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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