We answer some of the questions you may have as you return to work, from talking to colleagues to seeking support from your employer.
No one should face discrimination or abuse in the workplace. If you have a visible difference, you may be legally protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.
On this page we explain when you might be protected under the law, explore what might count as discrimination and talk you through what you can do if you think you are being discriminated against.
The information on this page was put together by researchers from Queen Mary University of London. At Changing Faces we usually use the term “visible difference”. However, this page refers to disfigurement, severe disfigurement, impairment and disability, as these are terms used in the law. They may apply to you in a legal sense even if you don’t consider yourself to be disabled.
Important: This page summarises some common questions relating to disfigurement equality at work in England and Wales as of October 2023. It relates to the work context only, not to the provision of goods or services or to other contexts. It gives a general overview but is not comprehensive and is for guidance purposes only. You should always seek legal advice on your particular circumstances.
The law doesn’t use the language of “visible difference”. But you may have the right not to be discriminated against as a disabled person if you have an impairment (such as a condition or injury) which:
- Has a substantial adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities; or
- Consists of a severe disfigurement. This applies even if your disfigurement has no impact on what activities you can do or on your mental health.
In either case, the impairment must have lasted or be likely to last for at least 12 months (or for the rest of your life). Conditions which come and go may be included.
The rest of this guidance will focus on the second of these options: the “severe disfigurement” part of the law. But for further information about point 1, please have a look at this Citizens Advice page.
Different definitions of disability may apply in other contexts – for example, when applying for benefits.
“Disfigurement” could include various conditions or injuries which affect your appearance. This might include scarring, birthmarks, diseases of the skin, limb or postural differences (including restricted bodily development) and other types of conditions. Whether someone has a disfigurement is decided on a case-by-case basis. What is important is not whether you’ve got a particular condition but how that condition appears in your case.
Unremoved tattoos and piercings for non-medical purposes are not considered to be disfigurements.
Whether a particular disfigurement is severe involves weighing up several factors, including:
|Things to take into account
|Sample questions to consider
|Nature of the disfigurement
|What does my condition look like? How unusual is it?
|Prominence of the disfigurement
|How much does my condition stand out? How visible is it? Is it visible from a distance as well as close up? Can it be seen through clothing? Does it affect my facial expressions or create unusual asymmetry (where the two sides of the face or body do not match)? Do other people point out my condition?
|Size of disfigurement
|How big is it?
|Location of disfigurement on body
|Is it somewhere on my body which is more likely to be seen, such as my face/neck/hands?
|Impact on you
|How does it affect me emotionally? Do I try to hide it? Has it affected my life choices or lifestyle? Does it impact my relationships? (Note that you are not required to show the effect a severe disfigurement has on your day-to-day activities, but it could help with assessing severity.)
None of these factors are likely to be decisive on their own, and some factors might carry more weight in some cases. You should still seek legal advice even if one or more of these factors are not satisfied in your case.
Not necessarily. The Equality Act 2010 applies to various categories of work situation including:
- Employees (whether or not their contract is in writing)
- Job applicants
- Former employees
- Workers under a contract personally to do work
- Some contract/agency workers
- A number of other specific categories. Ask your legal advisor for more information.
However, not everyone will be covered. For example, depending on the nature of the working relationship, some self-employed people may not be protected at work by the Equality Act 2010. Your legal adviser will be able to help you understand how this applies to your work situation.
There are various rights under the Equality Act 2010, including (in summary form only):
- You have the right not to be treated less favourably because of a severe disfigurement (known as “direct discrimination”).
- You have the right not to be treated unfavourably without justification for a reason arising from severe disfigurement. This is known as “discrimination arising from a disability”.
- You have the right not to be disadvantaged by a policy or practice which the employer applies to everyone but which puts a person with a disfigurement (and other people with disfigurements) at a particular disadvantage compared to people without disfigurements and which cannot be justified by the employer. This is known as “indirect discrimination”.
- Where certain aspects of work put someone with a severe disfigurement at a substantial disadvantage compared with other people, they may have the right to have reasonable adjustments made to avoid that disadvantage. These aspects include policies and practices of the employer and certain features of its premises. Examples of adjustments made may include changes to certain job duties, working patterns or premises. This right applies where the employer knows (or reasonably ought to know) that the person has a qualifying severe disfigurement (disability) and is being placed at this substantial disadvantage.
- You have the right not to be harassed because of, or in connection with, a severe disfigurement. Harassment is where unwanted behaviour is either meant to, or has the effect of, violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Where the effect, rather than the purpose, of the behaviour is relied on, it must be decided whether it was reasonable for the behaviour to have that effect on you.
- You have the right not to be victimised. Victimisation is being subjected to a disadvantage because you do (or are suspected of doing or being about to do) certain things, such as complaining about discrimination or helping someone else who has been discriminated against.
You may also have the right not to be discriminated against:
- If you are discriminated against by others who perceive that you have a severe disfigurement, even if legally you do not. We talk about this more below.
- If you are subjected to discrimination because of the severe disfigurement of someone you are associated with – for example, a family member such as a child.
Your legal adviser will be able to explain the rights relevant to your particular situation in detail. If you think you may be being discriminated against, seek legal advice straight away, as there are strict time limits for claims of discrimination. If you would like to read more about types of discrimination in general terms, visit the Citizens Advice website. Citizens Advice also have information about situations in which an employer may be able to justify potentially discriminatory actions.
Someone is moved away from a front-of-house role to a lower-paid, back-office job by their employer because of severe disfigurement. A real or imagined person without a severe disfigurement would have been treated differently.
A person with a disfigurement is given an absence warning for taking time off to attend medical appointments related to the disfigurement. As a result of the warning, the person is prevented from applying for promotion. This could be discrimination unless the employer can justify it.
An organic food retailer bans all its staff from wearing make-up at work to promote its “back to nature” brand image. This is very uncomfortable for a staff member with a severe skin disfigurement and is more likely to disadvantage people with the disfigurement than others. This is likely to be discrimination unless the employer can justify this policy.
Someone with a facial disfigurement finds it stressful having their photograph taken and displayed but their employer requires everyone to have a photo on their security pass, website and email header. In some circumstances, the employer might need to make an adjustment to allow this person to bring a recent photo from home instead, or to waive the need for an email or website photo.
Someone with a severe disfigurement is called offensive names related to their disfigurement by colleagues.
Someone with a severe disfigurement is demoted because they stood up for their rights under equality law at work.
You have the option to raise the matter informally with your line manager or supervisor or raise the matter formally. Often your employer will have formal internal processes (such as a grievance procedure) which can be used to raise concerns. This may be the best route for many problems, as it can bring a quick resolution. Often, bringing a grievance may be advisable to avoid a particular type of compensation reduction if you later bring a successful legal claim. You should still seek legal advice straight away, so your adviser can ensure that relevant time limits for legal claims do not expire during the grievance process. When you speak to your legal adviser, it may be useful to have a copy of any relevant company policies to hand.
If this doesn’t work or isn’t possible in your case, your legal adviser may discuss the possibility of you bringing a legal claim. Most claims relating to discrimination at work are brought in the Employment Tribunals. This is a type of court which hears many employment disputes.
If your claim goes to an Employment Tribunal and you win, you may be entitled to a remedy such as compensation for losses arising from the discrimination (along with injury to feelings to reflect the hurt caused), or some other types of remedy. However, this depends on what has happened and on your individual claim. This is something to discuss with your legal adviser before deciding on a course of action.
There are short timescales within which many claims (including discrimination claims) have to be brought, so always seek legal advice straight away.