How to Handle Hearing Loss in the Workplace

It was my first meeting with the new CEO of a large retail company and he was clearly under the weather. His eyes were watery, he was coughing and his voice was weaker than usual. “I’ll sit across the table from you,” he said, “so I don’t get you sick.” This was a thoughtful gesture, but as I sized up the large conference table now lying between us, I worried I wouldn’t be able to hear him. As he began to answer my first question, my fears were realized — I couldn’t understand a word he said.

I hadn’t yet begun to disclose my hearing loss to people, preferring to fake it when I couldn’t hear, rather than reveal what I still considered my shameful secret. How was I going to handle this critical meeting?

Having no choice, I came clean. “I don’t hear very well so it would be better if we sat closer to one another,” I said. “I will have to take my chances with your cold,” I added with a smile. Laughing, he moved closer, making it much easier for me to hear. The meeting was a success, yet, I still chose not to discuss my hearing loss more broadly.

A few years later, I moved into a management role. I was excited about my new responsibilities, but what I hadn’t realized was that when you are a manager, a big part of your job is listening to other people’s secrets.

Trouble with your colleagues? Talk to management. Disappointed with your year-end bonus? Talk to management. Need time off to care for your ailing parent? Talk to management.

All day long, I had people in my office sharing confidential information with me. Can you ask people to repeat their secrets — only louder this time? Luckily my office was quiet and I could ask clarifying questions, but being open about my hearing issues would have made my job much easier.

Should You Disclose Your Hearing Loss at Work?

Why was I so worried about disclosing my hearing loss? For all the years I worked at the company, I wore hearing aids, yet I performed well at my job and even got promoted. Was I afraid that my previous achievements would be erased by revealing a “weakness” — that I needed hearing aids to hear?

With hindsight, this all seems rather silly. Disclosing my hearing issues would not have changed my track record of performance or reputation for hard work. Instead, it could have saved me a lot of unnecessary stress and wasted time. Perhaps I could have forged deeper relationships with coworkers or even asked for accommodations like an enhanced phone or a better seat at the conference table. I wish I had been more open about my hearing loss at work.

Does this mean that everyone should disclose their hearing loss at work? In most cases, I believe the answer is “Yes.” Here are some reasons why.

1. Strong performance speaks for itself. If you have an existing track record of good performance in your role, disclosing your hearing issues will not change your hard-won reputation. Assuming your hearing issues are not new, your strong work will continue, and perhaps improve with the added benefit of disclosure.

2. Possibility of easy fixes. Disclosing your hearing loss allows for accommodation. A different seating arrangement at meetings or a better conference room speakerphone might make you an even more productive worker. Coming clean allows you to ask for the assistance you need and to be less fearful when asking for a repeat or clarification.

3. Authenticity is rewarded. After I came out of my hearing loss closet and began disclosing my hearing issues, I was amazed how many people responded to my admission of hearing loss with a confession of their own. Sharing my vulnerabilities fostered an environment where others could share their struggles too. This boosted morale for everyone involved.

4. Less stress. Depending on the degree of your hearing loss, your co-workers may already suspect you have a hearing problem or worse, they think you are not smart or are a poor listener. When people know you have a hearing loss, it takes the pressure off of having to hear everything perfectly, and what a relief that is.

5. Times are changing. Millennials and subsequent generations are more comfortable with disabilities since they were exposed to them in school. Many of my children’s peers received accommodations on tests for learning differences. This was not stigmatized but viewed as a normal pattern of behavior. They have carried this view into the workplace. When one millennial joins a new team, he emails them his “hearing bio” with suggested communication tips so they will know how to work best with him. This emerging openness bodes well for all of us, even if we are not millennials.

6. The law is on our side. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” for employees with hearing loss, as long as it does not cause “undue hardship” which is defined as significant difficulty or expense. Reasonable accommodations could include things like captioned phones, assistive listening devices, or work area adjustments like a change in seating location.

Readers, do you disclose your hearing loss at work?

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42 thoughts on “How to Handle Hearing Loss in the Workplace

  1. The challenge of not being able to hear coworkers in meetings can be mitigated through the use of a remote microphone such as the Phonak Roger Select, Table Mic II or even a Bluetooth mic. Can you comment on your experiences with these technologies?

