This page, aimed at both people who stammer and employers, gives examples of possible reasonable adjustments for people who stammer as regards recruitment, including promotion. It’s a long page but you click the Table of page contents for an overview. There is a separate page of examples in the job, once employed.
See also Coronovius (Covid-19) on issues with remote interviews required by social distancing.
What follows are just possible examples of reasonable adjustments. (Further suggestions are welcome – firstname.lastname@example.org.) What is appropriate and reasonable will depend on the circumstances, and different people who stammer have different needs. It will often be a good idea for the employer and the person who stammers to discuss what is appropriate.
Particularly in a recruitment situation, giving an employer advance notice of the need for adjustments will often make them more likely to happen in practice. Advance notice may also help an argument that the adjustments are legally required, but is not always necessary.
This page is not restricted to the reasonable adjustment duty. Some examples below arise from the duty to avoid ‘discrimination arising from disability’ or ‘indirect discrimination’ For example, recruitment decisions should be based on what is relevant for the particular job.
Best person for the job
An employer can appoint the best person for the job, bearing in mind any adjustments it will be reasonable to make in the job. However, without reasonable adjustments in the recruitment process, it may not become apparent that the person who stammers is the best person for the job.
See Y v Calderdale Council (2003) and Y v Bradford Council (2006) for examples of cases where the tribunal held that an employer had failed to make sufficient reasonable adjustments to the recruitment process for a person who stammers. In the Calderdale case, the tribunal found that the applicant would have had a 50-50 chance of getting the job had proper adjustments been made.
‘Excellent communication skills’
How many jobs ask for “excellent communication skills”, and how many times is that actually justified? Would “good” communication skills actually be sufficient, and do the skills need to be primarily oral? Could reasonable adjustments help? (NB: some people who stammer do have excellent oral communication skills. See further Excellent communication skills and Assessment of oral skills>What is being assessed.)
An employer uses a person specification for an accountant’s post that states “employees must be confident in dealing with external clients” when in fact the job in question does not involve liaising directly with external clients. This requirement is unnecessary and could lead to discrimination against disabled people who have difficulty interacting with others, such as some people with autism.
Employment Code para 16.4
British Stammering Association has some guidance for employers in this area: scroll down to Role descriptions & objectives on Employers & HR professionals (stamma.org).
A related issue is whether presentation skills are really required for the job: Presentations in recruitment>Are presentation skills really important for the job?
Are the stated qualifications really required? Research indicates that the higher a person’s severity of stammering, the lower their academic attainment: O’Brian et al, Stuttering severity and educational attainment, Journal of Fluency Disorders 36 (2011) 86–92. DOI: 10.1016/j.jfludis.2011.02.006. It is not suggested people who stammer are less intelligent, but the finding may be due to barriers in the education system.
Lower levels of academic attainment are probably also found in various other disabilities – and indeed in older people since fewer older people went to university. Accordingly unjustified academic requirements are potentially unlawful as indirect age discrimination, as well as disability discrimination.
Arriving at the building
Consider what will happen when the candidate arrives. For example is there an entry phone which may cause problems? Are reception staff prepared for candidates who stammer? (Recruiters (stamma.org)).
Interviews – oral
Possible adjustments are suggested below. However, if the job candidate is at a substantial (i.e. more than minor or trivial) disadvantage in an oral interview even with adjustments, alternatives such as written responses (below) should be considered, even if a job requires oral skills. As discussed under that link, a disadvantage may exist even if the person sounds fairly fluent.
Also a telephone or video interview may require an adjusted format, such as doing it face-to-face or in writing.
Interviewers and managers may want to read British Stammering Association’s guidance for Recruiters (stamma.org) and Employers and HR professionals (stamma.org) including Recruitment & stammering: 10 recommendations (pdf). Also Talking with someone who stammers (stamma.org).
BSA also has information for job applicants and employees: At work (stamma.org).
This will be appropriate for some, and perhaps many, people who stammer. British Stammering Association gives as an example of a possible reasonable adjustment ‘Additional time or no time limit for interviews’: Reasonable adjustments (stamma.org).
