Diversity in the Workplace

Posted on Thursday, 2 January 2020 by Marissa Sapega

Is your company missing out on greater revenues and increased productivity? What about lower employee turnover rates? If you were aware this was happening, wouldn’t it be a no-brainer to do something about it? Believe it or not, you could be missing out on these things simply because your workforce diversity could be improved. The good news is that this can be addressed by implementing more inclusive hiring practices.

Consider this: according to the most recent data from the CDC, almost 25% of Americans identify with having a disability. Now, think about your employees. Would 25% of them identify with a disability? Chances are they wouldn’t, because the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities was an alarmingly low 19% in 2018, while overall participation for Americans was 65.9%.

You’re probably wondering why there is a discrepancy and how hiring more people with disabilities (and contributing to a workplace diversity) may improve revenue, productivity, and turnover rates. Let’s first clear up a misconception: oftentimes managers assume that people with disabilities are unable to thrive in the average work environment. The reality is just the opposite. Most people with disabilities are perfectly capable of being productive and successful as long as, like anyone else, they’re given the tools they need to succeed.

How to foster workplace diversity

A diverse workforce is one in which people with different backgrounds, ideologies, abilities, and more are supported and celebrated. It’s propagating culture of acceptance and a willingness to provide the tools people need to succeed. But sometimes it can seem daunting to achieve this. One of the first steps revolves around actively recruiting people with different backgrounds, and the first hurdle is ensuring your organization has inclusive hiring practices.

“Enacting better practices start with the hiring process–actions like checking with applicants when scheduling interviews to see if they have any accommodation needs, ensuring the interview location is accessible and making your final selection process consistent for all applicants is an important first step when looking to ensure that your application field feels fully inclusive,” says Skyler Broughman of TMI Consulting, a diversity and inclusion management consulting and certified B-Corp company.

“Widening the pool of applicants can lead to greater diversity in the workplace. When it comes to inclusivity, it is about more than having a seat at the table – it’s about having a voice in the conversation as well. Having new employees from diverse backgrounds in the conversation can lead to innovative ways of approaching and handling issues both internally and client facing. To continue the internal growth of all employees, be sure to promote your company’s commitment to diversity and foster a culture of trust among your staff.”

Kathy Gurchiek from the Society for Human Resource Management offers additional recommendations, such as educating leaders to promote a top-down inclusive culture. She uses Merck as an example of a leader in this strategy, citing their leadership training in unconscious bias and periodic evaluation of professional development options to better manage a diverse workforce as prime tactics for achieving an inclusive workplace.

Managing diversity in the workplace

Managing a diverse workforce is no different than any other business initiative. Having a strategy and a plan to accommodate workers with disabilities will set you up for success. Ryan Jones, a low-vision project manager at TPG and a frequent presenter on hiring people with disabilities at industry conferences, recommends that companies “assemble a team of stakeholders from multiple divisions like human resources, information technology, and procurement to prepare in advance for employees with disabilities, rather than waiting until you have hired someone who has physical or mental disabilities.” (Access the slides from his presentation on hiring people with disabilities.)

Ensuring accessible hiring and recruiting processes for workplace diversity

Do you know if your digital hiring process is fully accessible? Many companies don’t realize that they are unintentionally limiting their pool of potential employees because their online job application is inaccessible. This in turn curtails potential benefits of a diverse workforce.

According to a study involving 16 blind screen reader users who attempted to fill out two job applications online, “only 28.1% of application attempts could be completed independently without any assistance.” The study, published in the Journal of Usability Studies and conducted by Jonathan Lazar and Abiodun Olalere of Towson University and Brian Wentz of Frostburg State University, clocked the longest unsuccessful attempt at almost four hours, at which point the would-be applicant gave up.

An inaccessible job application portal is one of the most obvious concerns to resolve in order to create an inclusive work environment and can be initially addressed by an accessibility review.

Enabling all employees to succeed

Oftentimes assistive technology is crucial to support workers with disabilities. Tools like screen readers, voice dictation software, and desktop and portable magnifiers allow blind and low-vision employees to perform their jobs. Ryan notes that supplying items like these are “no different than providing other essential work items like a desk, computer, chair, etc.” No manager in would expect an employee to work without a chair or a desk, because these are basic necessities an employee needs to be successful. Why should assistive technology be viewed differently?

The benefits of diversity in the workplace

While a truly “diverse” workforce obviously goes far beyond hiring people with different physical and mental abilities, employing workers with disabilities in particular offer vast benefits to companies. According to Corinne Weible, Deputy Project Director at the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT), employees with disabilities “stay on the job longer and are absent less, have job performance ratings nearly identical to their peers without disabilities, and enhance workplace diversity, which drives innovation and market growth.”