    • They work wonders for some people, but less so for others. It is definitely worth trying them. The Google LiveTranscribe (only available for Android currently) is also worth a try. Thanks for your question.

      • I was born with hearing loss. Through out 47 years of my life I have struggling in Institutions which was very stressful and frustrating. After my MA in Visual Arts , I was struggling to get a job then I got job as a contract in the art college and I was trying to get job for permanent but after 5 years my job was over and they didn’t extend my job as they found difficult to communicate and deal me .

      • That is very frustrating. I am sorry to hear that. Are there any new technologies that might help with communication next time? Thank you for sharing your story.

    • I needed this before it became fashionable to have devices. My first mic was a smartlink which I really needed people to pass. Setting it in the table wasn’t effective. It was really hard to make that ask. Yes, I do use a BT mic. Still making the ask can be hard at first. All conference rooms should be set up with mics, and looped! Culture change! Just like the mic!

  2. I once had a manager berate me and say I “had to try harder to listen”….despite knowing I was hearing impaired….
    Or because I have single sided deafness, I get accused of “faking it” because sometimes when conditions are good I hear very well.

    • I’m so relieved to have someone with SSD voice my same problem. In the right situation I also can hear well and it makes me feel almost like I have no right to ask for accommodations to help me hear better. I wear a Baha implant that works great but I still have to work at hearing. Thank goodness for my Audiologist who understands and set up different programs for changing situations. It’s like those of us with SSD walk a fine line between the hearing world and being deaf.

  3. I have worked for a company for 17 years and has recently been retrenched. My hearing loss was never a problem. I have my hearing disability on my CV, but I am afraid that I will not be considered for available positions because of this.

  4. Great article on an incredibly emotionally charged subject for me and many of us in the workplace.
    I agree that today’s generation does not view hearing loss with the same stigma my (baby boomer) generation did, and that is FANTASTIC. With that said, in my last corporate position, I tried to hide my loss as much as possible, not asking for accommodations or using a mic in conference room meetings. While I wish I had a “re-do”, the reality was that my work environment was ageist and sexist and I was concerned that exposing myself would add one more strike against me. Sometimes you have to go with your gut, but coming clean is very liberating!

  5. Hi

    Really good article. In some respects it’s not surprising that some of us experience negativities in our daily lives because we have an “unseen” disability. Another aspect is that despite so called enlightened times and organisations being more inclusive and embracing diversity deafness makes us all seem slow and have difficulty keeping up with the hearing world.

    Personally I’ve never broadcast my hearing problems to the world, I feel I don’t have to, my hearing aids are clearly visible, that should be enough, shouldn’t it?

    My experience is that it is not enough apparently so now I’ve taken the bull by the horns and when I can’t hear what a co-worker has said I draw attention to my hearing aids and make them aware that I don’t wear them to accessorise my suit, or for the fun of it. I wear them for a purpose and also remind co-workers to look at me when they speak so I can lip read them, because although I wear hearing aids that’s all they are “aids”, something to help, not cure.

    I guess the reality is that we are still a minority and until the day comes when the majority of the working population are deaf or have a hearing loss then nothing much will change regards the perception of hearing loss both inside and outside the work place.

  6. Another good article and yes I do now disclose my hearing loss to my work colleagues and i think it’s the right thing to do.

    I have had to really. I have worked with the same people for over 10 years and when I first started my job my hearing was fine so I could have general everyday conversations with ease. In the last two years my hearing loss has been very rapid and having those conversations as become more challenging so ive had to be upfront with people. I’m still a little shy about telling people but I know it’s something I’ve had to do.

    On the plus side (Being upfront about my hearing loss). I recently had a government backed ‘Access to Work’ assessment (it’s a UK scheme) and as a result I have received lots of equipment to support hearing loss such as a Roger pen and table mic.