Sometimes insufficient extra time is allowed because the interviewers feel they have to end the interview when the next interviewee’s appointment time arrives – or soon after, so the next interviewee does not wait too long. A way to deal with this is to schedule the interview of the person who stammers at the end of a session of interviews. This gives greater flexibilility to extend the interview as required. It would seem reasonable for an employer to have to schedule the interview in this way, at least if it knows or should know of the issue. An advance request by the person who stammers will make the adjustment more likely to happen in practice, and may be relevant to how far the employer has obligations under the Equality Act.
How much extra time is required to compensate for the person’s disadvantage will obviously depend on the person. Some people who stammer take very much longer to speak, some do not. For some job applicants, allowing any amount of extra time in the interview will not be enough (see next paragraph).
Allowing a longer time can be important, but it is not necessarily sufficient:
In HM Land Registry v Wakefield longer time was offered alongside other adjustments, including allowing the candidate to supplement his oral answers with something in writing.
Removing time parameters from the interview was also one of the adjustments considered in S v Translink.
Oral interview: awareness of interviewers
Interviewers should be aware of stammering issues, and can get information from the British Stammering Association (see some links above, and they have a helpline.). For example:
- be aware that people who stammer may substitute words they can say for words they cannot;
- consider ignoring ‘over use’ of ‘filler/comfort’ words or terms such as ‘you know’ and ‘in fact’ – people who stammer often use these to help them get through anticipated dysfluency;
- people who stammer may hold back from expressing themselves fully, e.g. may not answer interview questions fully, because of fear of stammering or the effort of speaking. This may well be an indication that the person needs further adjustments – see below Limited responses;
- don’t say things like “we have a certain amount of time”, which puts time pressure on the person;
- a person who stammers may be even more stressed by an interview than other interviewees. He may come across as reticent, hesitant or confused, and use strategies mentioned above such as fillers or substituting words, to help mask the stammer. Interviewers need to concentrate on what the person is saying rather than how he says it, and focus on how the person would be in the job (see next sub-heading) rather than necessarily how he is in the interview.
It is very possible that the person will communicate more easily in the work situation than in the interview, even if the workplace situation might be seen as ‘more challenging’. For example, in one case a firefighter could communicate at a blazing fire but stammered more at the interview. For more, see separate page Assessment of oral skills.
Oral interview: Limited responses
An employer may be tempted to reject a person who stammers because he only made ‘limited responses’ at the interview (as in Y v Calderdale Council and HM Land Registry v Wakefield). This may well have been due to the time and effort it took him to speak, or perhaps avoiding words on which he felt he would stammer.
The employer may not have made the necessary reasonable adjustments to enable the person who stammers to convey the information that other candidates are able to convey in the oral interview, and should consider arrangements to allow the person who stammers to do that, including taking into account written information (below), written responses (below), or use of technology.
Of course, sometimes limited responses may not be the result of a stammer. In S v Translink the tribunal was happy that these were due to lack of preparation by the claimant.
In Y v Calderdale Council, the tribunal fully accepted that the applicant received sympathetic and well-meaning treatment from the two interviewers who tried to give him time to answer; refrained from interrupting him and made some gentle attempts to probe his answers. However, this was not sufficient to comply with the employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments.
Oral interview: Telephone or video interviews
Many people who stammer find speaking on the phone particularly difficult. A phone interview may therefore put a person who stammers at a greater disadvantage. Some will find a video interview easier than the phone because it helps to be able to see the other person, but others will also have difficulty with a video interview.
- If the employer would normally use a video or phone interview, it should ask the person who stammers (if it knows of the stammer) whether he would be disadvantaged by that. If he would be, even with extra time and other adjustments, alternatives should be considered.
- If a video or phone interview goes ahead and it is apparent that the person who stammers is being disadvantaged, it will probably be reasonable to suspend the interview and consider other arrangements. Compare Y v Calderdale Council in which the tribunal held it would have been reasonable to adjourn a face-to-face interview where the applicant was clearly having difficulty and devise a suitable alternative format. This may apply even if the applicant agreed to a video or phone interview (see Y v Bradford Council where the time for the presentation exercise had been agreed but was held insufficient).
