Facing up to the reality of disfigurement

Last month the national press picked up on the case of Edward Johnson, who believed that he was being discriminated against in the job market because of his facial disfigurement. Sensationalist headlines, including ‘Man told he’s too ugly to work’ clearly illustrated that many people have a lack of understanding of, and negative attitudes towards, facial disfigurement.


Earlier this year, Changing Faces launched its Face Equality campaign. An implicit attitude test among the general public showed that 90% of people found it hard to associate positive attributes with facial disfigurement. This demonstrated how deeply embedded many of the assumptions that are made about disfigurement really are.

Like the movement for race equality, this is a long-term campaign. There are no quick fixes when you are looking to raise awareness, create positive attitudes and eradicate discrimination and prejudice.

There are many causes of disfigurement: congenital conditions including cleft lip and palette, birthmarks and neurofibromatosis (the condition that Edwards has) acquired disfigurements such as burns or scarring skin conditions illness cancer and facial paralysis.

Disfigurement can happen to anyone, from any race or background, at any time throughout their life. With one in 111 people in the UK having some form of facial disfigurement, it’s important that both employers and employees learn how to respond and create inclusive workplaces.

So what is the workplace experience like for a person with a disfigurement?

Many report that people are unsure and awkward when meeting them for the first time and often have low expectations of their capacity or skills. This can lead to inadvertent discrimination in job interviews and a failure to progress in their careers. They are often discounted from ‘public facing’ roles.

This unconscious and unwitting negative attitude that the majority of us have can lead to unintentional ‘facial discrimination’ which in turn can result in disadvantage, injustice and exclusion from opportunities.

Employers have a responsibility both to their staff and their customers. To attract and retain the best person for the job, employers need to ensure that they apply a fair and inclusive policy across the board and that they create a diverse environment that recognises the talents and skills of the varied individuals that make up its workforce. And HR professionals have a vital role to play in ensuring that their company provides genuine equal opportunities and support to ensure that their staff are confident dealing with all customers.


Sometimes the equality message is dismissed as political correctness. In our Face Equality campaign we are pushing the business case. We want employers to recognise that committing to the campaign is not just about doing the right thing – it also makes sense on a financial and practical level.

About 540,000 people in the UK have some sort of facial disfigurement. With their families, they represent potential spending power of more than £500m. The service that a person receives from a particular company, be it good or bad, is likely to be passed on by word of mouth to friends and family. This can have either a positive or negative impact on your employer brand.

Barclays was the first company to sign up to the campaign. It has pledged to: become aware of the cause and effects of disfiguring conditions to commit to positive thinking about people with disfigurements and to embed new behaviours when meeting someone with a disfigurement. We are also in discussion with a number of other organisations, both in the public and private sector, including Marks & Spencer, KPMG and Southend NHS Trust.

Many organisations are developing policies and procedures, including specific reference to facial disfigurement in line managers’ guides on interviewing people, and guidance on customer service. And we are pleased with the progress that we have achieved so far. But as the case of Edward Johnson demonstrates, there is still a long way to go. We hope that HR professionals will want find out more and make 2009 the year of Face Equality.

Henrietta Spalding, head of professional development, Changing Faces

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