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Levelling the playing field for promotions

Allan Tyrer | 01.12.2007

Update: the Employment Tribunal decision described below has been overturned on appeal. See DDA case on appeal.

An employment tribunal case on recruitment procedures has been won by a person who stammers, but is being appealed by the employer.

The case is Wakefield v HM Land Registry. The employer insisted on an oral interview (albeit with some adjustments) when the claimant applied for promotion. The tribunal found the employer had failed to meet its duty to make reasonable adjustments, and awarded compensation. The tribunal recommended that where the claimant applied for promotions in future he should be allowed to prepare a written response to pre-set questions rather than having to answer orally. He could meet the interview panel afterwards to answer supplemental questions.

If the job required specific oral skills, the tribunal also recommended that possible reasonable adjustments to the job should be considered, and that any test of oral skills should be specifically with reference to the requirements of the job and done as a separate skills test rather than using the interview as a general test of oral skills.

One point of contention was that the employer considered the claimant was not as disadvantaged as he claimed - he was able to give "fluent focussed and clear responses" in the interview. However the tribunal pointed out that stammering also has hidden aspects. The person may 'get the answers out' without too much stammering, but because of 'avoidance' the meaning of answers can get distorted and an impression of superficiality created. In rejecting him for the post, the employer had indeed commented that his answers failed to show in-depth experience and examples.

There was limited space on the application form. The interview was intended to 'build on' the information in it. To create a more level playing field for someone who finds it difficult to build on his application form orally, the patently obvious adjustment, said the tribunal, must be so far as practicable to give him the opportunity to do so in writing.

The tribunal did not accept that it was reasonable to use an interview to ascertain how the person would cope with speech challenges in the work context, where (as here) the person was known to have a stammering problem in the context of interviews. His work history could have been looked at. His managers could have been asked about his oral skills in the work environment. Appraisal forms were not sufficient - they tended to be written to script. The claimant here had difficulties in interviews and large scale presentations but, for example, was apparently OK with a small group, or dealing with customer queries.

The case is subject to appeal, and we hope to report on the result of that in a later issue [now available: DDA case on appeal]. Also, bear in mind that each case depends on its individual facts.

Allan Tyrer

From the Winter 2007 edition of Speaking Out, page 13