Disability inclusion: How HR leaders can build more inclusive workplaces

By Emma Smith 02 June 2017

Here are some of the ways positive leadership and HR practices can impact the diversity and inclusion of a workforce. Photo by: Vojtech Okenka

Building a diverse and inclusive workforce requires a work culture where all employees feel fully engaged and able to fulfill their potential. Leadership and human resources practices both play critical roles in shaping an organization's work culture, and are therefore key to making employers more inclusive of employees of all diversities and abilities.

Money, of course, is always a factor when it comes to hiring decisions, and employers may have concerns about the costs of additional assistance and accommodations for candidates with disabilities. It is harder for development organizations who may work with limited resources and insecure budgets said Ashim Chowla, chief executive of Lepra India, which employs over thirty people affected by leprosy or other diseases to implement its projects in India.*

“That is not to say that I haven’t see organizations that have cracked it if they wanted to, it comes back to attitude,” he adds.

Here are just some of the ways positive leadership and HR practices can impact the diversity and inclusion of a workforce.

Lead by example

Leadership can make the single biggest impact in creating, changing or managing workplace culture. In setting and communicating the organization’s vision, a leader can influence employee behaviors, including attitudes towards hiring and working with people with disabilities. Jessica Pointer, a senior staffing specialist at Tetra Tech, suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and feels strongly that leaders are critical to creating an inclusive work environment. “A message and tone of inclusion need to come from the top,” she says.

“People inevitably model and mirror that tone and associated behaviors. When leadership makes a value statement of inclusiveness, it’s incumbent on staff to follow suit and make appropriate good faith efforts,” Pointer adds.

In the United States, as in most countries, the law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to candidates with disabilities who fit the job requirements. Pointer said however that “individual perspectives don’t always keep pace with legislation,” and so it is up to leadership to establish and reinforce ideas of equality and inclusion. Leaders also influence hiring decisions — they set goals for organizational growth and diversity, they make decisions on resource allocation, and they set criteria for recruitment, selection, training and promotion.

Take a proactive approach to recruiting diverse talent

It is not enough for employers to discuss access issues and install ramps and toilets, they must actually outline and implement inclusive recruitment policies, said Mosharraf Hossain, director of global policy, influencing and research of ADD International. Some organizations have focused on making their office space physically accessible, yet there are still very few people with disabilities actually working there because they didn’t take the time to address inclusion and diversity in their recruitment policy, explains Hossain.

And in order to recruit diverse talent, HR must diversify the way it reaches and attracts candidates. Jennifer Coburn, global staffing specialist with Oxfam America, works with a number of local organizations helping people with different disabilities get into work. Coburn has attended their recruitment events, specifically for people with disabilities, and worked with their employment services to build a diverse pipeline of talent — “they have been invaluable resources,” she said.

Go the extra mile

For most candidates, HR personnel are their first point of contact with an organization. After posting the job and screening candidates, HR coordinates callbacks and typically participates in interviews. Successful candidates will then work with the HR team to negotiate salaries, and discuss start dates, equipment needs and onboarding processes. The people working in HR are therefore an introduction to the organization’s work culture and can make a huge impact on a candidate's first impression of the employer. Small gestures and creative approaches to recruitment can go a long way in demonstrating the organization's commitment to diversity and inclusion. Oxfam’s Coburn, purchased business cards in Braille to allow her to better engage with visually impaired candidates. She says that this sets the expectation for inclusion from the first moment a job seeker interacts with Oxfam.

“When I hand someone my business card and I watch them realize it is in Braille, you can just see the understanding sweep over their face, they know from that first moment that we take inclusion seriously here,” Coburn added.

Oxfam America has also worked with these different organizations, some of which are state funded, to provide the necessary accommodation and training for new hires to perform at their best. This has included CapTel telephones for deaf or hard-of-hearing employees, working with American Sign Language interpreters, installing Jaws screen reader software and labelling things in Braille to help blind employees, and bringing in mobility experts to help with onboarding.

“The resources out there for employers are fantastic and the benefits to the organization far outweigh the little bit of extra effort it may take to properly onboard and support staff with different abilities,” Coburn explained.

* Update, June 14, 2017: This article has been updated to clarify that Ashim Chowla is chief executive of Lepra India.

Over the next month, Devex, together with our partners the Career Development Roundtable and UNFPA, will take a look at how human resources can be a real driver for innovation, efficiency, and impact in global development. Join us as we share the people and ideas leading the next generation of HR by tagging #HRLeads.

About the author

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Emma Smith

Emma Smith is a reporting and communications associate at Devex, based in Barcelona. She focuses on bringing the latest career and hiring trends, tips, and insights to our global development community. Emma has a background in journalism and, in addition to writing for news publications, has worked with organizations focusing on child rights and women’s rights in sustainable development.


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