For a telephone or video interview, greater reasonable adjustments may be required than for one face-to-face. For example more extra time may be needed. Also, even more than for a face-to-face interview (see Assessment of oral skills in recruitment), I’d say employers should bear in mind that a person’s speech in a remote interview is not a reliable guide to how they will communicate in the job; if employers do not they may find if more difficult to justify their decisions under the Equality Act.
Coronavirus: social distancing
With the Coronavirus, employers may be shifting their job interviews to a remote format, probably live video: Job interviews go online as candidates stuck at home (bbc.co.uk), March 2020. Some people who stammer may be OK with a remote interview, at least if by video. One tip from US speech therapist Tim Mackesey is to set up a mirror: Success with online interviewing (youtube).
However a person who stammers may find a remote interview (video or telephone) more difficult than a face-to-face one. If a remote interview would put the job applicant who stammers at a substantial disadvantage compared with fluent applicants – even if other reasonable adjustments are made such as extra time – then it may be a reasonable adjustment to allow the person instead to give written answers (below). That link discusses further how a person who stammers might be at a disadvantage in an oral interview, remote or otherwise.
Leaving aside conducting a main interview remotely due to Coronavirus (above), phone interviews are often used only for initial screening. Possible adjustments here include:
- Waive the person who stammers through the screening stage;
- Offer a face-to-face interview, or non-oral arrangements;
- Have a Skype (or similar) call where you can see each other, if this would avoid the disadvantage for the particular individual.
‘Face-to-face interview offered as an option instead of a telephone interview.’
Example of possible reasonable adjustment on the British Stammering Association website: Reasonable adjustments (stamma.org). There are further possibilities on Recruiters (stamma.org).
Oral interview: Supplementing from written sources
Not giving due weight to written sources may well penalise a person who has difficulty speaking. Even if given more time, a person who stammers may say less because they find it difficult to speak, or are trying to a greater or lesser extent to hide their stammer. This may not be readily apparent, or interviewers may feel he is not answering questions ‘properly’ or ‘fully’ – as in HM Land Registry v Wakefield and Reasonable adjustment settlement. In any event, the applicant may not communicate enough through speech to score as they should vis-a-vis other candidates. One solution may be to allow written answers to interview questions, but these are some possible alternatives:
- Interviewers could supplement interview answers with written information from the person’s application form and other papers if they would not otherwise do so, giving the written information no less weight than the interview answers (see Reasonable adjustment settlement). It may well be unreasonable to mark the candidate down for failing to mention orally in response to a question something which is in the person’s application form or CV – e.g. where it is apparent that they have particular experience or skills which they do not mention orally. This is a reasonable adjustment that a person who stammers may wish to suggest to an employer, though the employer’s obligation does not necessarily depend on that. Also, the person who stammers may wish to give a particularly full written description of why he or she meets the person specification (and if there is a word limit it may be reasonable for the employer to waive this, or at least to allow submission of a further document with more detail if the person is invited to interview). Of course interviewers could also ask questions aimed at expanding on or verifying information given.
- The employer might allow the applicant a chance after the interview to write up anything he was unable to say at the interview. This has some limitations compared with written interviews (below), in particular once out of the interview the applicant may find it difficult bring to mind what he would like to have added at various different points in the interview. (That could possibly be helped by allowing the candidate to make brief notes in the interview to remind him of anything he wants to write afterwards.)
- In HM Land Registry v Wakefield, the employer agreed that at the end of the interview, when candidates were normally asked if they wanted to add anything, he could summarise his ideas for the job on a single side of A4. An issue would be whether that limit on length is justified in any particular case.
- The applicant could be given the opportunity to produce written evidence, such as narrative about or testimonials from previous jobs showing evidence of skills. Where the applicant who stammers is given this opportunity, the employer may wish to extend it to other applicants so as to be able to compare like with like.
Oral interview: Number of interviewers
Having fewer people present may put less pressure on the person’s speech, and may be a reasonable adjustment. This may be helpful even if interviewer numbers would normally be relatively small. By way of an extreme example, though, in one interview the whole university department was present.
