Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace.


Our supervisor, "Tom," is deaf. He can read lips and has some help from hearing aids, and our company has hired a full-time American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, "Mary," to work with him.

Tom and Mary are inseparable. They take an hour-long walk together after lunch (rumours abounded that they were having an affair). He refuses to talk to most of us without Mary interpreting; the exceptions are viewed as his favourites.

Another problem is that Tom has given Mary programmatic assignments. When Tom conducts performance evaluations, Mary interprets, even though she does work similar to that of his staff. Despite requests, Tom won't conduct reviews through a contract interpreter. He says that Mary, as a certified ASL interpreter, keeps all conversations confidential.


Many of us like Mary - she's nice and funny - but the office has become tense. How can we get management to act without attacking Mary or Tom?

A: To get a better sense of deaf culture and the role of interpreters in a professional setting, I spoke with Matthew O'Hara, deputy director of the US Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, which certifies ASL interpreters.

Unlike most ASL interpreters who work under short-term contracts, Mary seems to be Tom's full-time "designated interpreter." For Tom to be an effective boss, his communication through Mary has to be seamless, O'Hara said, which requires a level of trust and close connection observers might misinterpret. Further, O'Hara noted, an effective interpreter needs to understand and respect the lingo, context and participants in play.

While it's not unusual for designated interpreters to take on additional non-interpreting duties, O'Hara said, RID's code of ethics requires them to manage appropriate professional boundaries to maintain confidentiality, ideally recusing themselves from discussions that could create a conflict of interest.

And while Tom's rapport with Mary helps him lead and communicate more effectively, he may be undermining himself by refusing to consider alternate interpreters when appropriate. O'Hara said deaf professionals he works with have a short list of regular contractors they are comfortable with.

You may have to enlist HR's aid to reconcile Tom's needs with your understandable privacy concerns. But first, you might explore resources from RID and the US National Association of the Deaf to help you better understand Tom's challenges as a deaf leader in a hearing world. That could help you advocate for change in the spirit of also fostering an inclusive workplace that truly helps colleagues connect.

Thanks also to Brenda Cartwright, chair of the Lansing (Mich.) Community College Sign Language Interpreter Program.

Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.