CVs, prejudice and disfigurement: should candidates disclose?

An experiment to see if potential employers would be influenced by a facial disfigurement produced some interesting results

Last year I wrote my first piece for the careers section at Guardian Professional, discussing jobseeking and facial disfigurement. A comment I made about including my experience in any cover letter was met with a mixed reaction, including one commenter who had had first-hand involvement in recruitment processes, who said that the mention of disfigurement is irrelevant and purely "extraneous information". Yes, in the context of the workplace, disfigurement should be irrelevant, but in the recruitment stage it is very important, or at least the need to create awareness about it is.

Having since gone freelance, I decided to carry out an experiment to see whether there were any patterns in employment and disfigurement. Having had two years experiencing and curating various art projects I focused my study on the creative sector. The study itself involved sending out two copies of a CV a couple of weeks apart, one with the mention of my disfigurement and one without.

I decided to target creative startups and organisations that typically employ around 25 to 50 people. This seemed a more viable option as companies at the corporate end of the creative sector are more likely to have an equal opportunities quota in place, and speculative CVs are more likely to be sifted by an HR manager. As a way of avoiding red tape, I aimed for small-scale organisations that I felt my past experience in the arts was a perfect fit for. At the same time, having done background research on these organisations, I had an idea of the image each was aspiring to and consequently looking for. They were ardent, quirky and passionate about social change. All qualities which I felt I could bring to the table. However, at the back of my mind there was this nagging feeling that my face didn't fit.

Of the CVs I posted out to 55 organisations, 25% (14) received replies. Of the responses, 86% (12) of the responses were to CVs without the mention of a disfigurement, and 14% (2) were to the CV with the mention.

All responses to the CV without the mention said that they would either keep my CV on file or let me know of future opportunities with other creative organisations that they liaise with. One of the responses to the CV with the mention, was an outright rejection, while the other response was slightly more constructive, saying that though there were no current vacancies they would be in touch if anything opened up.

The noticeable difference between the responses was the tone of the language used. To the CV without the mention of the disfigurement, the reaction seemed to be highly positive as if the companies were interested in me as a person and product – something I regard as imperative to the sector, as dealing with clients and external organisations means you're selling yourself as the face of a wider brand. To the CV with the mention of the disfigurement, the language seemed to be more sympathetic, in light of the poor state of the job market.

Of course, you could argue that I'm reading too much into these results and that the fact that I got even one response is quite surprising – the fact that I got tailored responses is even more remarkable. And I agree. These studies are limited in what they can prove. Mine definitely didn't have the scope to cement my beliefs that there is inherent prejudice within employment, and that there are patterns that show trends in employers looking for people with the right image. However, it does pose questions that should lead to a national study carried out by public bodies and charities into how candidates with disfigurements fare in the job market.

There is a danger in becoming complacent and relying on such studies as a justification for the poor state of the job market and as an excuse for not being able to secure a job. Consequently, the problem is that by focusing on studies like this, we could implicitly reinforce the assumptions and prejudices that the study is trying to highlight.

Returning to the earlier issue, whether a jobseeker with a disfigurement should disclose it in a cover letter is a matter of personal choice and how comfortable they feel doing so. The most important way of engaging people with disfigurements and getting them into the workplace is by opening a discourse. The more it is talked about the more it becomes accepted. Employing a more diverse workforce can help an organisation deal with the challenges of a diverse global market. Employing someone with a disfigurement could also go some way towards dispelling any myths surrounding perceived abilities.

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Rich McEachran

The GuardianTramp

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