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  • Tammy Binford

Getting Beyond the 'Charity Model': Tips for Recruiting Employees with Disabilities

Woman with disability working in manufacturing environment

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Few dispute research showing that a diverse workforce contributes to an employer’s success, but diversity efforts often don’t explore the benefits of recruiting people with disabilities. However, that’s beginning to change.

"We have certainly seen a shift,” says Kristine Foss, managing director with Disability Solutions, the consulting division of the nonprofit Ability Beyond. In her work, she specializes in creating customized plans for companies to hire and retain people with disabilities.

Foss says at one time, employers were more interested in the perceived risks of hiring someone with a disability, but employers are now beginning to think about the benefits people with disabilities can bring. Employees with a range of disabilities bring a different perspective and set of life experiences that can spur ideas for new in-demand products and services from all kinds of clients and customers.

In addition to breaking away from a focus on risk, Foss says employers are beginning to move away from the “charity model,” in which efforts are centered on how to help someone with a disability find suitable employment instead of how an employee with a disability can benefit an employer.

Keith Meadows, a hiring and engagement consultant with Disability Solutions who works with several Fortune 500 clients, says the charity model too often leads those involved in hiring to think of reasons a person with a disability might not be able to do the job, though that may not be the reality. It takes teaching Human Resources professionals and hiring managers to “flip that script and highlight the business value” of employees with disabilities.

Foss says her organization stresses the importance of considering a diverse group of disabilities. Some potential employees will have physical disabilities, and others may include people with attention deficit disorder, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, people with autism, and those with mental health issues. All can bring valuable insights to a team.

Going Beyond Special Initiatives

Some employers have focused on special initiatives aimed at bringing in people with certain disabilities. An example of a special initiative is Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program, which was launched in 2015 and has brought on dozens of full-time employees in roles such as software engineers, data scientists, and content writers.

But Foss and Meadows prefer a different approach. They point to major employers such as PepsiCo and Aramark that are making disability inclusion a part of their overall recruiting strategy, not just a special initiative.

Although special initiatives can be helpful, Foss says they have their shortcomings. “The downside of those special initiatives is that they live or die with the champion who started them,” she says. They’re too often a “feel-good thing” that goes away when the champion leaves or budgets get cut. “We’re excited because we’re starting to see companies reach beyond that,” she says.

When companies make disability diversity part of their overall recruiting strategy—“making this part of their DNA”—it’s not something that gets cut, Foss says. It also knocks down barriers.

Foss notes the entrance of younger people into the workforce is another catalyst for change that’s breaking down barriers, as they’ve been learning alongside peers with and without disabilities. Those younger workers are ahead of the older generations who grew up when people with disabilities were segregated in school.

Tips for Employers

To help employers benefit from disability recruiting, Foss and Meadows offer some ideas.

  • Be willing to have an honest conversation, Meadows says. Disability “seems like a forbidden word,” but employers shouldn’t shy away from it. When a hiring manager is so focused on trying to say the right thing, the job candidate may sense the interviewer is uncomfortable. Training can help managers get comfortable and learn what opportunities people with disabilities can bring. Foss adds that interviewers shouldn’t be afraid to ask job candidates what they need. For example, a deaf person may need a sign language interpreter for an interview. Instead of being unsure of what to do and scrambling at the last minute, the interviewer should discuss the issue ahead of time with the candidate. A candidate may bring an interpreter along if necessary.

  • Provide alternative ways for a person with a disability to show why he or she would make a good employee. Foss says that Human Resources professionals spend a lot of time establishing a consistent experience to mitigate risk. But that doesn’t always work when dealing with people with disabilities. Instead, Human Resources should find ways to enable people with disabilities to demonstrate how they can be successful in a role, even if that means deviating from usual practices.

  • Form business resource groups (BRGs), and capitalize on the ideas they bring. Foss points out that many employers have BRGs related to race, gender, age, etc., and having one for employees with disabilities can not only help employees relate to each other but also give businesses a new and valuable resource—employers can tap members’ ideas on how to effectively recruit and retain applicants with disabilities.

  • Be aware of company culture and its effect on retention. Foss says that when she first checks in with a company that has hired someone with a disability, she’s told everything is fine. However, after a few months, she learns the employee is about to be let go because of performance issues. What happened? Managers often are afraid to use the same performance management plan they use for employees without disabilities, she says. An employee without a disability would have gotten coaching and clear communication about objectives and goals.

Meadows adds that employees with disabilities may not feel comfortable talking about accommodations they need if they’re in a culture that expects them to fit into “a cookie-cutter mold.” Mentoring programs for employees with disabilities can help. “It boils down to culture,” he says.

Kristine Foss, MA, SPHR, SHRM SCP, is the Managing Director at Disability Solutions, a nonprofit consulting practice that specializes in creating customized plans for companies to strengthen their workforce by hiring and retaining people with disabilities. Her team has partnered with Fortune 500 clients including PepsiCo, Synchrony Financial, American Express, Aon and Aramark to successfully fill talent gaps by attracting a historically under-tapped pool of workers—people with disabilities gaps. A former “generalist” HR Leader, Kris understands the pressures and goals of the HR professional, as well as the experiences and barriers encountered by job seekers and employees with disabilities.

Keith Meadows is the Hiring and Engagement Consultant at Disability Solutions, where he seeks to bridge the communication gap that frequently exists between community organizations serving jobseekers with disabilities and employers, helping them find the best talent match. Prior to Disability Solutions, Keith spent 12 years on the employer side as a hiring manager in the restaurant industry.


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