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Facing Interviewees with Facial Paralysis

How employers can create equitable interviews for candidates.

Woman working on a computer
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by Dr. Tara N. Lewis and Dr. Kathleen Bogart

The modality of interviewing has evolved over recent years, and has accelerated (post-COVID), integrating more AI and digital formats. The two main approaches are asynchronous prompted pre-recorded screening interviews submitted by candidates using software such as Spark Hire and HireVue, and virtual synchronous interviews using Zoom, MS Teams, WebEx, etc.

Recruiters need not travel. Interviews can be expedited. In theory, hiring can be accomplished more quickly. Navigating life during a pandemic has created grief over what we no longer have. We have lost the ability to meet face-to-face, to shake hands, and to get a feel for someone’s energy, their body language, and their nuanced expressions. During an interview, the recruiter and hiring managers are watching the candidate and listening to their responses. Is the candidate smiling? Are they making eye contact? Are they able to verbally express their thoughts and present their ideas? Employers, if a candidate doesn’t respond as expected, how does that inform your opinion and evaluation of the person as a potential candidate?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA protects people with facial differences including facial paralysis from hiring discrimination, although many employers and even people with facial differences are not aware of this. Yet, as we see the advancement of AI and algorithm-based systems “pattern-matching protocols of AI penalize people who differ from the norm.” The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in February 2019 that the employment rate of people with disabilities was 19.3 percent. This leaves an unemployment rate of more than 80 percent and a question of how AI and advances in technology may be leading to further disadvantages for those who are different.

How one approaches the hiring process when feeling disadvantaged is a conversation that comes up frequently among people with facial paralysis, including the Moebius Syndrome community. More than 250,000 Americans experience chronic facial paralysis each year (Kosins et al., 2007). It can be congenital, like Moebius syndrome, or acquired later in life, such as through Bell’s palsy, acoustic neuroma, Ramsay Hunt syndrome, Lyme disease, or damage to the facial nerve (Bleicher & Hamiel, 1996). One of the most complete forms of facial paralysis, Moebius syndrome, is a neurological disorder resulting in both facial paralysis and impaired lateral eye movement. Moebius syndrome is rare, affecting somewhere between two to 20 people per million (Verzijl et al., 2003). Facial paralysis can result in a variety of physical symptoms, including speech clarity issues, dry eyes or watery eyes due to impaired blink, facial tightness and pain, and difficulty eating and drinking.

Most importantly, facial paralysis may limit facial expression and speech clarity, so misunderstandings may occur. When meeting someone with Moebius syndrome, people may misinterpret limited expressivity as a lack of enthusiasm or warmth (Bogart, Tickle-Degnen, & Ambady, 2014). Some people with Moebius syndrome are even mistaken for being intellectually disabled (Bogart, Tickle-Degnen, & Joffe, 2012). Because people with facial paralysis have an unusual facial appearance, movement, and asymmetry, their experiences fit within the broader facial difference community.

When given the opportunity, people with Moebius syndrome excel; some hold doctoral degrees (like the authors of this post), are university professors, career counselors, scientists, nurses, librarians, etc. Many feel their unique experiences taught them resilience and persistence. Although people are accustomed to paying the most attention to facial expression, humans use a variety of communication channels, including body language, tone of voice, posture, and words. Many people with facial paralysis are skilled at using these alternative communication channels as a way to engage with others (Bogart, Tickle-Degnen, & Ambady, 2012). Research shows that educating people about facial paralysis and attending to alternative communication (like we have done here), reduces bias (Bogart & Tickle-Degnen, 2015). However, employers need to be able to see these alternative expressions, a challenge during remote interviewing.

Job applicants who have speech disorders and facial paralysis are going to look and sound different during the hiring process. In response to this being pointed out, Unilever said in a statement to the Financial Times, “wherever a disabled candidate feels their disability may disadvantage them, they can contact a talent adviser and, wherever appropriate, they will be offered a direct interview.” It is illegal for employers to discriminate and ask about disability, yet, to access a level playing field, “people must declare their disability, which not all do because they fear being stigmatized.”

How do we balance the fear of being stigmatized with advocating for equity? As employers increase awareness and action regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, they must include topics of disability and intersectionality. During the hiring process, they must include information that will ensure that people feel equipped and comfortable in advocating for themselves. Employers should take a universal design approach. Offer a variety of interview options up front, rather than placing the onus on the candidate to disclose and request “special” accommodations. Ensure that interviews and evaluations of candidates place more emphasis on the candidates' qualifications and the content of their communication, rather than their facial expressions. Additionally, hiring more people with visible disabilities in human resources, as hiring managers, and as recruiters will provide representation and diverse perspectives. However, technology must also change so that algorithms and AI do not continue to exclude those with differences.

Part 2 of this series focuses on strategies people with facial paralysis and other differences can use for successful interviews.

Tara N. Lewis, Ed.D., is a program career coach at Collin College. Kathleen Bogart, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Oregon State University.

This post originally appeared in the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) blog.


Bleicher, J. N., Hamiel, S., Gengler, J. S., & Antimarino, J. (1996). A survey of facial paralysis: etiology and incidence. Ear, nose & throat journal, 75(6), 355-358.

Bogart, K. R., & Tickle-Degnen, L. (2015). Looking beyond the face: A training to improve perceivers’ impressions of people with facial paralysis. Patient Education and Counseling, 98, 251-256. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2014.09.010

Bogart, K. R., Tickle-Degnen, L., & Ambady, N. (2014). Communicating without the face: Holistic perception of emotions of people with facial paralysis. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36 (4), 309-320. doi: 10.1080/01973533.2014.917973

Bogart, K. R., Tickle-Degnen, L., & Ambady, N. (2012). Compensatory expressive behavior for facial paralysis: Adaptation to congenital or acquired disability. Rehabilitation Psychology, 57(1), 43-51. doi: 10.1037/a0026904

Bogart, K. R., Tickle-Degnen, L., & Joffe, M. (2012). Social interaction experiences of adults with Moebius syndrome: A focus group. Journal of Health Psychology, 17(8), 1212-1222. doi: 10.1177/1359105311432491

Kosins, A. M., Hurvitz, K. A., Evans, G. R., & Wirth, G. A. (2007). Facial paralysis for the plastic surgeon. Canadian Journal of Plastic Surgery, 15(2), 77-82.

Verzijl, H. T., van der Zwaag, B., Cruysberg, J. R., & Padberg, G. W. (2003). Möbius syndrome redefined: a syndrome of rhombencephalic maldevelopment. Neurology, 61(3), 327-333.

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