This case raises issues of physical arrangements for an interview, signs that an interviewee who stammers is at a substantial disadvantage (questions not answered ‘fully’ or ‘properly’), and weighting of information on application form. There was no tribunal decision in the case as it was settled out of court, without admission of liability by the employer. Facts below are based on the applicant’s account.
Out of court settlement, 2004.
A person applied for a job similar to various positions he had held previously. He had a severe stammer, but considered that this had never affected his ability to fulfil similar positions. After carefully considering the range of duties, he was confident that the stammer would not materially impede his ability to do the work.
On the application form he indicated that he considered himself to have a disability and wanted the employer to make ‘arrangements’ for this if he was interviewed. The stammer was also readily apparent in a phone conversation with the employer. However, the employer made no mention of any arrangements that might be made to accommodate the stammer. The applicant therefore raised it again in an email to the employer, saying that he considered himself from previous experience to be at a substantial disadvantage in respect of the oral part of the interview, and that he intended to bring his laptop computer with him containing text to speech software to allow him to respond to questions at the interview. The applicant would type an answer into the computer which would then read it aloud. However, because of the time this would take, he suggested that the Panel should allocate twice the time of any oral assessment.
When he attended for interview, he was first asked to undertake a test on a computer. He apparently scored ‘good’ for this.
Seating and table arrangements for interview
At the subsequent oral interview, it seemed that no adjustments had been made to the interview arrangements. The room was obviously a working office, and the interview took place in part of the room without any office furniture, tables or to his knowledge, accessible powerpoints.
They were sat on very low seats and he was crouched up, and could not use the laptop without a table for support. It was suggested he use a waist-high filing cabinet a few feet away, in the office behind his chair, to put the laptop on if he needed to. The employer subsequently said there was a power socket 6-8 feet away, but he did not know this. A further problem was that, whilst the computer could generate its own sound, the internal speakers pointed towards him and not the panel and would need external speakers to provide amplification.
The applicant did not use the laptop in the interview – he said that there was no point doing so and he would see how he went. This was because the arrangements were such that he considered he could not use it to any practical benefit. (The employer argued subsequently that the applicant declined to use the laptop.)
The applicant argued to the tribunal that he did not believe having a filing cabinet to put the laptop computer on was a reasonable adjustment. He certainly did not believe it would comply with regulation 3 Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 (www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1992/2792/contents/made).
The applicant argued that no enquiry was made by the panel prior to the start of the oral interview that the arrangements were suitable for the equipment he had brought to use. The interview could have been postponed to allow the employer the opportunity to give some thought to the situation (eg to set up the room properly or undertake a written assessment), or alternatively the application form could have been weighted as suggested below. An “extra 15 minutes”in the oral interview’ simply did not go far enough in countering the effects of stammering at interview.
Interview questions not answered ‘properly’ or ‘fully’
The applicant argued to the tribunal:
“Stammering is a disability which is physically and mentally tiring. The effects of stammering at interview include changing the content of what I want to say so as to manage a condition known as ‘blocking’, itself increased due to the pressure to speak, the artificially tense environment and a general anxiety with the situation, requiring considerable effort on my part, and consequently having a substantially adverse effect on my oral responses and general performance. I believe it is apparent that I have suffered because I could not give full answers to the questions.”
His computer test score was ‘good’, like that of the successful candidate. However, it was clear that the panel had marked him down not because he would not answer the questions asked of him but because he could not. For example one interviewer recorded “did not answer the question properly”, “did not answer question fully”, and had left 2 boxes totally blank. This could be compared with the successful candidate where all the boxes are completed. For only one question of another candidate had that interviewer recorded a comment similar to those above: “not answered fully”.
The other two interviewers did not made these kinds of comment. However, the applicant argued that it was apparent from the first interviewer’s frankness that the applicant was not imparting as much information to the panel as they were expecting.
Possible adjustment of ‘weighting’ information from application form
When the interview finished, the applicant informed the panel that one adjustment they could make would be to ‘weight’ the information he had provided on his application form. He argued that it could be seen from a comparison between his application form and that of the successful candidate that they had similar experience and abilities.
However, no adjustment was made to the information the applicant had provided on his application form to compensate for the fact he had struggled in the interview.
The applicant wrote in his submission to the tribunal:
“In summary, if [the employer] had seriously considered my Application and not only considered the adjustments I had suggested but also their own duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove the disadvantageous effect my stammering has, I am sure I would have had a good chance of securing the position… It is incredibly frustrating and disappointing. I know that I can do the job, but by not thinking the process through and engaging in dialogue with me before the interview or acting upon my suggestions, I feel I have been unfairly penalised because of my disability…”
Employer failing to address reasonable adjustments?
It must be borne in mind that this web page is based on the applicant’s account. However it certainly sounds as if the employer may have been remiss in not addressing with the applicant before the interview what reasonable adjustments should be made. The applicant seems to have raised the issue more than once with the employer but to have received no response. Even if the applicant had not raised the issue, his stammer was very likely evident to the employer in a phone call they had beforehand as well as when he came for the interview.
Physical arrangements for interview
The case is interesting in raising the issue of physical arrangements for the interview. A person using a laptop is likely to need proper seating and a table at the right height to rest it on, as well as a power source. External speakers may also be required, sufficient to ensure that all the panel can hear easily. 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. Also sufficient time will need to be allocated – perhaps more than twice the time which was suggested by the applicant in this case. There was no tribunal decision in this case on whether use of TTS technology was a reasonable adjustment in the particular circumstances.
Written answers to preset interview questions are a possible alternative to TTS technology.
Even where no computer is being used, the low chairs that seem to have been provided in this case may make it difficult for a person who stammers to have a good posture, which may in some cases harm their speech. In particular, people using a technique called ‘vocal fold management are likely to want an upright chair. See Examples of reasonable adjustments: Recruitment>Oral interviews: Type of chair.
Lack of full answers as signs of substantial disadvantage
An interviewer’s reaction that the applicant is ‘not answering fully’ and the like may well be an indication that the applicant is suffering a substantial disadvantage from the interview arrangements because of the stammer. While notes like that by interviews are neither necessary nor conclusive to show there is substantial disadvantage, that kind of response on the part of interviewers should perhaps be seen as a warning bell. See Examples of reasonable adjustments: Recruitment>Oral interviews: Limited responses.
Weighting application form
The previous link (on limited responses) lists various possible steps to help compensate for the lack of information the applicant was able to give orally in the interview. One suggested by the applicant in this case would have been to give weight to where relevant information showing the applicant’s experience and abilities was already given in his written application: Examples of reasonable adjustments: Recuitment>Limited responses: Supplementing oral interview from written application documents.
Reasonable adjustments can make a real difference
We do not know whether a tribunal would have agreed with the applicant’s contention that he would have stood a good chance of getting the job had reasonable adjustments been made. However this may be correct, and illustrates how reasonable adjustments can make a real difference to the outcome of the recruitment process. It may be that the applicant was in fact the best candidate for the job, but was unable to put that point across effectively because of a failure to make adequate reasonable adjustments.