National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) provides an opportunity each October to highlight the value and skills that employees with disabilities bring to the workplace. This year’s theme, “#InclusionWorks,” recognizes that economic viability and corporate success can only be achieved if everybody is included and given the chance to contribute their talent.
Disability inclusiveness often requires a transformation, specifically with organizational culture and climate. Yet, for some employers the phrase “disability in the workplace” may still mostly mean compliance with related laws and regulations, completing forms, and checking boxes. More and more organizations, however, are realizing that they may not be fully competitive unless they leverage all current and future talent. To facilitate this shift, questions must be asked differently. What is our organization doing to align people practices and inclusion efforts with our business goals? How can we ensure that we are fully leveraging the talents of everyone? Does our culture support a workplace that allows all employees to be fully engaged and productive? How can we build trust so that our employees feel safe to come forward when a disability impacts their job performance? Answering these questions requires companies to take a long hard look, not at formal routines and processes, but at the everyday lived experiences of all employees. Research and experience has told us that inclusion efforts compelled solely by compliance are less successful than those driven by a company’s authentic desire to support all its people i. Below are a few suggestions about how employers could shift their focus from legal obligations to disability inclusiveness as a vehicle for better engagement, better performance, and a stronger bottom line.
Top leadership and manager buy-in. When top leaders set the expectation of a disability inclusive workplace and reinforce that commitment with measurable goals and accountability, employees take notice. Our research at Cornell University’s Yang – Tan Institute on Employment and Disability has demonstrated the critical role managers play in driving organizational climate and employee engagement. An organization’s diversity and inclusion policy is only as strong as the commitment of its face-to-face leaders who are responsible for its implementation on a daily basis. To support managers in their efforts to foster a disability inclusive culture, the Yang – Tan Institute developed the Just-in-Time Toolkit for Managers. This practical toolkit is comprised of ten tools that are customized to each company’s policies and practices, and is based on key focus areas including accommodations, communication, culture hiring, and performance management. The toolkit also includes tips on addressing disability-related situations typically encountered by managers to increase awareness, understanding, and provide effective resources.
Build in more thoughtfulness about “job fit” and accommodations. Employers are often concerned about how employees with disabilities may perform specific job tasks and how their impairments may impact productivity and attendance. There are still misconceptions about the costs of accommodations and how employees with disabilities might fit into the overall culture of the organization. There are excellent resources that employers can utilize to learn about the process and type of modifications available that might assist employees with a broad range of disabilities perform their jobs effectively. One such resource is the Job Accommodation Network. While most accommodations cost less than $600, many organizations have established a centralized accommodations budget to eliminate managers’ concerns about the impact of such costs on their departments’ budgets.
Building trust. Trust is difficult to define and even harder to build, yet it is the cornerstone, not only for a disability inclusive workplace, but, in a larger sense, a positive organizational climate. When employees with disabilities feel comfortable and valued, they are much more likely to self-identify or request a needed accommodation that will enhance their performance and increase their productivity. Clearly, building a positive organizational climate for disability inclusiveness is in the best interest of every company. There is no single formula that can move a company from a transactional to a transformational view of disability inclusiveness. It will take more than formal trainings and nice posters in the hallway to truly change culture. Rather, it will take open communication, self-assessment, and a deliberate, thoughtful process. It will, however, be a worthwhile effort as the organization would attract and retain high value talent, build a stronger brand, and increase profitability.
i. Painting a deeper picture of disability inclusiveness: Changing organizational culture and climate, by Hannah Rudstam, Ph.D. and Wendy Strobel Gower, Project Director, Northeast ADA Center, Cornell University?