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Facial disfigurement is too disturbing, or why I won’t hire you

Friday, May 3, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

25th Film Indepdendent Spirit Awards - ArrivalsRoger Ebert was a standout when it comes to facial disfigurement. We knew him before it happened. We applauded his bravery and courage in re-emerging publicly after disfiguring cancer surgery. Yet we also stared in disbelief when we saw him. His disfigurement was such that it gave the sense he was always smiling. That probably helped us to accept his new look. It is not, however, the case when we meet people who have facial disfigurements for the first time. We stare. We look away, knowing it is not polite to stare, and then we look again. It’s hard to not look. Staring is so common there are multiple web pages to give adults with facial disfigurements ideas for coping with it.

And while it makes sense to assume it’s tough for people with facial disfigurements to be hired, English researchers wanted to compare one disability to another. They chose to compare people with facial disfigurement to a second group of wheelchair users (“a functional disability with little aesthetic impact”). There is a “substantial degree of discrimination against wheelchair users in recruitment” according to the author’s review of the literature. There is, however, no prior research on discrimination against those with facial disfigurements although we do know employers tend to favor attractive applicants and there are certainly ample anecdotal accounts of discrimination experienced by those with facial disfigurements.

The researchers hypothesized that discrimination against applicants with facial disfigurements would be especially high in jobs with high levels of customer service. They also hypothesized that if costs for accommodation were a concern for the employer, this would harm chances of hiring more severely for those in wheelchairs. Armed with their hypotheses, the researchers went to work. They identified specific jobs that would be high in customer service demands (e.g., administrator/receptionist and salesperson); or low in customer service demands (e.g., information technology support analyst and personal assistant). And they specifically selected jobs “for which facial appearance and mobility are both irrelevant considerations” and ensured their application materials were strong so that any “observed discrimination would depend on the attitudes of the employer”.

Each applicant was described as being currently employed in the same sort of position they were applying for and as seeking career advancement. All applicants were described as being under 30 years old. Applicants identified themselves as wheelchair users or as having a facial disfigurement via the following notes on their cover letters:

I was born with a rare, non-contagious, congenital disorder that has caused distortion of my facial features.” In addition to the sentence on the cover letter, the applicant with facial disfigurement also had a note at the top of the CV: “Please note: I was born with a rare congenital disease which has caused the bones in my jaw and face to fuse and to stop growing in early infancy. The condition has left me with a highly-distinctive, noticeably different face. I have never let my condition restrict my life and overcoming people’s reaction to my distinctive face has led me to develop my confidence and construct highly effective communication skills that have helped me grow as an individual.

In the wheelchair condition, a note at the top of the CV said “wheelchair user” and the cover letter said “Please note I am a wheelchair user and so will require access ramps if I am called to interview”.

The employer sample was a group of 144 companies actively recruiting for one of the following vacancies: administrator/receptionist, salesperson, IT support analyst, or personal assistant. There were 36 companies for each type of position. On average, company size was 153 persons (with a range from 2 to 2000 employees). Of the positions advertised, the level of customer contact would be highest for sales, then administrator/receptionist, then personal assistants and finally the IT support positions.

Each employer received three (different) applications from the experimenters: one had no information as to disability, one identified as a wheelchair user and the third as having facial disfigurement. Equal numbers of male and female applicants were used, with the exception of the personal assistant applications which were all from females. (The researchers believed male applicants for those positions would be suspect.)

The researchers compared the jobs with low customer contact (the IT support analyst and the personal assistant) to those with high customer service (the sales and administrator/receptionist positions) to examine differences in response patterns to the three job applicants (one with no disability, one using a wheelchair and one with facial disfigurement). And here is what they found:

Responses were overall more positive for the applicant with no disability.

The highest amount of discrimination was seen in the administrator/receptionist position, then sales, then in the personal assistant position, and absent in the IT support analyst position. (This supported the hypothesis that the higher customer contact positions would have the most discriminatory practices and lower customer contact positions would have less discrimination in hiring.)

There were different patterns though for the applicants with facial disfigurement and the applicants using wheelchairs.

When customer contact was low, there was no real difference in the response rate between control applicants (e.g., without disability) and applicants with facial disfigurement.

However, customer contact being high or low made no difference for wheelchair users. The non-disabled applicant was always favored over the applicant in a wheelchair.

The researchers also compared level of discrimination to more familiar sorts of discrimination. They describe the discrimination those with facial disfigurement faced (58% according to the authors) in high customer service jobs as being comparable to the upper end of the range reported for race discrimination  and age discrimination.

Almost 45% of the wheelchair users did not get a call back for interview regardless of whether the position was high customer service or low customer service. The good news here is that the employers did not appear particularly concerned about customer reactions to an employee in a wheelchair (since there was no difference between the high customer service and low customer service positions). The authors believe the reason for discrimination against wheelchair users is related to concerns about the costs of accommodations among London employers. (They believe this since follow-up calls to the employers showed only 23% were aware of government programs for grants and advice when one hires a recruit with disabilities. Further, only 13% of those workplaces were wheelchair accessible! For those that haven’t done much international traveling, the US laws — Americans with Disabilities Act–mandating public accessibility for the mobility impaired is a model most countries are very late to embrace.)

Overall, the authors believe that having a facial disfigurement will make your employment prospects akin to those with mobility impairments resulting in the use of a wheelchair. They conclude the article as follows:

“It appears from these results that there is recruitment discrimination against people with facial disfigurements in jobs involving a larger degree of customer contact, suggesting that concerns about aesthetics or potential stigma by association may be important. Discrimination against wheelchair users showed wide variability among the job types but no consistent pattern.”

Here in the United States, we would expect a slightly different pattern given the accessibility of workplaces and the commonness of ramps and sidewalk cuts thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, we cannot know that for sure. In terms of litigation advocacy, you want to ensure the following:

If your client has a facial disfigurement, you want to have them explain to the jury what the disfigurement stems from and how long they have dealt with the realities of facial disfiguration. Even if it is not relevant to your case and even if it isn’t fair–you need to help jurors get past the issue. If you don’t talk about it up front, jurors will wonder, hypothesize and stare. If you do discuss it, they may still stare–but they won’t be able to form their own hypotheses given a straight-forward explanation. On top of that, a straight-forward explanation will tend to result in jurors liking your client more.

Use universal values to help jurors see your client as like them. We use faces to gather a lot of information as to whether someone is kind, honest, trustworthy, and more. Facial disfigurations make that more difficult for us. Give jurors evidence that your client is worthy of their empathy and fair consideration of the facts.

Jurors will watch how you interact with a client who is impaired. Are you comfortable talking with them about it? Do you interact, discuss, and joke with them in a way that’s like anyone else? They will take your relationship with the impaired person as a reflection of what it would be like to have a natural relationship with that individual. It normalizes them.

“Differentness” in many guises makes others feel uncomfortable and awkward. Your goal when you have a client with a difference that cannot be concealed is to show your own comfort with the client and thereby help the jurors feel comfortable as well.

Stone, A., & Wright, T. (2013). When your face doesn’t fit: employment discrimination against people with facial disfigurements Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43 (3), 515-526 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2013.01032.x

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