes the task even more important, says its founder and CEO James Partridge. As an 18-year-old he was severely burned in a car fire that changed his face, and his life, forever. He now views a situation where, an online survey has revealed, one-third of people with disfigurements do not feel confident applying for jobs they are well qualified to do.

Partridge wants people with disfigurements to share their stories of what success at work can look like.

Phil Gorf, 47, from Newport near Milton Keynes, was born with a birthmark across three-quarters of his face. As a younger man starting out in employment, he learned what discrimination because of disfigurement felt like. Today he works for DHL.


“Before I joined DHL, I had an interview with a water company and the man interviewing me said ‘I’ve noticed your face, is that anything that can get in the water?’ I explained that it was just a birthmark. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job. I was so young I didn’t understand that I was being discriminated against and so I just accepted it.

“Then I had an interview at a company that fitted satellite dishes and TV aerials, where the man said: ‘I can’t employ you. I couldn’t send you out to a customer with a face like that’. I found that experience to be really upsetting.”

Eventually he joined DHL, which was supportive but Phil’s lack of confidence persisted. He says: “After working for DHL for a couple of years, I was in the position of Operations Manager, looking after a small technical workshop where I had a team of engineers repairing photo copiers and cash machines. One day my boss summoned me to the office and said that he was changing my role to include account management for seven of our contracts. I remember being really surprised and saying to him ‘are you sure you want to send me out to customer meetings with my birthmark?’ His reply was the turning point in my career: ‘Well at least they are going to remember you!’”

Now Phil facilitates two to three workshops a week in front of all levels of DHL personnel as well as customers. His ability to engage with people is considered one of his best assets.

He explains: “My experience of discrimination has driven me to work hard so that people don’t have an excuse or reason why I shouldn’t be doing something.” He talks at workshops about his experiences and his coping strategies.


Making differences invisible

Getting a job is not the end of the story for someone with facial disfigurement. One study of successful employment tribunal actions brought against employers reported that discrimination against people with disfigurement was particularly high in the retail and service industries, in which there are typically high levels of customer contact.

Even though the Equality Act 2010 ostensibly provides equal rights for people with severe disfigurements, many employers and employees remain unaware of what this means in practice.

 “There is a genuine problem,” says James Partridge. “With so few visible role models in the public eye, it is easy to understand why some employers fall into the trap of making assumptions about the capacity and skills of people with disfigurements that are based on their looks.”

The media and entertainment industries ignore the Disability Discrimination Act (2004), and equality legislation, by making visible differences invisible. More flagrantly in breach of the legislation is the media’s use of negative words and imagery. For example, those with disfigurement are often described with words and phrases such as “horrifically disfigured”, “grotesquely scarred”, “ugly birthmark” and “misshapen head” to name just a few.

Coverage can also be medicalised – people with disfigurements are often the subject of documentaries that present them as quirks of nature, abnormal or in need of surgery. Advertisements for cosmetic surgery and the beauty industry portray scars, blemishes and other forms of disfigurement as unsightly and to be removed.

Changing Faces is working with more than 50 private and public companies who support the What Success Looks Like campaign. They are offered workshops on implicit bias and tailored advice and events that reinforce the message that the Equality Act is there to protect people with severe disfigurement as well as physical disability from discrimination.

The workplace poses particular challenges for the visibly different, but feelings about appearance begin earlier in life. Professor Nichola Rumsey of the University of West of England Centre for Appearance Research, reports that it is not uncommon for parents to face comments and questions from adults and children alike. They are liable to experience bullying at school and to find it harder than other children as teenagers, often blaming every difficulty on their appearance. This has intensified in recent years with the ever-increasing emphasis on how we look. In a TED lecture she delivered last year, Rumsey points out that 80 per cent of adults are unhappy with their appearance, even when they do not have visible difference. Small wonder then that those who do look different fear mockery and abuse on social media. She works closely with Changing Faces and believes, absolutely, that perceptions need urgently be changed  - “with all of us playing our part.”

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