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Facing Job Interviews When You Have Facial Differences

Advice for people with facial differences for Disability Employment Month.

 Office of Disability Employment Policy
Increasing access and opportunity. Celebrating 30 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act
Source: Office of Disability Employment Policy

By Dr. Tara N. Lewis and Dr. Kathleen Bogart

Interviewing for a job or internship can be anxiety-inducing. The person or persons conducting the interview are making assessments and judgements of qualifications, ability to do the job, alignment with company values and direction, ability to work with others, oral communication, facial expression, and body language. Approaching an interview takes practice and confidence. Approaching an interview as someone who has a disability adds an additional layer of anxiety.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, an interviewer or employer cannot ask about disability or facial difference or discriminate against people with these conditions. Deciding to self-disclose a disability or facial difference before or during an interview is a personal choice, but many may fear being stigmatized by making the choice to disclose. Despite anti-discrimination laws, people who have facial paralysis or facial differences encounter bias during the hiring process, be it through virtual AI interviewing or in-person interviews. These biases and assumptions often tie physical disability to assumptions about lack of competence.

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 characterized by both facial paralysis and impaired lateral eye movement. 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.

Misunderstandings may occur because facial paralysis and other facial differences may limit facial expression and speech communication. 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).

Facial paralysis is very visible yet unrecognizable to the general public due to a lack of awareness (Bogart & Tickle-Degnen, 2015). Although most people notice the unusual facial appearance, they rarely understand the cause, nature, or accommodations needed. This uncertainty leads others to become preoccupied with the appearance of people with facial paralysis or to mistake them as unfriendly, sad, or intellectually disabled (Bogart et al., 2012; Bogart, Tickle-Degnen, et al., 2014).

People with facial paralysis are often aware of others noticing their face, and they wonder if they should explain their condition. In two studies of people with Moebius syndrome, nearly all participants felt uncertainty about whether to acknowledge and explain their condition to others (Bogart, 2015; Bogart et al., 2012). Expectations to explain private medical information seemed intrusive and unfair. They feared that discussing it would bring more stigma. On the other hand, they felt that disclosing could “get rid of the elephant in the room,” develop understanding and intimacy, and advocate. There were various approaches: one participant had never discussed Moebius with a partner of many years, others disclosed in some situations but not others, and some broadcast their disclosure by giving presentations at school or work (Bogart et al., 2012).

Research on disclosure of visible differences finds that disclosure during an interview results in better hiring outcomes than not disclosing (Hebl & Kleck, 2002). Disclosing earlier in an interview, rather than later results in the best impression (Hebl & Skorinko, 2005). Strangers observing facial differences can become distracted by the difference, resulting in divided attention (Madera & Hebl, 2012). Disclosure seems to be an effective strategy because it creates impressions of being well-adjusted and competent (Hebl & Skorinko, 2005). It addresses interviewers’ uncertainty and helps the interviewer to move beyond the visible difference to focus on the applicant’s qualifications (Hebl & Kleck, 2002).

Many people with facial paralysis feel their experiences taught them persistence and problem-solving skills. When given the opportunity, people with Moebius syndrome excel; some hold doctoral degrees (like the authors of this post), are university professors, career counselors, lawyers, scientists, nurses, librarians, etc. 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 very skilled at using these alternative communication channels as a way to engage with others (Bogart, Tickle-Degnen, & Ambady, 2012). No matter the severity of the facial paralysis, using more alternative expression is a successful strategy to improve first impressions (Bogart, Tickle-Degnen, & Ambady, 2014). Additionally, educating others about facial paralysis and attending to alternative communication has been found to reduce bias (Bogart & Tickle-Degnen, 2015).

Although disclosure before or during an interview has been shown to be beneficial, it can still feel difficult or scary, especially for candidates who may not have done so previously. It can also feel tiresome to have to self-advocate every time an interview is offered. In considering when to disclose, it is important to consider the interview modality. Disclosing in an in-person interview may feel different than during a virtual interview; and if an interview is pre-recorded it may not provide the opportunity to do so.

When a pre-recorded or virtual synchronous interview is scheduled, it is recommended to disclose prior to the interview to a recruiter, the hiring manager, or human resources. As someone with facial paralysis and/or speech differences, this could involve informing the interviewer about the condition and requesting that the accommodation be that the person conducting the interview or watching the recording focus on the context and content of the answers, not facial expression. If a candidate with facial paralysis and/or speech difficulties is unsure whether AI is being used in a pre-recorded interview to track eye movement and facial expression, the accommodation request could be for an alternative interview format or that the interview be reviewed by a person.

There may also be opportunities to disclose or further discuss during the interview process itself. Often employers ask candidates questions relating to their strengths, weaknesses, and the challenges that they have faced. Members of the Moebius syndrome community through Facebook have recommended utilizing these questions to disclose how they have responded to challenges and adversity in relation to having facial paralysis and/or speech difficulties, and how this is an opportunity to develop resilience and persistence.

Interviewing takes practice and developing confidence in the ability to tell a story about one’s strengths, overcoming challenges, dealing with failures, and selling one’s self. Whether it’s taking advantage of Career Services on campus and/or utilizing interviewing software, or role playing with friends... practice, practice, practice. Since disclosing a facial difference can be especially anxiety-inducing, work with a career coach and practice disclosing pre-interview and during the interview. Develop a short, simple, matter-of-fact explanation that is neutral or positive in tone and emphasizes that it does not affect your ability to do the job. Focus on how to approach this conversation with a hiring manager, or a recruiter, or human resources, and how to weave it into the stories that are shared when answering questions related to strengths, weaknesses, and challenges. Help others see that your facial difference is a unique aspect of who you are.

Part 1 of this series focused on how employers can create equitable interviews for job candidates with facial paralysis.

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 appeared on 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. (2015). “People are all about appearances”: A focus group of teenagers with Moebius syndrome. Journal of Health Psychology, 20, 1579 -1588. doi: 10.1177/1359105313517277

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., & 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 

Hebl, M. R., & Kleck, R. E. (2002). Acknowledging One's Stigma in the Interview Setting: Effective Strategy or Liability? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(2), 223-249. 

Hebl, M. R., & Skorinko, J. L. (2005). Acknowledging one's physical disability in the interview: Does “when” make a difference? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35(12), 2477-2492. 

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.

Madera, J. M., & Hebl, M. R. (2012). Discrimination against facially stigmatized applicants in interviews: an eye-tracking and face-to-face investigation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(2), 317-330.

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