Interview with Mark Wafer, Champion Advocate for Employing People with Disabilities

Posted on Tuesday, 23 June 2020 by Marissa Sapega

Mark Wafer understands better than most the benefits of employing individuals with disabilities. The owner of six Tim Hortons restaurants in Canada for over 20 years, he has prioritized an inclusive hiring practice and seen incredible results.

TPG: How did hiring employees with disabilities have a positive impact on your business goals for Tim Hortons?

MW: Inclusion of workers with disabilities had a major impact on the economic outcomes of our business. There is, in fact, a significant business case for hiring PWD: greater safety ratings, greater innovation, lower absenteeism, and employee turnover and more

On Absenteeism: we had 250 employees when I sold the restaurants in 2017; 46 had a disability. The absenteeism rate for those individuals was 85% lower than the 200 without. This number is similar to other companies that have built capacity, for example, Walgreens at 78% and DuPont at 86%.

Safety: Workers with disabilities are more concerned with safety in general. Deaf workers are more aware of their surroundings, workers in wheelchairs don’t climb rickety ladders, etc. In 22 years of business and over 200 workers with disabilities, I have never made a workplace injury claim for a worker with a disability.

Innovation: Workers who have different problems hone their solving skills early. Wheelchair users problem solve all day long in a very different way to you or me, blind workers use different problem-solving skills to do basic tasks; this spills over into workplace tasks and workplace problem-solving.

Employee turnover: The average annual employee turnover in the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) sector is 100-125%. In our group of six restaurants, it was always below 40%. Put into terms of profitability, the cost of replacing an entry-level worker in a Tim Horton’s is about $4,000. Lower turnover, therefore, results in higher profitability

Our restaurants were always leaders in sales increases and transaction increases year over year. Though 15% of Canadians have a disability, 53% are directly affected by disability. They either have one or have a loved one at home who has a disability; therefore, it’s front of mind for them. Our hiring practices encouraged customers to shop at our stores even if it meant going out of their way.

TPG: How did you foster a culture of acceptance and inclusion?

MW: Culture takes time but the key ingredients are tone and intent from the top. In this case, it was me. I made it clear we were going to be inclusive.

When interviewing a potential hire we told them they would be working with people who have disabilities, and questioned how the candidate felt about that. This ensured a culture of acceptance.

TPG: Were there challenges that come with hiring PWD that you hadn’t anticipated? If so, can you explain how you overcame them?

MW: There were very few issues. Some workers simply weren’t the right fit and the job did not work out – that’s acceptable. The biggest challenge was trying to get service agencies to improve their standards. They had spent years coasting.

Customers love being served by workers with disabilities. It puts a smile on their face and oftentimes customers will wait in line to be served by their favorite worker who almost always happens to be a worker with a disability. For this reason, we rarely had issues with customers.

TPG: In this article you state “In bringing them into the workplace you’re getting a more loyal employee you’re getting a person that will stay with you longer, you’re getting a person who is more innovative, more productive and who will work in a safer means.” Can you elaborate on the innovative/productive/safer results you’ve seen?

MW: Productivity! Oftentimes a worker with a disability works harder simply because they have waited so long to get a job and now it’s precious. This isn’t fair, but it is reality. Most workers with disabilities outperform their fellow workers without disabilities. We had a deaf baker who outperformed all other 27 bakers in my business by 18%. She set the standard for productivity despite having a very significant disability.

TPG: Have you personally heard of similar experiences other businesses have had from hiring PWD?

MW: Many times. The business case is scalable but is often different depending on the sector and size. For example, RBC has hired hundreds of workers with disabilities, first as a matter of necessity because of labor shortages, but now on purpose because they see value in workers with disabilities. They bring so much more to the job.

Capacity has to be built in order to see significant cultural change. One token disabled employee won’t make much difference at all – except to the person hired of course.

Other champion corporations are TD Bank, Bank of Montreal (BMO), Loblaws, Deloitte, KPMG, E&Y, Assumption Life, Jazz Aviation, Norton Rose Fullbright, Vancity, London Drugs, and Microsoft, to name a few. Additionally, there are many more who are emerging, like Air Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

The most inclusive corporation in the world is Walgreens.

Notable that there are no QSR brands who are doing much in this space. There is a massive competitive advantage to any brand that takes the lead on this in the QSR and retail sectors.

TPG: What advice do you have for companies who want to make their hiring more inclusive?

MW: My best advice is to just do it! Make mistakes and get it wrong. Include workers with disabilities in the journey of getting it right. Practice ATP (ask the person). Don’t judge a disabled worker’s potential.

Most importantly, don’t just talk about getting ready because there is no “ready.” Just do it.

About Mark

Mark Wafer is a disability rights activist. Until recently he was the owner of six highly successful Tim Hortons locations in Toronto. During his 25 years in the business, Mark employed over 200 workers with disabilities in all areas of the operation including senior management. At any given time approximately 17% of his workforce identified as having a disability.

Mark is an internationally recognized expert on the economics of inclusion. He is an advisor to governments around the world and is responsible for Canada’s national disability employment strategy.

Mark has received many awards and recognition for his work most notably from her majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. He was inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame in 2014

A prolific connector of people, Mark has raised over $40 million in the non-profit sector

Mark is also a Motorsports enthusiast, former race car driver, and 2008 Canadian historic sports car champion.


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