One in 100 people in Australia stutter when speaking, yet very few employers have a plan in place to support stuttering in the workplace. HRM speaks with a speech pathologist to get some helpful advice.
How often do you think about what you’re about to say? I mean, really think about it.
You might pause for thought when giving a presentation or speaking with an important stakeholder, but when it comes to the general flow of conversation, you probably don’t consciously take time to mentally plan out the words that are about to leave your mouth. That is, unless you’re one of the one in 100 Australians who live with stuttering.
Stuttering was thrust into the spotlight during Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. His speech fumbles were painted as “mental decline” – a bullying tactic used by his opponents in an effort to cast him as unfit for office.
What these people don’t understand, however, is the mental strength Biden was likely summoning when addressing the public. It wasn’t his age; it wasn’t that he was always caught off guard by people’s questions. He was battling against his own brain to get his words out in a clear and fluent way.
Biden, like many others who stutter, has learned to manoeuvre his way out of his ‘boyhood stutter’ as he has grown up – so it’s not always obvious – but that doesn’t mean it’s not ever present in Biden’s life, or the lives of the one per cent of the entire population who live with stuttering.
How does this translate in a work context? To find out, HRM asked Dr Geraldine Bricker-Katz, speech pathologist and academic from the University of Sydney.
What’s happening when someone stutters?
“Over the years, particularly in Australia, the research has been rigorous and has revealed an enormous amount about stuttering… but there’s still a lot to be known and understood about it,” says Bricker-Katz.
Stuttering takes various forms. It can sound like repetition, prolongation or becoming stuck on certain sounds or words.
According to the Mayo Clinic, stuttering could also include: brief silences between words or syllables, using words like “um” to bridge sentences together and excess tightness/tension in the face or upper body when producing words – just to name a few. As a result of the stuttering, people may clench their fists, tap their feet or experience facial tremors. However, this isn’t always the case.
Stuttering is experienced at different levels of severity – no two people who stutter are the same. For example, one person might have problems with certain vowels, while another could struggle with specific consonants.
“People who stutter are not a homogenous group of the population; they can come from any walk of life.”
Those who stutter know exactly what they want to say, they just sometimes struggle to express it. Unfortunately, this leads to a raft of misconceptions in the workplace (and other contexts where speaking is important).
“A lot of the beliefs about stuttering can lead people to make the assumption that it’s something to do with their psychology, their personality or their level of confidence,” says Bricker-Katz. “It has nothing to do with their intelligence.”
“In college, I applied for a job at a coffee shop. I stuttered horribly through the interview, and the owner told me he couldn’t hire me, because he wanted his café to be ‘a place where customers feel comfortable.'” – John Hendrickson
Embarrassment or a lack of confidence can be a side effect of stuttering for some people, but it’s not the cause.
“Anxiety can act as a trigger to make the stuttering either increase or more noticeable,” she says. “We know it’s a neuro-biological speech disorder. It’s something to do with the production of speech (a highly complex neurological formulation) and results in disruption of the smooth flow of speech, but we don’t know specifically how this occurs nor what causes it in some people and not others.”
It can also be amplified by stimulating situations, according to Mayo Clinic, such as when people are excited, tired, stressed, pressured or feeling self-conscious. This is important for HR professionals to keep in mind.
Changing the leadership mould
In an article for The Atlantic about Biden’s stuttering, author John Hendrickson opened up about his own struggles as someone who stutters. He recalls the schoolyard teasing and being ignored in bars. He talks about his struggles to say his own name and having staff laugh at him when he tries to order his lunch.
His experiences of the workplace have also been tainted.
“In college, I applied for a job at a coffee shop. I stuttered horribly through the interview, and the owner told me he couldn’t hire me, because he wanted his café to be ‘a place where customers feel comfortable,'” writes Hendrickson. After a lifetime of put downs and rejection, it’s no wonder he turned to the written word as a safe space to showcase his talents.
As is the experience of many employees living with a visible difference, getting a foot in the door is only the first of many barriers – climbing the ladder can be equally challenging.
“People who stutter can face huge barriers to occupational progression,” says Bricker-Katz.
Employees who stutter don’t fit the mould that society has set for leaders. When we think about how a leader communications, we imagine bold, clear, fluent language – words that inspire and motivate people. When someone struggles to get their words out, some would make ill-informed assumptions about that person’s capability to take on a leadership role – think former US president Donald Trump’s “Slow Joe” remarks.
