A guide for employers on getting the best out of colleagues who stammer.
The value that diversity brings to organisations is now widely recognised. Stammering, or stuttering as it's called in other parts of the world, is just part of that diversity. People who stammer can bring a wealth of talent to your organisation.
Standard ways of working are rarely developed with people who stammer in mind. But you can so easily make them more inclusive for staff who stammer. Lots of other people in your organisation will benefit from those changes too.
So, if you've just hired someone who stammers, or if someone in your team stammers, here's how you as an employer can help them excel.
It's easy to assume that fluent speech is 'good' communication. But that's not always the case. There are many fluent people who are monotonous and boring speakers. And there are many people who stammer who are excellent, dynamic, interesting speakers.
Communication is about so much more than speech. If you prize fluency, you risk restricting people who stammer to saying less, or spending time finding less elegant ways to say what they want to say. Workplaces that welcome stammered speech are different. They allow people who stammer to use their full range of communication skills and to engage fully in the team and the work.
The following workplace situations can be more challenging for people who stammer:
- Introductions. Going round the workplace on the first day introducing the person to individual members of the team.
- Meetings. Both in-person and online. Going round the meeting room and introducing themselves can cause a lot of anxiety. Turn-taking and trying to contribute when others speak over them can be frustrating. People might say less than they would like.
- Video calls. The time lags, the buffering, not knowing when others are going to speak and then speaking at the same time, can be a challenge. Then there's having to see themselves stammer on screen.
- Phone calls. Using the phone can be hard because of the lack of visual cues. Making or answering a call can be particularly difficult in open plan offices where other people are listening in. Reading from a script or having a set way of answering can also be challenging as they can't find alternative words that are easier to say.
- Intercoms, radios and tannoys. Having to speak aloud, read from a script or speak to someone without visual cues can be hard.
BROACHING THE SUBJECT
Talk to the person sensitively to find out if they have any concerns about speaking at work. You might say something like, "I've noticed that you don't always say very much in meetings. Is there anything we can do to make meetings a space where you're more comfortable to take part?". Or "I've noticed that you sometimes seem to be working hard to say what you want to say. I really appreciate your contributions. Is there anything I can do to make it easier?".
Having a stammer may be something that the person finds difficult to raise, so show them that you are open to talking about it. Some people might be happy to talk openly about their stammer. Others might be more reserved about it. Even if they have told you that they stammer, this doesn't make it something they'll want to share with everyone. But, by showing your interest, you make it more likely that the person will be able to discuss any concerns with you.
For example, you can ask how they'd like you to respond when they stammer. Discuss whether they'd be comfortable with you making the team aware of this, so that everyone can give them the time and space to speak and to stammer.
Ask them if it would be helpful at the start of group meetings to introduce themselves first or second. This could prevent anxiety building up while they wait for their turn. Or, if you are the Chair, introducing everybody yourself might help.
Encourage training and work opportunities in areas where they might have excellent skills but may have previously avoided. The way to help someone fulfil their potential is to show them that you want to help them be their best. When the person feels confident about being open, stammering can become much less of a concern.
You can support your employee by offering to make 'reasonable adjustments' to your standard procedures. They might ask for these themselves.
Download 'Reasonable Adjustments: a guide for employers' — see the Downloads section on this page. It has ideas regarding reasonable adjustments for staff who stammer.
There may be simple changes that can make a huge difference to how your employee performs in their role and how they feel about you as an employer. When considering adjustments, discuss them with the person and ask what changes could help them in their role.
Adjustments: your duty
If you know, or could reasonably be expected to know, that an employee has a disability within the Equality Act or the Disability Discrimination Act, you may have a legal duty to make these adjustments. See our page Is Stammering A Disability? for more on that.
Your duty around reasonable adjustments still applies even if a person has not formally told you about their disability. Or if they have not directly requested adjustments. It can still apply, for example, if you know, or suspect, that they stammer and you have reason to believe it causes difficulty for them at work.
For pointers on things to do when talking with someone who stammers, see our In Conversation With Someone Who Stammers page. There are more tips in our guide 'Working With Someone Who Stammers' you can share with your team. See the Downloads section on this page.
Face-to-face performance reviews can be challenging for someone who stammers. Give them time to say what they want and don't be surprised if they stammer more than usual.
People who stammer can often be self-critical and judge themselves based on how fluent they are. This isn't surprising seeing as they might have been judged on how they speak throughout their lives. Let them know that you are focused on what they communicate, not how they say it. Give feedback based on their content, timing, channels and insight rather than speed of delivery.
A performance review is an ideal opportunity to review existing reasonable adjustments or consider whether any are required. You can use it to find out more about how a person's stammer impacts their work and behaviour. You may think you know a person well, but don't assume you know what their struggle is. So ask them. Stammering, and the effort not to stammer, can be exhausting.
People who stammer face daily, casual discrimination at work. Making fun of stammering is all too often seen as OK or passed off as jokingly putting someone at ease. That may be reflected in jibes and mimicry by colleagues or others. "It's just banter, a bit of fun", "It's meant well" or "We love her/him really". These are NOT acceptable excuses.
Deal with issues promptly. Talk to the employee about it before deciding with them what action to take, for them and all the staff. Discriminating against or harassing a person in relation to stammering is unlawful. Download our 'Stammering, Discrimination & the Law' document — see the Downloads section on this page. It has more information on the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act. Also, read our page Bullying At Work.
Stammering is literally just how some people talk. Like being tall, blonde or good at running. Some people seek support for their stammer, such as speech & language therapy, while others don't see it as an issue at all.
Some people might want to develop their public speaking skills and confidence speaking in front of others. Search online for Speakers Clubs and Toastmasters clubs. They are great for this. Meeting other people who stammer, and sharing experiences, can be invaluable. We have a list of Stammering Groups they can join.
STAMMA's EMPLOYMENT SERVICE
We support companies and organisations in providing stammer-friendly environments and processes for their customers and staff. If you would like us to help you, contact us at email@example.com Or, call our helpline free on 0808 802 0002 and asked to be referred to the service. See our Employment Service page for more on how it can help you.
Watch our video 'Stammering, diversity and inclusion' below.