• Keith Meadows

Meaningful Employment for People with Disabilities Changes Lives

I first met Mark Lang at an interview skills class that I was teaching at a local Dayton, Ohio branch of vocational rehabilitation (Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities). Our team often conducts these sessions both in person and in online formats and they are designed to be free classes for jobseekers with disabilities centered on enhancing interviewing skills while also educating them on the application process for several of our clients. The goal is to get our clients, the employers, great talent for their workforce but also to impact the community overall by helping as many individuals and veterans with disabilities as possible in their search for employment.

Mark attended my session in the fall of 2016 and I was immediately captivated with his outgoing and fun loving approach to life. He took the class information to heart, gave his best effort, improved dramatically, mixed in plenty of jokes and most impressively, spent time building the rest of the class up and encouraging them. He took the material from the class and applied it to his job search, helping him receive an offer for a Collections Representative position with Synchrony in Kettering OH, where he has now been working for nearly two years. See: Mark Lang Makes an Impact on Synchrony Financial

A Familiar Employment Journey for Many Jobseekers with Disabilities

Our team recently sat down with Mark to talk about some of his past employment experiences and to see what has changed since he landed full time employment with Synchrony.

Mark’s journey up until that point in 2016 was very similar to many individuals with disabilities. Mark has had a lifelong struggle with learning disabilities and has a speech impediment. His voice comes across in a different way that sometimes surprises people and causes them to make incorrect snapshot judgements. When you mix these elements together, you have a recipe for a challenging life path.

Mark describing his experience with previous employers, “I had a maintenance job before. To me, it felt like a charity job. My brother worked there. The owner wanted somebody to ask if they knew anyone that could do maintenance around the building, because they were always hiring people to mow the grass and painting. They wanted somebody on call to kind of be the gopher boy. So, that's what I did.”

“Now, a couple people there wanted me to grow, doing something with computers. They knew I had a skill with video production work that I developed on my own. The owner wanted no part of it. They said no, we hired Mark for this and that's what he's going to be. I worked there for, what, 17 years, I think,” says Mark.

“Then, I fell into a little bit of a depression, because the owner sold the company and laid people off in 2008. I was one of them. Looking for work, my brother told me about a senior living place that had a position open for a security guard. So, I did that for two years, but they didn't want me to be full-time there doing security. I didn't really feel like I was making a difference or that my job contributed to anything and I didn't like it.”

Looking back on his experience, Mark reflects, “Nobody likes hearing the R-word, but I think these past employers really were thinking, well, we have to have an R person in here because that's probably what the law is and he's a good candidate for it. That is definitely what it felt like to me with these jobs and it certainly didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel like I was really a part of anything or had any opportunity to grow.”

This exchange really highlights some of the downfalls of charity employment. It can certainly have a small place in the grand scheme of disability employment, however Mark’s example illustrates how limiting some of these roles can be.

Oftentimes, companies realize (either legally or via an incident/PR) that they need to hire people with disabilities and they create or find positions that underutilize the worker’s talents. In essence, the worker becomes the token person with a disability for the company and does not have the same opportunities for growth that others do. Mark was the token person with a disability for several of his previous employers before Synchrony.

Believe it or not, despite the fact that his previous employment situations had little opportunity and room for growth, Mark was actually very lucky. The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is roughly double the national average. And many people with disabilities are unable to find work because they have trouble navigating the application process, interviewing, or they are just flat out discriminated against by hiring managers who count them out before they even get an opportunity to showcase their abilities.

A New Beginning and a New Belief

Mark’s story took a life changing turn when he began his new job at Synchrony in 2016. When asked what makes Synchrony different from his other employers, he explained that Synchrony was more focused on, “Helping me succeed. For instance, they don't say, okay, Mark, you got a learning disability. You can't succeed. Which, unfortunately, when I was in school that is what they told me. So growing up and hearing this a lot, it made me lose my confidence big time.”

“But Synchrony does it differently. They help you succeed. They will spend time with you and train you. They tell me, Mark, you can do this. They believe in me which also helps me believe in myself. So, that's what they've done. They've helped me succeed because they don't tell me, you can't do it. They say, you can do this. They would not be spending their time and money on training me and growing my career if they didn't think I could succeed.”

