There are many good reasons why it pays to have a diverse workforce, as Karen Higginbottom discovers
Nearly eight million people of working age in the UK have a disability, according to the Office for National Statistics. However, figures from the Office for Disability Issues show that fewer than half of disabled people are in employment.
The under-representation of people with disabilities in the workplace means many employers are missing out on talent, says Robin Schneider, co-founder of diversity consultancy Schneider Ross, whose clients include Vodafone and National Grid.
“The business case for embracing diversity is straightforward,” he says. “It means you have access to talent that others may overlook and you retain talent you might otherwise lose. It’s essentially about skills, so if you have a bunch of people who have those skills that other employers aren’t recruiting, then you want to recruit them.”
It doesn’t make sense to ignore a substantial proportion of the working-age population in this current economic climate where employers are complaining of skills shortages, argues Dianah Worman, public policy adviser on diversity for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
The business case for embracing diversity means you have access to talent that others may overlook and you retain talent you might otherwise lose
“We’re experiencing a skills crisis in the UK and if we disengage a large section of our population, then we continue to damage our competitive advantage,” she says. Certainly the statistics bear this out: UK employers are more concerned about the lack of skilled employees in the labour pool than any of their Western European counterparts, according to a survey of 1,300 chief executives worldwide by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
Employers are failing to exploit this pool of under-used talent, says Ms Worman. “You need to look at talent in all its forms. If you go for the same kind of person that you’ve always had, then you’re not exploiting talent. It doesn’t matter what packaging talent comes in. Employers should be more adventurous,” she says.
Another impetus for change is the demographic time bomb of an ageing UK workforce facing employers. This means they will have to take a progressive stance on disability, says Mustafa Özbilgin, professorofHuman Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour at Brunel University. “As we age, we often gain disabilities and people will be working longer due to poor pension provision, so organisations need to prepare themselves for this,” he says. “If organisations don’t future-proof themselves, then this will affect them in the long term.”
In fact, making provision now for disabled people can also help organisations get the best out of their existing workforce, adds Mr Schneider. “The majority of people with disabilities in the workplace will not be people that employers recruit, but employees who develop a disability during their working life,” he says. “Employees who develop impairments would feel confident enough to be open with their manager about it and that is three-quarters of the way to ensuring that it doesn’t become a problem.”
But there is another bonus for employers recruiting and developing disabled employees in the workplace, argues Mr Schneider. “There is an assumption that people with disabilities will have greater absence levels and lower performance levels, but the opposite is true as they take less time off sick and are better performers,” he says. Indeed, research backs up this view with DIY chain B&Q finding that employing disabled staff resulted in better retention and productivity rates, according to a 2010 United Nations report.
Employers also experience a beneficial impact on their non-disabled employees from having taken a positive approach to disability in the workplace. “Creating an environment where disability is accepted as just another way in which, as individuals, we differ from each other plays out positively with employees,” he says. “They feel proud that their employer is playing its part in society, helping to improve attitudes towards disability.”
Creating an environment where disability is accepted as just another way in which, as individuals, we differ from each other plays out positively with employees
However, it’s not just a case of ensuring you recruit the widest possible selection of talent from the UK population. Employing people who reflect your customer base helps inform your products and services to that particular community, and improves your profitability, says Ms Worman. “You need to ensure you offer a good customer experience, and that means a diverse approach so you can deliver products and services that add value to your business,” she says.
This is the case for Habinteg, a national provider of affordable homes and support services, where one in three of its properties is designed specifically for wheelchair users and 17 per cent of its workforce is disabled, explains Paul Gamble, the housing association’s chief executive. “Two of our twelve board members are disabled people so they are just as likely to be our bosses as our customers and the board members’ experience frames our strategic direction,” he says.
“Our disabled board members, along with the rest of the board, hold the organisation to account for delivery of our strategy which has the inclusion and experience of disabled people at its heart,” he adds. “There is a wider, valuable impact in having disabled people represented at board level in that it grounds the organisation’s leadership in the messy reality of the day-to-day experience of disabled people.”
There could even be a backlash against organisations that fail to take account of their disabled customers, warns Phil Friend, chairman of Disability Rights UK. “Disabled customers will take their business elsewhere if employers get it wrong,” he says.
Employers who are known for their progressive approach to diversity and inclusion are also more likely to attract the next generation to their organisation, says Ms Worman. “The younger generation have much stronger expectations around equality compared to older people and this could impact on recruitment if you’re seen as a dinosaur organisation not delivering on diversity,” she warns.
A PwC survey of more than 4,000 university graduates in 2011, otherwise known as “millennials”, reveals that this generation are looking for strong diversity policies from employers. However, the millennials felt that, while employers talked about diversity, this didn’t mean that opportunities were equal for all.
The benefits of employing disabled employees can also be tremendously powerful in terms of how the employer brand is perceived by the general public, says Mr Schneider. “There is no doubt that disability connects with the public at large,” he says. “If you look at the Paralympics, it changed the patronising attitude of the public towards what people with disability can do. Disability does have a strong emotional connection and the general public recognise that disability could happen to them, and usually have friends and family who have some form of impairment.”
He believes that employers, who show what they can do to help disabled people contribute effectively in society, are on to a triple win. “It’s about showing you care and want to do something for the community, but also sending a positive message about being a progressive company and reaching out and engaging people with fantastic skills to bring them into the workforce,” he says.
As the economy starts to heat up and the battle for talent emerges once again, these are compelling reasons to look to employ as diverse a workforce as possible.
BANKING ON DIVERSITY
Employing people with disabilities is central to how Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) does business, says Graeme Whippy, senior manager of the bank’s disability programme. “It’s really about building deep, lasting relationships with our customers,” he says. “We need our workforce to reflect the make-up of the communities where we do business.”
Mr Whippy is responsible for overseeing the bank’s approach to its workplace adjustments programme, which more than 12,000 disabled employees have completed in the last three years. “If a colleague says they have a disability, then we want to know what we can do to create a level playing field to minimise the impact of the disability,” he says.
The programme covers both physical adjustments, such as IT equipment, and non-physical adjustments, such as flexible working patterns. Since the programme has been implemented, 80 per cent of managers have reported improvement in productivity for disabled colleagues who participated in it.
Another important aspect of supporting disabled employees is through the bank’s personal development and career development programmes. The personal development programme is a three-day residential course aimed at junior employees with disabilities, says Fiona Cannon, LBG’s group director, diversity and inclusion. “It’s often the first time people have thought about their disability and how that relates to the world they live in,” she says.
The career development programme is aimed at fast-tracking talented employees with disabilities. “This focuses on their career in LBG, and identifies where the gaps are in their CVs and where they want to go next,” says Ms Cannon.
In a survey of participants of both programmes, conducted earlier this year, 86 per cent reported their confidence had improved, 68 per cent said they were more engaged with the organisation, 63 per cent said their performance had improved and 15 per cent had been promoted since attending. To date, 400 disabled employees have attended one of the programmes.
A large part of supporting disabled employees is about educating line managers who manage people with disabilities. LBG has delivered mandatory e-learning on managing disability to managers across the group. So far, 22,000 line managers have completed the course.