Cisco, Microsoft, and EY (formerly Ernst and Young) (among other companies) have found this viewpoint to be spot on. Cisco’s Project Life Changer initiative combine multiple solutions to common barriers to employing people with disabilities, such as virtual office tools for working remotely, assistive technology for differently abled people, and technology to collaborate with employees working from home to accommodate physical needs. The first year Cisco saw a rise of 220% in productivity. Now, if that isn’t a testimonial for hiring people with disabilities, I don’t know what is.

Why is diversity important in the workplace?

Just ask EY: it sees diversity hiring as a way to improve its business. In 2016 EY launched a “neurodiversity” program that focuses on hiring people on the autism spectrum to work on accounting and analytics products. “From the start, our neurodiverse colleagues began to identify process improvements and recommendations that’ll help our client-facing teams provide services more efficiently. In the first month alone, they identified process improvements that cut the time for technical training in half. In addition, the team learned how to automate processes far faster and subsequently created additional training materials to help others,” said program Director Hiren Shukla.

Another positive workplace diversity example comes in the form of a 2012 publication from the Panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. It reported that Walgreens, Marriott, and Washington Mutual all experienced drastically lower turnover rates from their employees with disabilities in comparison to the rest of their workforce. For Marriott, the rate was just 6% from those with disabilities versus 52% overall; Washington Mutual saw just 8% turnover versus 45%, respectively. Turnover is not only costly, it decreases overall productivity and dampens workplace morale. Smart companies know that keeping their employees happy is the quickest path to success. These turnover rates underscore the importance of diversity in the workplace, especially when it comes to people with disabilities.

Tax credits in the United States for hiring disabled workers

While the innovation and productivity improvements are a big advantage of diversity in the workplace, there are financial incentives for hiring people with disabilities as well. The Disabled Access Tax Credit offers a tax credit of 50% of the eligible access expenditures to small businesses each year they make such a purchase. The Targeted Jobs Credit provides up to 40% of the first $6,000 of first-year wages of a new employee with a disability who meets certain criteria.

States often have additional tax credits. For example, Iowa offers a tax deduction of up to $20,000 for the first year of employment on top of the Targeted Jobs Credit, and New York’s Workers with Disabilities Tax Credit Program promises up to a $2,100 tax credit for each individual hired during their second year of employment. Who knows? Your company could be ripe for a tax credit – just for improving the diversity of your workforce!

A rising tide lifts all ships

As these forward-thinking companies have already discovered, differently abled people are used to coming up with creative solutions to problems that most of us never have to consider, such as finding lost keys, navigating busy and bumpy sidewalks, and even finding matching clothing. This resourceful mindset is an asset that helps diverse workers identify new ways of thinking and driving a business forward. Corinne says “Tech companies are increasingly seeing the tie between diverse perspectives and the creation of products that are not only accessible, but also better for everyone,” a perspective shared by TPG’s UX team. The benefits of a diverse workforce just keep coming!

The risks of ignoring diversity in the workplace

If all the benefits resulting from a diverse workforce are not enough of a convincing argument for you, consider that discriminatory employment practices are against the law. According the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to offer reasonable accommodations to allow a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of his or her job, as long as the reasonable accommodation does not create an undue hardship.

How should companies interpret an “undue hardship? “Where expense is unlikely to be accepted as undue hardship, consider instead whether the accommodation would be unduly disruptive to other employees’ ability to work, whether there is a significant disruption to business operations, or a significant impact on the ability to conduct business,” says Brian Ashe of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, a firm widely known for its expertise on accessibility-related legal regulations.

According to Ashe, there are three types of accommodations: those that “ensure equal opportunity in the hiring process, those that allow an employee to perform the essential functions of the position, and ones that allow employees with disabilities to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.” Failure to abide by these accommodations are considered a violation of the law. Now, why would you want to do that?

Increasing lawsuits alleging disability discrimination

In the past few years, a number of firms have been hit with lawsuits accusing them of disability discrimination. In 2016, Chick-fil-A became the target of a lawsuit brought by an autistic man claiming he was denied employment because of his disability. Just one year later, an employee alleged that Lowe’s refused to accommodate his disability, demoting him to a lower position instead. More recently, the EEOC sued West Mead Place for failing to accommodate an employee’s disability, then firing her because of it.

Legal considerations aside, a diverse workplace is rife with benefits that no company can afford to pass up. Creativity, innovation, and recruitment of top talent are just some of the key advantages of utilizing a wide of talent, regardless of a person’s individual limitations.

Smart leaders know that a company’s success relies heavily on its most important asset: its employees. Not to mention that it’s morally objectionable to preclude people with disabilities from achieving career success. One non-profit, RespectAbility, has made it its mission to educate the community on the benefits of a diverse workforce. “Our nation was founded on the principle that anyone who works hard should be able to get ahead in life,” says RespectAbility’s President, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi. “People with disabilities deserve equal opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence just like anyone else.” Moral arguments notwithstanding, in a business world that’s growing ever more competitive, companies that ignore the vast benefits of an inclusive workforce will be ill equipped to flourish in the long-term. The final word? Smart companies know that diversity = success.


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