Promote Inclusion by Encouraging Disability Disclosure

A series of executive orders and proposed regulatory changes has underscored the importance of creating work environments that not only attract new employees with disabilities, but encourage the disclosure of disabilities that may not be visible.

In anticipation of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs’ (OFCCP) final regulations regarding mandated use of goals for people with disabilities, identifying employees who experience a disability will be critical to meeting hiring and retention goals. Failure to meet those goals can result in hefty fines and penalties, as well as intensive oversight from OFCCP that can last for years.

Employers who proactively identify and seek to eliminate barriers to disclosure within their organizations will benefit in two ways — by increasing retention and morale among all employees and by reducing the threat of legal or regulatory missteps.

Employees who fear negative consequences can be reluctant to disclose a disability. Research by the American Association of People with Disabilities and Cornell University found that many job seekers and employees are worried that disclosing could lead to lack of employment or advancement opportunities, or possible termination or a heightened emphasis on the disability rather than performance.

Encouraging disclosure is a strategy that affects effective human resource management beyond compliance. It is also a best practice throughout the employment cycle. Strategies that can influence a person’s willingness to disclose a disability can have many other unanticipated positive consequences for employers, such as an overall increase in employee morale, productivity gains as a result of reasonable accommodations, greater accessibility and improved employee retention and engagement.

Developing a corporate culture of mindfulness regarding disability that is embedded within policies, procedures and practice can send a message about the company’s commitment to inclusion and take the fear out of disclosing.

Strategies that promote inclusion and encourage disclosure include:

Value disability as a form of diversity: Include disability in the company’s diversity mission statement. Conduct disability awareness and diversity training whether there are employees with disabilities or not. This can reduce stigma and discomfort, improve interaction and increase likelihood of disclosure by employees with non-visible disabilities.

Administer voluntary surveys to assess employee demographics and perceptions: Voluntary surveys that request applicant and employee demographics and assess perceptions of workplace culture are valuable toward gauging employee satisfaction and may encourage individuals with disabilities to share concerns related to their sense of inclusion. To increase participation and disclosure, there should be a clear statement about the purpose of the survey — a desire to diversify the workforce, support all employees equally, and measure the effectiveness of diversity related recruitment and retention efforts.

Improve the accessibility of workspaces and practices: Being proactive in routinely assessing the level of physical, social and programmatic access — assessing the accessibility of the company website, online applications, and workspaces including break rooms, cafeterias and locations of offsite functions — demonstrates commitment to including applicants, employees and customers with disabilities in general, and not just when an accommodation is needed.

Be flexible: Individuals with disabilities may need flexibility similar to that of employees with family responsibilities that influence work schedules. Offering all employees the ability to work remotely, or modifying schedules to accommodate personal or medical situations, illustrates that accommodating a disability is a practice that assists employees to be productive.

Establish and communicate fair systems and procedures: Policies related to performance standards, requests for reasonable accommodations and grievance procedures need to be fair, consistent and communicated to all employees on the organization’s intranet and in any online or printed orientation, onboarding or policy documents.

Recruit jobseekers with disabilities: Post positions on online job boards for people with disabilities. Partner with state vocational rehabilitation offices, disability service providers and American Job Centers. Advertise through local college and university career and disability service offices to recruit graduates with disabilities. Use internship programs for students with disabilities. Invite, in recruitment materials, individuals with disabilities to apply — include as part of the EEO statements — and explain how to request accommodations during the hiring process. Ensure screening processes do not unintentionally exclude applicants with disabilities.

Facilitate professional development and networking: Offer individuals with disabilities the same mentoring or training programs that are used to increase the presence of underrepresented groups in management. Create an employee resource and affinity group, a visible sign of organizational commitment to a minority population, for anyone with a disability interest. This will appeal to individuals with visible or non-visible disabilities and to those who have family members with disabilities.

Erin Sember-Chase is the technical assistance coordinator for the Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN). Judy Young is the grant manager for the National Technical Assistance, Policy, and Research Center for Employers on the Employment of Persons with Disabilities. They can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.