Let’s Make it Okay to Stutter at Work


I still remember my first job interview as a soon-to-be graduate 16 years ago. It was for an internship, which was part of the program that I was in. I felt I really needed a job and was putting a lot of pressure on myself to land it.

Fear of Disclosure

The interview was over the phone. which was not my preference. I didn't ask for any accommodation or self-disclose that I stuttered, it didn’t cross my mind. At that time in my life, I was doing everything I could to hide it -- often unsuccessfully, but that didn’t stop me from trying!

So I had the added pressure of thinking about not just what I wanted to say during the interview, but also how I might say it, and what those interviewing me might think about my speech. What would they think? Would they care? Would they think I was nervous? Competent? Capable?

Of course, I stuttered. Quite a bit. When it was over and I hung up the phone, I didn’t feel well. The negative thoughts and feelings I had about the experience were mostly based on my stuttering, not really about the content of what I said.

Honestly, it was a surprise to me when I was offered the internship. The interview panel heard something that I wasn’t seeing or hearing for myself. Not all employers and hiring managers see past our stuttered speech. It could have gone a different way. For too many of the one percent of adults who stutter, it often does.

Learning to be More Open

Fast forward to this year and I’m well into my career. Over that time, I’ve been learning and practicing to be more open about my stuttering at work. For example, I’ve been a ‘human book’ during a human library event at work, where colleagues booked me for 30-minute time slots and I shared my experiences growing up and working as someone who stutters.

Sometimes I self-disclose that I stutter before giving presentations, which helps put me at ease and raises awareness of stuttering in the workplace. I find that opening myself up like that also helps me connect with people at a deeper level.

Expanding the Comfort Zone

My comfort zone has expanded as I stretch myself at work with the support of colleagues and senior management. For example, more than ever, I'm being offered and saying 'yes' to delivering presentations with and on behalf of my teammates to our partners and clients. Making time and space to prepare and practice the presentation with peers beforehand is our default way of working, which I find helps a lot.

A few months ago, I participated in a 50 Million Voices (50mV) practice interview event as an interviewer. I interviewed and shared tips with talented people who stutter and who are preparing themselves for job opportunities and growth through practice. I learned as much from them as they did from me! There is a 50mV practice interview event coming up in October, so check it out if you’re looking to improve your interview skills.

Using Support Networks

The practice interview event got me thinking about my younger self. Back then, I wasn’t tapped into a support network of people who stutter, who could relate to what I was experiencing. I didn’t know that there were things I could do to take the pressure off and really be myself during an interview or when giving a presentation. I didn’t realize that my stuttering could actually be an asset that I could openly share. Who knew that I could intentionally put my stuttering to work for me, not against me? All of those things are possible and sometimes we need some support to make the shift.

That’s why I’m thrilled to have joined the Canadian Stuttering Association (CSA) as a Board Member and Employment Advocacy Coordinator. I’m looking forward to continuing to grow with you whether you’re a person who stutters and seeking employment or already on the job and looking to develop your career. I’m also eager to engage and learn with a growing number of allies, like employers; hiring managers; talent teams; diversity, equity and inclusion coordinators; and other potential allies at work, who can open doors and enable accessible and inclusive recruitment and development practices.

I’ve shared our guiding CSA Employment Advocacy Strategy and would love your input and ideas on how we, together, can realize our vision:

A Canada where everyone who stutters thrives at work, and organisations and allies across all sectors benefit from our talents and strengths.

And join us at the next CSA Let’s Talk event called Courageous First Days. I’ll be co-hosting an interactive panel of people who stutter, who will share their first day experiences on the job and elsewhere, what happened, how they handled it, and what they learned. Come learn and share with us!

Let’s make it okay to stutter at work.

John Kenney is on the CSA Board of Directors as Employment Advocacy Coordinator and 50 Million Voices representative. He lives in Ottawa.

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