  7. It was a smart move to suggest you sit closer to the person who interviewed you. I slowly went deaf over the last 40 years, but now wear two cochlear implants. I never hid my hearing loss during an interview, even when it was mild. I always felt it was important to open up a discussion about how I could effectively communicate with others and provide my employer with optimum performance starting with the first conversation. I would even ask the potential employer to show me my future work area, because acoustics and noise play a huge role as well as the understanding that some of us need a special phone. When I worked in corporate, IBM bought me an FM system, and years later when I taught college-level English, my employer bought me a Smartlink. It’s a necessary discussion. It helps the potential employer not only see what our special needs are, but what we CAN do with accomodations and technology. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I am no longer in the workplace, however, everything in your post applies to any situation where there are two or three gathered to talk and listen. As I have said in many places and often enough to be boring, the hardest thing to do is to constantly be reminding others of what you need in order to understand.

    The culture does need to change but it won’t unless I (we) provide the stimulus. It’s the culture of ME that must change and that’s the most difficult. After all, I’m the one who is deaf. Isn’t that enough? It should be but it’s not. Deafness is invisible. I’s up to me to make it visible. Not speaking up is another way of isolating one’s self from the main stream. If you think it sounds like I have this handled, well, I don’t. I’m terrible at taking care of my listening needs around others. But I’m working on it. Thank you Shari. I always get nourishment from your posts.

  9. Thank you for this article! Completely on point with my experience in the workplace as well. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Thank you for this article!! I too find it difficult in the workplace, but most often because I find my hearing loss at the center of jokes and such by those I work with. This will lead to my leaving this job for a better opportunity later this year.
    It is very frustrating with people who know I have difficulty hearing, that I work around often finding ways to poke at or criticize or joke about my hearing loss. I often try to speak up, but am met sometimes with eye rolls or brush offs. It’s hard to know how else to respond because I do have to remain professional as it always happens in front of patients.
    I won’t be changing jobs until the summer, so any tips anyone can recommend to help me through the next few months would be awesome!

    • How frustrating. All you can do is advocate for yourself. Have you explained that it hurts your feelings when they say things like this? Maybe they think you are in on the joke? Either way you are moving on soon. Good for you.

      • Yes I have tried explaining it in every form or fashion I can while trying to remain professional. It has come down to moving on, and I feel a peace about it. So in the meantime I will be meeting with my audiologist to discuss other hardware options such as the Roger Pen or other means to help me in day to day conversations, not just my hearing aids.

  11. Since 1958 I’d NEVER disclosed my hearing loss during a job interview. I knew from experience that was a sure killer of getting hired. I DID know that once they hired me and saw what a good job I could do (I know, I know, too much self-confidence), that they’d bend over backward to help me in any way possible. You probably know (not from experience) that there was little or no hearing assistance during those years. All I had was my analog hearing aid which was my best friend. It was a major boon when volume control for phones came into existence about 1970. Little did I know what the future held.

    Now, as an avid hearing loss advocate, I will talk to any person – old, young, middle, stranger, friend – about their hearing or lack of it. I thank YOU for all the good you do for the rest of us.

    Proud Founder and Past President of HLAA-Jacksonville (FL).

  12. As an employer, I have a question. We have an amazing employee, whom has been with us for about 18 months, and I continually tell her I hope she’s here for 18 more years. She’s amazing at her position. From the time we interviewed her, we knew there was some kind of hearing issue. I very gently asked the question after her first couple of days, but she shrugged it off, and I knew it wasn’t a topic she wanted to address with me at that moment (or maybe ever). Everyone that works with her knows there is some kind of hearing impairment, but no one knows how to talk to her about it. I have no intention or interest in embarrassing her, but I would like to help in any way I can. I know this would help her to be even better at what she does. How does an employer broach this topic appropriately, or is that even possible? What kind of assistance could we suggest or provide if she was willing to disclose it? Is there anything we could do to help without calling attention to her if she does not want to disclose it?

    • Great question. In what situations does she seem to have trouble hearing? If on the phone, you could provide an amplified phone or a captioned phone. If in Zoom meetings, you could provide captioning for the meeting and/or make sure that everyone uses a headset mic for better acoustics. People can be very sensitive about admitting they have a hearing loss — I know I was for many years — but if you can identify settings where she is struggling and make changes that help everyone (only one person speak at a time in a meeting, etc), you can show her you are committed to supporting her. Good luck to you!

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