Recruiting someone who has a visible difference

We discuss what you can do to make sure you're recruiting fairly and avoiding discriminating against any applicant with a visible difference.

The recruitment process can be challenging for candidates with a scar, mark or condition. These candidates may experience all the usual stresses of applying for jobs while facing the added hurdle caused by recruiters’ reactions to their appearance.

Being well-prepared as recruiters and interviewers can make sure you provide a fair, equal and legal recruitment process when an applicant or candidate has a scar, mark or condition which affects their appearance.

In this guide, we answer key questions that recruiters may have when trying to ensure fair recruitment for candidates with a visible difference or disfigurement.

Graphic with text: "Over a third of people (36%) say they have been discriminated against in job applications because of their appearance"

General questions for recruiters

People with scars or marks just don’t seem to apply for our roles. What should we be doing to attract them?

Make sure your website, company brochures, advertising, recruitment packs and other external and internal communications feature images of employees who have scars, marks or conditions. This will make your organisation more relatable to people who look different, ensuring fair recruitment opportunities for those with a visible difference or disfigurement.

You can also make it clear in your equality statement that you go above and beyond the “protected characteristics” specified in the Equality Act 2010 to ensure fair recruitment for all candidates. Check that adverts and job descriptions do not mention appearance or make stipulations like “must be well presented”. This may lead potentially qualified candidates to deselect themselves before the process has even begun, working against fair recruitment for those with a visible difference or disfigurement.

Is it OK to ask for a photo with a CV or application?

Probably not. It is only legal to request a photo under limited conditions. The Equality Act 2010 Codes of Practice state, “Applicants should not be asked to provide photographs, unless it is essential for selection purposes, for example for an acting job; or for security purposes, such as to confirm that a person who attends for an assessment or interview is the applicant”.

For some people with a visible difference the thought of having to send in a picture, or the fear of what might happen if they refuse, could be enough to put them off applying.

Does disfigurement count as a “disability”?

Yes – legally, a “severe disfigurement” is a disability. This is stated under the Equality Act 2010. Unfortunately, the word “severe” is not defined in the Act, so it is hard to decide where to draw the line about what is or is not included.

However, it is important to remember that while some candidates may consider themselves to be disabled, others will not. As with any disability, every candidate should be offered the opportunity to request workplace adjustments that would enable them to perform at their best during the process.

To increase the representation of people with severe disfigurements and/or disabilities, you could offer a guaranteed interview scheme to those who consider themselves to be disabled.

I’m a recruitment consultant and have found a great candidate. Do I need to advise my client about their facial scarring?

If you think that not mentioning it harms their chances of employment or leaves them open to a negative reception, then it is best to mention it. You could say something like, “I just thought I would make you aware that the candidate has facial scarring and it does not impact on their skillset or capabilities”. Be clear with the client that you believe them to be a strong candidate.

If your candidate has raised concerns with you, ask their opinion on how they would like you to reassure the client and which words they would prefer to be used. It is important to avoid negative words, such as “suffer from”, “victim of” or “really bad”. Instead, use neutral phrases like “has a condition” or “noticeable”.

Remember, if the candidate didn’t have the requisite skills you wouldn’t be putting them forward for the role. Regardless of whether the candidate mentions their appearance, you should also identify “unique selling points” which might be relevant to the role. These could include things like well-developed social skills or resilience.

Before the interview

The candidate I’ll be interviewing has disclosed a facial disfigurement. What do I need to think about?

The basics are the same as for any candidate – be familiar with the job description, prepare questions in advance and so on. If you’re well prepared, you’ll be able to focus on the candidate’s answers. This is doubly important if you are out of your comfort zone interviewing a candidate who looks different.

Unfortunately, despite conscious intentions to be fair, our research shows that 67% of adults in the UK attach less positive attributes and characteristics to people who have a visible difference. By being well prepared you can ensure that any unintentional negative reactions are quickly put aside during the interview. Take a look at our page on unconscious bias for more guidance.

