At Work

Recruiting and working with someone who stammers: 10 things to know

This bullet point list for managers can also be downloaded as a pdf.

1. In conversation with a person who stammers

  • Be patient, listen actively and maintain natural eye contact. Wait for the person to finish. Don’t try to finish their sentences unless asked to do so.
  • Resist the temptation to offer advice to people who stammer – e.g. “take a deep breath”.
  • Don’t equate hesitant speech with uncertainty, confusion or lack of intelligence.
  • Pausing/using phrases like “you know” or “sort of” may be strategies to avoid stammering.
  • People who stammer often have most difficulty at the beginning of sentences.

2. Tone and sensitivity

  • People who stammer are nervous about talking because they stammer – not the other way round.
  • If someone is struggling with stammering ask if there's anything they’d like you to do to make things easier. Always give people the chance to tell you what might help.
  • Stammering can be a sensitive topic. Never force the issue if someone is unwilling to talk about it.
  • A stammer may be unnoticeable, so if someone seems to lack confidence when speaking consider whether there may be a communication issue.

3. Types of job

  • People who stammer work very successfully in all kinds of jobs e.g. as actors and stand-up comedians, air traffic controllers, teachers, doctors and in customer services and communications.
  • Do not assume what might be an appropriate role for someone who stammers.
  • The experience of stammering may give people strengths that are very valuable to an employer in a wide range of roles e.g. resilience and empathy.

4. Unconscious bias

  • When talking with someone who stammers it’s common to experience a physical stress response.
  • Unconscious bias affects us all. It is often at play during recruitment and at work and can adversely affect people who stammer. It is vital to recognise this.
  • Some people can/do hide their stammer very effectively. Try to avoid misreading someone trying to conceal a stammer as something else e.g. that someone can’t make eye contact or isn’t succinct.
  • People who stammer may feel more negative about the effect of their speech on others than is actually the case. Helping a person to realise this may open up a positive dialogue on stammering.

5. Creating and reviewing policies

  • People who stammer tell us that what affects them most at work is a positive attitude from line managers and recruiters.
  • It is a good idea to create/review your policies for job applicants with communication needs (ask us if you want help with this).
  • Ask yourself whether your policies and reality match up e.g. if you offer face-to-face rather than telephone interviews, are you sure all the interviewers are able to be in the same place to do that?

6. Communication skills

  • Good communication is not the same as speech fluency.
  • People who stammer can have excellent engagement and communication skills: e.g. showing empathy, positive body language, reading situations accurately, adapting tone and volume of voice appropriately, listening actively and writing well.
  • Many job roles simply ask for excellent communication skills. This blanket requirement may deter great candidates, including people who stammer, from applying in the first place.
  • Make sure you define the specific communication requirements of a role in any job specification.

7. Using the telephone

  • Many people who stammer lack confidence and experience anxiety when using the telephone, especially in front of others, and find it easier if they can prepare.
  • You can help by being patient and not hanging up if you hear a few moment’s silence.
  • Try to avoid negative impressions of a person based on the way they sound on the phone.
  • If someone who stammers is offered an initial telephone interview, offering a face-to-face interview instead will very often be a reasonable adjustment to make.

8. Meetings and group interaction

  • People who stammer often struggle in situations where a specific response is needed – e.g. saying one’s name, address or phone number or having to say particular words.
  • This can be particularly difficult in introductions in group meetings. People who stammer will often try to avoid this for fear of stammering on their own name.
  • If you chair a group session, ask the person who stammers beforehand what would be helpful.
  • Be aware of anyone who may give you a non-verbal cue that they would like to speak. This means thinking carefully about the best layout so everyone can see everyone else.

9. Job interviews

  • People who stammer may find job interviews a more terrifying prospect than they are for people in general, which in turn can make stammering more severe.
  • Capable people who stammer may find themselves unable to perform at their best at interviews. Could an HR person talk to a panel, explain what helps and agree a more informal arrangement?
  • Having longer to speak, offering role play scenarios or giving greater consideration to written as well as spoken information can all enable an employer to see candidates’ capabilities and strengths.
  • If you are interviewing someone who stammers, think through how to overcome possible barriers - e.g. can you avoid entry-phones, are reception staff prepared and trained?
  • Have you considered offering an informal chat for all candidates before the interview itself? This can be very helpful.

10. Legal

  • Stammering is a “disability” if it meets the legal definition in the Equality Act. It often will do.
  • However some people who stammer do not consider themselves disabled, so if offering adjustments at interview you may want to mention this without reference to stammering as a disability.
  • Offering adjustments may in itself make a person who stammers feel more relaxed; so more time offered may not ultimately mean more time is actually needed.
  • Further information on stammering and the law: www.stammeringlaw.org.uk.

British Stammering Association: www.stammering.org
Employers Stammering Network: www.stammering.org/esn