27th Oct 2023
3 Min Read

A culture of trust: talking about visible differences

Paige Lazonby
Paige Lazonby
People & Change

One in five people in the UK identify as having visible differences, yet many people still don’t know what it means. So our sales and marketing assistant Paige Lazonby sat down with Phyllida Swift, CEO of Face Equality International, to find out how workplaces can be more supportive and inclusive.

Creating appearance-inclusive workplaces was trending on LinkedIn in September with a webinar about the experiences of people with visible differences in the world of work.

The term “visible differences” covers a wide range of things. The website Changing Faces describes the term as, “a scar, mark or condition on your face or body that makes you look different.”

Yet visible differences are often left out of DEI initiatives. This is a space where most of us could be doing a lot more and Face Equality International is trying to do just that. I spoke to CEO, Phyllida Swift, about the steps we can all take to remove the unfair barriers often faced by those with visible differences.

Flexible working, in the office and at home

It’s a hot topic at the moment. The majority of CEOs predict a full return to office by 2026 but three-quarters of all employees want to work flexibly. And studies show that flexible working benefits employee wellbeing.

“Flexibility is important,” says Phyllida, “Particularly when it comes to disability and physical and mental impairments. Dictating your own hours can really help if you have regular hospital or medical appointments.”

When going to the office, people with visible differences might use a camouflage makeup on birthmarks, and it could be a blessing not to have to do that every day. Phyllida also points out that, with facial differences, having video calls all day can be overwhelming.

“Create a culture of trust. Everybody just wants to do their best.”

Give people inclusive language

When people aren’t familiar with a DEI topic, they avoid talking about it for fear of saying the wrong thing. But to remove the unfair challenges people face, we first have to talk about them. As communicators, we can facilitate these conversations by giving people the language they need to approach discussions confidently.

For talking about visible differences Phyllida says, “I’m comfortable saying I have a disfigurement, but some people aren’t. Visible difference or facial difference is more widely accepted, both in the UK and internationally. Facial difference is something that affects the face and visible difference is something on the face and/or body.

“Ultimately, it’s down to the individual to self-identify and each person has different preferences. They’ll use the language they’re most comfortable with – so stick with that when talking to them.”

So, where do we start?

If we, for example, look at the wording in job descriptions, are they really inclusive?

“There’s often language around looking presentable, happy or smiley, but there are certain facial differences that inhibit someone’s ability to smile,” Phyllida says. “And that affects everybody, not just people with visible differences. We live in a world where there’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way, and this language reinforces that.”

And after the job application, what does your interview process look like? Jumping straight into a face-to-face or Teams interview can make some people with visible differences anxious or stressed and could open them up to unconscious bias from the interviewer. So introduce the option of a phone interview before a face-to-face meeting.

Phyllida also encourages a wider view: “Look at the DEI and people policies you currently have. Quite often, visible differences are overlooked, and if that’s the case in your organisation, add a policy to make sure those individuals are protected from discrimination.”

Face Equality International help people do just that, by running training sessions on visible differences in the workplace. Their website also has a number of resources, including a Model of Good Practice guide. This has some great tips to help businesses make their processes more inclusive to those with visible differences.

You’re not alone

Embarking on a new DEI initiative can be overwhelming – and sometimes a little awkward – and that’s okay. We can’t all be experts and we’re not going to get everything right the first time. There can be missteps, but moving forward together is the right thing to do.

If you’d like to talk about DEI in your workplace, get in touch!

For more information on FEI’s workplace training, send them an email here.

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