In addition to helping Mark believe in himself, Synchrony has developed a network of employee resource groups (ERG’s) specifically to help support individuals like Mark. Mark sums up his experience with the Synchrony’s ERG’s, “Synchrony has these internal diversity groups, so they actually understand somebody with a disability like me. Not once has anybody ever said to me, aw, come on, you don't know what that means, or what's wrong with you? In my whole life that is what everybody else has always said to me. Not one person at Synchrony has ever done that. They focus on the positives and helping each employee.”

When companies truly support their employees, offer them positive encouragement, and allow them room to grow as both an individual and as an employee, the sky is the limit. This is where Mark’s previous employers missed out. They could have had a multi-faceted, competent, dedicated long-term employee but they chose to view him as a person with a disability that they “had to hire” who was always destined for a limited role. This became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy for Mark and his overall confidence struggled as a result.

Situations like Mark’s happen every day to people with all different kinds of disabilities. Confidence levels get battered from repeated “you can’t…..” comments. It is tough to be confident if you are constantly told that you are unable to do things and dismissed as an afterthought.

Making a Difference Day by Day

When I asked Mark to tell me how his life has changed since he began working at Synchrony two years ago, he came up with an interesting contrast.

“I never thought I'd be like a financial guy, but people, who two years ago probably never would have talked to me, are talking to me on a daily basis about their credit cards and debt and I am able to help them solve problems, which is really rewarding,” says Mark. “It has boosted my confidence a lot both at work and in my personal life. I never imagined two years ago that I'd be advising my friends and family on how to navigate financial questions when they call me outside of work. And we're talking about a group of some highly educated people here who call me up. Again, I love it, I think the education is great and I’ve learned a lot.”

Mark has thrived with Synchrony. He has been the recipient of the “employee of the month” for multiple periods and often represents his collections department at company events. One of his proudest moments was finishing 2nd in the company talent show playing the drums. A lifelong fan of the rock band KISS, and specifically its former drummer Peter Criss, Mark surprised his fellow employees:

“Well, first of all, I think that might have been the high point of my life, because, when they announced me you heard a couple of laughs, because people were thinking, what's this guy going to do? In their defense, they had only heard me speak at work, and they didn't know that I have played the drums since I was four.”

“When I did that, I mean, you could feel it. I saw it. The mouths were dropping. When I play in front of an audience, I don’t hold back. I go for style and also showmanship. Which, usually when you see me at work or in person, I'm kind of shy. If I don't know somebody I'm really shy at first, but once you put me in front of people to entertain, I love to surprise and shock people. I enjoy doing it.”

Mark has become so popular within the company because of his work performance and personality, that Synchrony even gave him an all-expenses paid trip to their Global Diversity Symposium in Washington D.C. this year to meet and share ideas with Synchrony diversity group representatives from all over the world. Attendees came from all around the United States, India, and the Philippines. When Mark found out that the event theme was the 1970’s, he knew exactly what his costume would be…naturally, he would go as Peter Criss of KISS.

Mark stole the show and probably could have set up an autograph table for himself judging from the constant buzz of people hovering around him at this event. To an outsider it probably did appear as if he were actually in the band KISS.

When he returned to Kettering, Mark was asked by the Synchrony Ohio leadership to tell his fellow coworkers about his Global Diversity Symposium experience. So he stood up in front of everyone and said. “You know, I don't have a lot of family of my own. I have a brother and a cousin who live all over, but both parents have passed.

“I told them how, at the Symposium dinner party, all the Synchrony employees had our arms around each other while the DJ played “We Are Family." I said, you know what? You always hear people say, work is like my family. Blah, blah, blah. Nobody ever buys it. But I told the audience that I actually believe it, and this really is true. We really are a family. Although we are all here to make a living so that we can survive, we support each other through thick and thin, and that's what a family is. That's what a family does. That's what you guys have done for me."

“The crowd went crazy. There were two other people that were supposed to give a speech after me and they said, eh, we can't follow that, so let’s have Mark’s speech be the last speech. So, that was pretty cool. I mean, it is pretty awesome thinking on how far I’ve come.”

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