But this shouldn’t be the case. Plenty of people who stutter are extremely capable of taking on leadership positions, so how can HR change organisations’ perceptions?
It has to start from the very beginning of someone’s employment journey, says Bricker-Katz.
HR needs to educate leaders to look beyond how someone looks and sounds. Instead, learn how to assess someone on their competencies alone. Rather than thinking, ‘How will this person present in front of a client?’ flip that to ask, ‘What can we gain by hiring this person?’
AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion conference is taking place on 21 May this year. Hear from an impressive line up of keynote speakers and panelists about important D&I issues to help your organisation reflect the diverse communities we live in.
A lifetime struggle
While it might not surprise you to hear of the recruitment and succession barriers, the potential performance impacts are less discussed.
In a 2004 study from the Journal of Fluency Disorders, 33 per cent of respondents who stutter said it affected their performance at work.
“People who stutter frequently describe constant monitoring of their speech and forward scanning, trying to determine if there may be a word that they might stutter on in an upcoming sentence. It takes a huge amount of their energy.”
This constant self-monitoring, together with anxiety about how others may react to their stuttering at work, means many employees go into the workforce with high levels of speech anxiety and social anxiety, resulting in feelings that can also impact their ability to perform at an optimal level, she adds.
“Stuttering is often uncomfortable for the listener. [It] becomes the ‘elephant in the room’.” – Dr Geraldine Bricker-Katz
“How does that give you time to think creatively and innovatively, if you’re constantly worried about that? [It could] wear down your capacity in some way.”
This could also manifest as employees holding themselves back.
They may have brilliant ideas to contribute, but progression in the corporate world often means presenting or communicating publicly with stakeholders or clients, which could deter some from putting up their hand in the first place.
Stuttering in the workplace: HR’s role
HR leaders should be educated about stuttering, and other communication disabilities, in the workplace, says Bricker-Katz, to ensure they’re able to remove unconscious biases in interviews or promotions.
“Many people who stutter can take on leadership roles with great competence. But, like any disability, it would be very important that some accommodations were made, if need be.”
What should those accommodations look like?
You might engage a speech pathologist to come into your workplace every few months to check in on the employee in a confidential manner, or to educate their colleagues/managers, she says.
It’s also important for people who do not stutter to push through their own discomfort.
“Stuttering is often uncomfortable for the listener,” she says. “Listeners are unsure about whether to assist the person who is stuttering or how to allow time for the person to say what they want to say. Stuttering becomes the ‘elephant in the room’.”
“As is the case with any disability, it would be totally inappropriate for someone who doesn’t know a person to ask them about their speech. It’s a very intimate thing. While it would be helpful if the person was able to acknowledge that they stutter, we also know that not all people who stutter feel comfortable openly revealing that they stutter.”
“But as the way someone sounds and speaks is one of the first things you notice when meeting them, it’s important you have some helpful talking points up your sleeve.
But as the way someone sounds is one of the first things we notice when meeting them, it’s important to know what to say.
Bricker-Katz suggests saying something along the lines of, “I’m noticing that you might have difficulties with the fluency of your speech and I want you to know that’s not going to be an issue for us” – this can help the candidate to relax into the process and focus on telling you about their skills and experience, rather than trying to mask their stutter.
When it comes to leadership opportunities, make sure you’re looking beyond the obvious candidates – those who have high profiles in the organisation.
“It’s very important for HR to recognise [those who are] quiet. When a promotion opportunity arises… see if there’s somebody there who might be able to take a leadership role and have a conversation with them to see whether you could support them to make an application.”
When you talk to people about stuttering, many will tell you about a fascinating story they read or documentary they watched that showed people who were able to ‘cure’ their stutter by speaking from their diaphragm or singing, for example (Australian singer Megan Washington has spoken publicly about disguising her stutter through her music).
But employees shouldn’t have to mask parts of themselves in any part of their life, let alone where they spend 40+ hours of their week. That’s why HR professionals have an important role to play in normalising different ways of speaking.
That means hearing from more leaders who stutter. And not just talking about their experiences of stuttering, but talking about their expertise, their general experiences and the value they add.
This is the true value of workplace diversity: knowing that how you look or sound isn’t a determining factor in how you’ll be treated at work.