What are visible differences and how can workplaces be appearance-inclusive? 

By Hind Dihan 

Since working at Skating Panda, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of workplace culture and how employers can improve employee morale and motivation by focusing on their culture. Through our Unlock series, I’ve discovered startling statistics surrounding bereavement and menopause in the workplace and have seen the difference our training has made for companies. 

However, my education continues. On 20th September, I attended a live talk on LinkedIn discussing the workplace bias faced by people with visible differences and how employers can support their workers.  

Before last week, I didn’t know what visible difference meant. According to research and guidance conducted by Hannah Saunders at Queen Mary University of London, a visible difference is “any condition, injury or side-effect of medical treatment which alters or affects someone’s appearance [and] is used as an alternative to the word ‘disfigurement’ which some people with a visible difference prefer not to use.”  

In the talk, Laura Mathias, an alopecia awareness campaigner, and Phyillida Swift, CEO of Face Equality International, covered many topics, outlining various ways people with a visible difference can be and are discriminated against in work. These include: 

  • AI algorithmic prejudices affect people living with a visible difference at work differently. Nowadays, different industries are increasingly using more recruitment tools utilising AI technology, which scores people based on certain indicators. Evidence shows a massive risk of software scoring an applicant lower if they have a facial difference. Additionally, some recruitment software requires a visual ID to verify one’s application, except sometimes the technology will not recognise a candidate if they have a facial difference. 
  • Swift cited some statistics from the Changing Faces 2017 report, Disfigurement in the UK, about how those with visible differences face discrimination when applying for a job and in their employment. The report detailed that 79.5% of people avoided applying for a job because of potential reactions they might face at work, and 62.9% have had their appearance mentioned by colleagues.  
  • There are different ways to ensure recruitment processes are more inclusive and tackle unconscious biases, like having representative panels or having some interview stages be phone interviews.  

What brought me hope, however, was the excellent advice and tips on how workplaces can put their best foot forward and be more appearance-inclusive, even if they don’t have employees with a visible difference. 

  1. Talk about the topic more and open a dialogue with employees so people are greater informed. After all, knowledge is power. 
  2. Understand the phrase visible difference and why people with a visible difference would prefer that term over another and use it more so others learn it through exposure.
  3. Take your learning journey one step forward by reading more about the subject by experts. This can be as easy as following Mathias or Swift on LinkedIn and curating your LinkedIn feed to not only learn more about people with visible differences but also see it more. 
  4. Don’t be afraid of the awkwardness you might feel. Whenever we’re learning something new, we can often feel ashamed for not knowing the information earlier and give up on learning more. Change doesn’t happen unless we actively step outside our comfort zones and learn more. 
  5. Check in with your biases, and remember we’re all on a journey to be more empathetic and compassionate people.