Managing challenges at work connected to your visible difference

Visible difference can present extra challenges at work. We explore ways you can deal with unconscious bias, discrimination and other hurdles.

Everyone faces challenges at work from time to time, but visible difference can bring additional strains. Some people face reactions from colleagues as well as unconscious bias, discrimination and extra hurdles when it comes to career progression.

On this page, we look at some of the ways you can deal with these challenges at work.

Reactions from colleagues

If you have a visible difference, you may often experience comments, staring and questions from other people. Although it can be annoying, upsetting and intrusive, usually these reactions come from people you will never encounter again.

Coping with these kinds of reactions in the workplace can be one of the biggest challenges at work if you have a visible difference. Unlike the people you meet at the supermarket or on the street, you have to see your colleagues every day. Here is some guidance on how to deal with these challenges at work.

  • If you are made to feel uncomfortable or upset in your workplace this is not acceptable. Speak to your manager or confidentially to human resources (HR) who can help you resolve this. If you are being made to feel uncomfortable by your manager, speak to another manager at the same level, your manager’s boss or go straight to HR.
  • You do not have to talk about your condition to anyone. This is your personal situation, and it is up to you whether to share it.
  • Some people do find it helpful to have a discussion with colleagues, as this can put an end to any curiosity or concerns people may have.
  • If you decide you want to speak to your colleagues, think about what you are happy to share with them, and share only what you feel comfortable with. For example, you might say, “I have a genetic condition which affects the appearance of my face, but it doesn’t affect any other part of my body or my health.”
  • If you are in a role where you interact with the public a lot and receive any comments or questions, you could try to focus the customer on the issue at hand. For example, “Yes, I have a condition which affects my appearance. I am just wondering if you would like to buy…” or, “I would prefer not to discuss this, is there anything else you need help with today?” You might want to take five minutes away from customers to manage any difficult feelings that have arisen. You can make an excuse, such as needing to go to the toilet.
  • If you have a condition that is mostly hidden you might feel anxious about changes in season. For example, your skin condition might become more visible when you start wearing short sleeves in the Spring. Similarly, you might need a new hairpiece and worry people will notice you have hair loss. You may decide to speak to people before this happens to avoid any surprised looks or questions. You could also have a prepared response you can use if anyone asks a question.

Doctor’s appointments

You might have a condition which has an impact on your physical or mental health. This is the case for lots of people who have conditions that you cannot see.

Employers prefer appointments to be made outside working hours, but that is not always possible. Most workplaces understand this and you should be given time off to attend any hospital or doctor’s appointments. If you are unsure, consult your manager or HR.

Ongoing treatment

It can be difficult to juggle work and medical appointments if you are having ongoing treatment. You may need help with your work or support returning after an absence. This could include reduced hours or lighter duties while you are going through medical treatment or convalescing.

To ask about this, speak to your work’s HR or occupational health department. If you are part of a small organisation, speak to your manager about “reasonable adjustments”. Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to make sure workers with disabilities and physical or mental health conditions aren’t disadvantaged when doing their job.

This applies to all workers, including trainees, apprentices, contract workers and business partners. Your GP can write a fit note with details of any adjustments which are required. You may also be asked to attend an occupational health appointment.

Discrimination in the workplace

If you feel that you are being treated differently or negatively because of your appearance (or for any reason) you might want to seek advice on your rights at work. You might also want to speak to an HR advisor who can support you and let you know what your options are.

You can also seek advice from the trade union representing employees in your workplace, even if you are not a member. Trade unions also offer their members legal support if they need it.

Unconscious bias

You may have heard the term unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias). This can be one of the biggest challenges at work for people with a visible difference, because it refers to biases people do not even realise that they hold.

It can be helpful to understand how unconscious bias works and what can be done about it.

What is unconscious bias?

Some people hold an unconscious bias against people with a visible difference. Because it is unconscious, the person holding it is unaware that they have it. This means that the actions that flow from it are to some extent outside their control. We all have unconscious biases about different things.

When we act as a result of unconscious bias, our actions happen automatically. They are triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, which are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. It might mean people look or stare if they haven’t met anyone with a visible difference before.

This is not an excuse for poor behaviour. Harassment, abuse, bullying and discrimination are still unacceptable. However, unconscious bias can be tackled.

Unconscious bias training

We all need to recognise and acknowledge our biases and find ways to counteract their impact on our behaviour and decisions. Once we understand our biases, we can take steps to challenge them and change the way we think and act. Some workplaces offer unconscious bias training to help people become aware of the automatic thought-processes driving their judgements and actions.

If you feel that people around you treat you differently because of your appearance, you could suggest to your manager or the HR department that your workplace runs unconscious bias training. This could help address other biases held by colleagues based on things such as race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, religion and class.

Prospects for promotion or career progression

If you have a visible difference you might be concerned that bias or discrimination could affect your career progression. You may have taken time off for hospital appointments and worry that this will affect your chances of promotion or career development. We know that employers must comply with certain rules and regulations around who they employ and promotions. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. Try not to let your worries stop you from applying.

If you are unsuccessful, ask for feedback to help you with the next opportunity. Try to stay positive – there could be many reasons why you were not chosen on this occasion. It is not necessarily because of your visible difference.

You may suspect you have been overlooked for promotion on several occasions with no good reason, or when you were obviously the most suitable candidate. If so, you may wish to speak with your manager or the HR department or take some advice. You could also seek advice from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), the body which deals with disputes, or a trade union.

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