The Employers Stammering Network
Norbert Lieckfeldt is the Chief Executive of The British Stammering Association. Here he introduces us to the Employers Stammering Network, the only network of its kind in the world.
We’d love to know more about the history of the network and how it got started
The Network was the brainchild of Iain Wilkie, a Senior Partner at EY. Iain’s experience as a person who stammers at EY led him to set up a Stammering Network. This proved more difficult than anticipated. Because of the stigma and negative connotations attached to stammering people who stammer will often try to hide the fact they have a stammer, using tricks and voidance techniques. It’s often very hard for people who stammer to ‘out’ themselves. Iain’s strategic response was to seek to create a Network for people who stammer that went beyond one single employer. He contacted the British Stammering Association, the UK’s national charity for stammering and the rest, as they say, is history.
How did you get involved with the network?
As the CEO of the British Stammering Association, the Network is in some sense part of my day job. Supporting people who stammer is what BSA does. But of course as a person who stammers I am passionate about making sure that our talents are used, that every person who stammers is seen as a fully rounded individual and not just as a ‘stammer on legs’ as so often happens – and that stammering is not a bar to professional success and no longer a cause of frequent and blatant discrimination as it all too often still is.
What’s the purpose of the network?
The purpose of the Network is to support employees who stammer, and employers, line managers, or colleagues to ensure that stammering is no longer in any sense relevant when it comes to recruitment, employment, or promotion; that the focus becomes what people say, not how they say it, and that every person who stammers has the opportunity to fulfil their potential and make the best contribution to their workplace.
Why is the network needed? We hear you’re the only network of this type in the world?
Recent (2014) research has demonstrated that there is still widespread prejudice and misconception about people who stammer, leading to daily and blatant discrimination by employers and line managers. Equally, there is evidence of people who stammer suffering from internalised oppression and they often fear to disclose their stammer at work for fear of repercussions.
Yes, we’re the only network for employees who stammer – it’s quite exciting and also a wee bit scary. We are making a new path by walking it. We’re keen to learn from those who have started earlier on the journey like LBGT or Dyslexia organisations because as far as communication disabilities are concerned, we’re covering completely new ground. Who can access the support of the network, and how?
What do you do to engage with your members?
All ESN members can access our services whether or not they stammer – we offer a dedicated website with advice and information, we offer one-to-one interaction for people who stammer looking for a way forward but also for line managers seeking advice on any issue around stammering. We also hold network meetings, are developing opportunities for employees who stammer to meet at social gatherings across employers, develop a set of skills development courses and produce a regular newsletter.
How is the network coordinated and resourced? Do you collaborate/work with any other networks or organisations?
The Network is hosted by the British Stammering Association and as their CEO I have set aside a number of days each week to support it – I am glad to say our members are willing to pay a membership fee. In addition, we receive a significant amount of pro bono support from Co-Chair Iain Wilkie and we draw on the skills of our Ambassador, Leys Geddes who is invaluable in identifying new members. The support of BSA’s patron, Ed Balls remains absolutely crucial.
We work very closely with other networks such as Business Disability Forum, but also specialist providers like the City Lit Speech Therapy Department and the Stammering through University Campaign.
Do you think organisations could do more to make their support of people who stammer more visible, and ultimately attract more applications when recruiting?
Yes – undoubtedly! There are many barriers for people who stammer when it comes to recruitment – the interview is obviously a significant hurdle. But person specs demanding ‘excellent communication skills’ without outlining what that actually means can be as off-putting as the dread phrase “initial telephone interview”. Stammering is a hidden disability and people who wouldn’t dream of holding interviews in a non-accessible venue often do not stop to consider what the barriers might be for us.
“Verbal communication is such a profound way of interacting with others that it is unsurprising that differences in communication, or unexpected ways of communicating, will influence the way we see others and the way we make decisions.”
How important do you think visible role models are – people who stammer but progress and do well in life and in their career?
One of the most important moments in my journey was when I realised, as a young man, that it is quite possible to stammer and have a life like anyone else, have a job, have a family. Role models don’t have to be famous people, but anyone who has a career in a role that at first glance may not be suitable for someone who stammers. At a recent event in Birmingham, a mother of a ten year old girl who stammers asked me to confirm to her little one that, despite what her teacher may have told her, yes, she CAN become a teacher if she wants to – in fact she can become whatever she wants to be, because we know builders, lorry drivers, call centre staff, teachers, lecturers, priests, air traffic controllers, Regimental Sergeant Majors and even Kings who manage[d] well with their stammer. Role models, every last one of them.
What has been your proudest network moment?
There’s been a few! There’s no prouder moment than when someone tells me “I didn’t think I could go for this promotion – no-one here knew I stammered and I thought I would not be able to cope, but I’m going for it now because I have come out, I get the support, I know it’s ok to be me, it’s ok to stammer, and I can do it”. Holding our second Network event in the House of Commons hosted by Ed Balls and the Rt Hon John Bercow MP addressing a crowded room buzzing with conversations and networking was amazing. And of course external recognition through the Disability Smart Award for our Co-Chair Iain Wilkie and the Awesome Network award also come quite high on the list.
“There are many barriers for people who stammer when it comes to recruitment.”
Do you think there is still work to do around unconscious bias training in the workplace and training for those people who recruit?
Verbal communication is such a profound way of interacting with others that it is unsurprising that differences in communication, or unexpected ways of communicating, will influence the way we see others and the way we make decisions. In addition, research shows that hearing stammered speech causes a physical stress response in the listener – irrespective of whether the listener is a fluent speaker or a person who stammers. So being aware of our reactions, and of our misconceptions, helps make better decisions when it comes to recruitment – especially when we recognise that people who stammer are more likely to have qualities such as resilience or listening skills which could be very valuable in many roles.
Congratulations on being one of our inaugural Awesome Networks. How did you feel when you found out and what does it mean to you?
It was such a surprise and we still feel very proud! We’re a young network and to be listed amongst Networks which have clout, experience and significant impact has been a great honour and a great boost.
What’s next for the network?
After our first full year of operation, we’re looking at developing our new business plan and reviewing our operations. We are making a new path by walking and, looking back on where we have come from, we can identify areas where we will change the way we work. We’re planning to meet with our members this month for a ‘Review and Overhaul Meeting’ but we have already made further changes like setting up a closed Facebook group, held three pilot development skills courses, planning a social meeting in June and looking at recruiting a dedicated Network Membership Manager – exciting days ahead!