If your attention is distracted, you may miss important information given by the candidate. Research shows that our brains are programmed to be on “high alert” when confronted with something new or unfamiliar. This creates the physical sensation of nervousness, such as heart racing or sweating, and diverts our attention.

To minimise this reaction and ensure that all attention is focused on the candidate’s answers, make sure you are familiar with faces that are different. A quick search for “visible difference” on the internet or the Changing Faces website will help you familiarise yourself with people who look different.

During your preparation, think about a quick introduction to put you both at ease, such as, “Did you find our offices OK?” Remember, if you do this with one candidate, do it for everyone, to make sure you are treating all candidates equally. This is important for fair recruitment as it sets the tone for the interview.

In the interview

I wasn’t expecting the candidate to look like this

It’s natural to be a surprised or curious when you meet someone with a visible difference for the first time. If you are finding it hard to make eye contact after you have smiled at them and shaken their hand, look at the bridge of their nose instead until you feel more confident – it has the same effect as making eye contact.

I need to concentrate but I’m distracted by their birthmark

Sometimes this happens and most people find that it passes quickly. You could look down at your notebook to give yourself a chance to gather your thoughts. You will already have told the candidate you will be taking notes throughout the interview. Try concentrating on writing down what they are saying. This way, you will have to listen and take down reliable notes to aid your decision making after the interview.

After a few minutes of looking up and down, you are more likely to be entirely focused on the content of what they are saying rather than their appearance.

Am I allowed to ask about their visible difference?

Legally, you can only ask a question that you could ask any other candidate. Asking directly about the candidate’s scar, mark or condition is not acceptable because you wouldn’t ask another candidate if their appearance would affect their ability to do the job. This is not a fair recruitment practice and you could be breaking the law.

If you need to know about the impact of a visible difference or disfigurement on a candidate’s ability to do the job, you could offer the opportunity to raise it with a question. For example, “This role is customer-facing so can you give us an example of how you have dealt with an awkward situation with a customer?”

If a candidate does explain directly about their condition or injury, be guided by their choice of words in your reply. For instance, if they use the phrase “visible difference” rather than “disfigurement”, or use the medical name for their condition, make sure you use the same words or phrases. Thank them for raising it, reassure them, then move on to your next question.

Will the candidate need time off for surgery or treatment? Can I ask?

No. The Equality Act 2010 prevents employers from asking any questions about someone’s health or medical history before they have made an offer of employment. This means that questions, conversations or even comments relating to time off for medical appointments, surgical operations or other treatments must be avoided. Again, this is not a fair recruitment practice as it is not something that other candidates would be expected to address.

There is a common misconception that a visible difference can or needs to be “fixed” and that therefore a candidate will be awaiting treatment. This is sometimes the case but do not assume that most people who look different will need any more time off than anyone else.

After the interview

How do I ensure I am making a fair recruitment decision?

We all tend to be more comfortable with people who are “like us”. This is known as “affinity bias”. However, as HR professionals and recruiting managers we have a responsibility to make fair recruitment decisions by hiring the best person for the job. As with all candidates, it is important to remember, when making a selection decision, to use the most objective criteria possible.

Before reaching a decision, make sure you have done these things:

  • Take a moment to consider whether you have made assumptions about the candidate based on their appearance.
  • Take extra care to review the notes you took during the interview. Studies show that if an interviewer has been distracted by a candidate’s appearance, they remember less about what was said and rate them less favourably.
  • Give yourself enough time to make the decision. Discuss the candidate and explicitly address the possibility of bias with other members of the panel.
  • It is best practice to offer clear, specific feedback to unsuccessful applicants. This leaves no room for uncertainly on either part about reasons for a selection decision and will reassure the candidate that they were not turned down because of their appearance. It can also help to clarify your thoughts.

You might also like

Unconscious bias training

Guidance on what unconscious bias is and how training can help to prevent your team from making unfounded judgements about people with a visible difference.

Embedding diversity within the workplace

How to develop an inclusive environment that is welcoming to people with a visible difference, from recruiting fairly to ensuring everyone feels able to contribute.