On the other hand:
In S v Translink there was only one interviewer and claimant said he would have prefered two, as he found the lack of eye contact difficult. The issue was presumably that the one interviewer was taking notes a lot of the time, and so was unable to maintain eye contact. Perhaps with two interviewers, one could take notes and one could maintain eye contact.
On the other hand, some people who stammer may not have this problem of wanting to retain someone’s eye contact. I would say it is better for employers not to make assumptions as to what a particular individual who stammers will find easiest, but to ask the person. One possibility though is clearly to have two people, one to take notes and the other to ask the questions and generally maintain eye contact and be overtly listening to the interviewee.
In S v Translink the claimant argued that the interviewer could have acknowledged his impediment and reassured him that he could take his time. The tribunal accepted the claimant’s evidence that this might have been reassuring to him. However the tribunal was also able to accept the fear expressed by the interviewer that any such comment might be misinterpreted.
Anyway, in that case it was not held to be a reasonable adjustment because the claimant’s failure to provide examples of his competence areas was down to lack of preparation rather than speech difficulties. Also the employer had not been told in advance of the stammer, and so had no foreknowledge of the claimant’s situation.
Employers will of course want to avoid breaching s.60 EqA on pre-employment enquiries.
Advance notice of the interview questions to allow some preparation time was provided in HM Land Registry v Wakefield, though the candidate had serious reservations about it being an effective adjustment for him. See HM Land Registry v Wakefield>My comments: Preparation time as reasonable adjustment?
Oral interview: Type of chair
For a few people who stammer, a particular sitting position may help their speech. For example, those using a technique called ‘vocal fold management’ are likely to want an upright chair.
Interviews – written answers
It may be reasonable for the applicant to be allowed to give written answers to the interviewers’ list of pre-set interview questions (and possibly other questions), rather than having to answer orally.
Particular points while social distancing for the Coronavirus (Covid-19) lasts are that:
- even if the person could do a face-to-face interview, if that is excluded due to social distancing then written answers may be reasonable if a remote interview (live video or audio) would put the person at a substantial disadvantage; and
- it may be reasonable to give the written answers remotely rather than going to the employer’s premises.
Written answers: When may this required/reasonable?
The Coronavirus raises new issues. The person who stammers might be able to do a face-to-face interview, but that format may not be reasonable due to social distancing. The employer may instead be doing remote interviews (live video or audio): see above Oral interview: Telephone or video interviews. In this case giving written answers instead may be reasonable if a remote interview would put the job applicant at a substantial disadvantage compared with fluent job applicants – even if other reasonable adjustments are made such as extra time. Some people who stammer may be OK with live video, finding that it helps to see the person – but others will not be, especially for a stressful job interview.
As regards both face-to-face and remote interviews, giving written responses is not limited to cases where the person would be stammering severely. For example, even a person who does not seem to be stammering much may be adapting and limiting what he says to minimise how much he stammers openly, with the result that he fails to show in-depth experiences and examples (above Oral interview: Limited responses and the Wakefield case below). Nor are written responses necessarily excluded if the job requires oral skills (see below Assessment of oral skills and again the Wakefield case below). Key questions are whether the job applicant is at a substantial (i.e. more than minor or trivial) disadvantage at the oral interview compared with fluent job applicants, even with other adjustments to the interview, and whether written responses is a reasonable adjustment to allow.
In HM Land Registry v Wakefield, 2007/8, the employment tribunal held that written answers should have been allowed even where outwardly the applicant did not stammer that much at the interview. This was because covert symptoms of the stammer such as word avoidance meant that he “failed to show in-depth experiences and examples,” and was thus unable to build on the information in his application form like other candidates. Also, given that the candidate had a stammering problem in interviews, it was not reasonable to use these to ascertain how his oral skills would be on the job itself.
This decision was overturned by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) on the evidence – but it illustrates a situation where with appropriate evidence the adjustment might be required. The EAT seemed to think that on the particular facts it might be reasonable to use an interview as a tool to ascertain oral skills on the job. However, I would expect that to be rebuttable with appropriate evidence – see below Assessment of oral skills.
Written answers: How much time to allow?
