By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO
Throughout the course of my Westpac Social Change Fellowship year I met with many organisations, government agencies and global corporates. One common thread emerged from these meetings: all but two were struggling to employ meaningful numbers of people with disabilities and all were constantly working to recruit people at the entry level as a way of increasing their disability employment percentages.
At the same time all these organisations had a strong percentage of people identifying as disabled during their annual survey of staff. Yet the numbers showing up in the survey were not translating into people openly identifying as disabled on a day to day basis.
Dianne works internationally for a global corporate as a senior partner. She is responsible for an entire division and has been with the company for 15 years. Recently, Dianne’s disability has become more pronounced and she is unable to conceal it anymore, so she’s started talking to her close colleagues and superiors about workplace adjustments. Dianne is still able to perform her role and to make the decisions required of her, but suddenly her company is not including her in key meetings and she is no longer being given responsibility for new initiatives. Her client load dries up. Dianne feels that she is no longer welcome, and she resigns from her position feeling forced out because she has no clients or responsibility anymore.
Brian is a senior executive in the public sector with a long career of achievement and recognition. Following a recent break, he’s realised that he needs to be open about his psychosocial disability and the need to adjust his work hours more flexibly so that he can sustain his high-pressure position. There’s just a few things that he needs to be careful about, otherwise he’s fine to meet the demands of the job. It takes enormous courage to talk openly about his disability, but he’s conscious that he can also act as a role model for other staff in the department, so he goes ahead with his decision to be open. The following month Brian isn’t assigned a position when the department spills positions and shuffles the SES around as part of machinery of government changes. Despite being one of the most valued leaders until now, he suddenly becomes redundant. Brian realises that this wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t made the decision to be open about his disability.
People are not open about their disability in the workplace because it isn’t safe for them to be so. These are real case studies (deidentified) from leaders associated with the Disability Leadership Institute. Both case studies are less than five years old. They are not unusual stories.
If Dianne and Brian had been supported when making the decision to be open about their disability both these organisations would have retained leadership talent, had senior role models for junior staff to look up to (you can’t be what you can’t see), and would have increased their disability workforce percentage. More critically both organisations would also have had access to the innovation and perspective that disabled workers contribute at higher levels than non-disabled workforce, and this would have improved their efficiency and bottom line.
Rather than continually recruiting entry level staff with disabilities, organisations should be working hard to retain the existing numbers of disabled workers that they already have. The people are there, they just aren’t being open about their disability because it is clearly not safe to do so. If organisations focussed on changing culture their disability workforce percentages would increase overnight. More critically, retention of new staff coming in at entry level would increase because the culture was supportive, and disability was valued.
Focussing on recruitment provides a constant stream of junior staff who must then individually change the culture around them from a position of least power. Recruitment takes substantial resources and takes a long time to contribute to culture shift in a meaningful way. It also doesn’t address the revolving door of more senior disabled staff who have a contribution to make.
Focussing on retention of existing staff, by changing culture, shifts an organisation to a position of consolidation of existing resources. It offers role models, enhanced innovation, and through this builds an attractive workplace that people with disabilities will aspire to.
Constant recruitment is not the solution to low disability workforce numbers. It is simply hitting the same nail with a bigger and bigger sledgehammer.
Until culture is addressed, organisations will continue to experience far lower percentages of openly identified disabled workforce than the real percentages they are uncovering in annual staff surveys.
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