It can be argued that any time limit for producing the written answers should enable the candidate to write the same amount as any time allowance for a spoken interview allows other candidates to say. Eg if a particular person types or writes four times slower than normal speaking pace they should be allowed four times as long (see my comments on Y v Bradford Council).
If follow-up questions are dealt with separately afterwards (see below), it is arguably reasonable to reduce the full interview time allowance on which the calculation is based to reflect the fact that the time limit is only for initial answers and not follow-ups. This is tricky though as it is difficult to know in advance how far exploratory questions will be required.
The applicant should be given details in advance of how the selection process will run. The tribunal in Y v Bradford Council held that in failing to do this, the employer was in breach of its duty to make reasonable adjustments. In particular the applicant should have been told how long he had to write answers, so that he could manage his time.
Written answers: Giving them remotely
The normal way of giving written answers might be in an office at the employer’s premises. However with social distancing for the Coronavirus, it is sensible to consider doing it remotely.
One option would be emailing the questions to the person at a pre-agreed time, and he emails the responses back within the relevant time limit.
Some kind of online chat facility might also be feasible. However that may have the disadvantage that the interviewee feels under pressure to keep his answers short, both because he feels people are waiting for them at the other end, and because answers in that format are more commonly brief.
At least if the applicant wishes, consideration could be given to having any follow-up questions asked orally, face-to-face or (if need be) remotely by video, exploring the written answers to the pre-set questions. Asking supplemental questions orally was suggested by the employment tribunal in HM Land Registry v Wakefield. If follow-ups are answered orally, further adjustments might be considered if required, to help level the playing field, such as allowing enough time for the oral answers, and perhaps an opportunity after the oral follow-ups to write anything he was unable to say.
Reasons to consider oral follow-ups:
- Not allowing the applicant to interact with the panel may put him at a disadvantage, in that personal interaction can be a significant part of interviewers’ assessment of a person (see my comment on Y v Bradford Council).
- Not asking follow-ups at all to explore his answers may put him at a disadvantage if other candidates are asked follow-ups.
Written answers: Generally
Alternatively written sources could be combined with an oral interview – see above Oral interview: Supplementing with written sources.
Interviews – use of technology
Displaying text on large screen or wall
A job applicant who stammers might be provided with facilities for typing answers into a computer and these would be projected onto the wall or a large screen. Many of the issues discussed under TTS below apply here too. For an example where this was done and some discussion, see Projector case study.
‘Text to speech’ (TTS)
TTS technology was used in part in Y v Calderdale Council, and it was considered by the tribunal in Y v Bradford Council. On TTS, see also Presentations in recruitment, and adjustments for presentations during the job.
- A person who brings their own laptop with TTS software is likely to need an appropriate seat and a table at the right height to rest the laptop on, as well as a power source. External speakers may also be required, sufficient to ensure that all the panel can hear easily. In Reasonable adjustment settlement it was argued that the arrangements were inadequate – the person was crouched up on a low seat without a suitable surface or speakers. What is required should be discussed with the applicant beforehand.
- If the individual does not have their own laptop and ‘text to speech’ (TTS) software, and use of this technology is a reasonable adjustment in the circumstances, it may be reasonable for the employer to provide computer equipment and software as well.
- Sufficient additional time will need to be allocated.
- Depending on the circumstances, it may not be reasonable to mark an applicant down for lack of presentational skills for using such technology (or indeed for stammering).
“Modifying procedures for testing or assessment” is expressly mentioned in the Employment Code para 6.33 as an example of a possible reasonable adjustment. “Allowing a disabled person extra time to complete the test” and “allowing a disabled applicant to take an oral test in writing” are two examples specifically given in Employment Code para 16.54. Para 16.55 says the extent to which such adjustments would be reasonable “may depend on … how closely the test is related to the job in question and what adjustments the employer would be reasonably required to make if the applicant were given the job.”
Assessment of oral skills
So far as oral skills are being assessed, special considerations apply – see separate page Assessment of oral skills.
So far as other skills are being assessed, if adjustments such as a longer time for an oral test are insufficient to deal with any substantial disadvantage, it is likely to be reasonable to allow the test to be taken in written form (see Written answers above on time allowance). Also the discussion of Oral assessments in education is relevant, though the detailed rules are different.