Why Employing People with Disabilities Is a Key Tenet of Diversity and Inclusion

By: | January 8, 2020

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

There is a lot of talk in the workplace today about diversity and inclusion (D&I). Many have attributed the need for D&I to the tight labor market, which, when given a closer look, isn’t as tight as it might appear.

There are varying reports about the unemployment rate, depending on where you live. The number cited most often is that it is less than 4%, but if you live in Yuma, Arizona, the unemployment rate is a staggering 22%. The result is an uneven labor market across the United States with shortages in some areas and overage in others.

The focus for D&I, therefore, shouldn’t be on the “tight” labor market, but instead it should be on why D&I is so important overall for organizations across the country.

With a diverse workforce, you have a mix of workers with varying backgrounds, skills and abilities, ethnicities, values, attitudes and genders. This type of diversity encourages employees to look at problems and solutions in new ways.

The key to diversity is to understand how different characteristics impact human behavior. In an ideal world, the term “diverse” would apply to everyone. However, the term typically applies to specific groups of people who have experienced discrimination (e.g., racial bias, disability discrimination, etc.) and when that discrimination presents an obstacle to opportunity in the workplace.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives are aimed at eliminating those obstacles and bringing people from these groups into full participation in the workforce.

Focusing In: Disability Discrimination

Let’s direct the focus for this article to disability discrimination. Hiring those with disabilities or returning employees to work from an injury or illness can be transformative for that individual.

It also changes the corporate culture and showcases where inclusion comes into the picture.

An inclusive workplace is one that treats all individuals fairly and respectfully, where individuals have equal access to opportunities and resources, and where each person can be a contributor to the organization’s success.

Like anything, diversity is also accompanied by risk. But to be clear, this risk is not the result of a more diverse workforce; rather, the risk arises from how employers manage D&I. How we treat people can introduce risk of discrimination and disparate treatment if not done properly.

The EEOC has increased its focus on workplace discrimination, especially discrimination based on disability, and private legal actions (with EPL insurance payouts) are becoming more prevalent based on how employees are treated in the workplace.

In other words, the costs of improperly managing diversity are going up.

The focus for D&I, therefore, shouldn’t be on the “tight” labor market, but instead it should be on why D&I is so important overall for organizations across the country.

Many employers still believe employees need to be 100% healed before they can resume work. That’s inaccurate in both fact and law. And this is currently a focus of EEOC investigations and charges.

Employees with a disability can return to work before they are 100% healed, and the law says employers must accommodate this. Light duty, modified work, alternative assignments and other accommodations need to be part of any effective and compliant return-to-work program, and not just for workers’ compensation programs.

There is also a gap between perceptions of disabilities versus real disabilities as defined by the law. A good example is pregnancy disability. There are still many supervisors and managers who believe women should be treated differently when they are pregnant; the law says otherwise.

The law states that if an employee is temporarily unable to perform her job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, an employer must treat her in the same way it treats any other temporarily disabled employee.

For example, the employer may have to provide light duty, alternative assignments, disability leave or unpaid leave to pregnant employees if it does so for other temporarily disabled employees.

To avoid risk, it’s critical that management sees disabilities as they are in fact and law, rather than according to outmoded ideas and assumptions. These ideas and assumptions need to be overcome to fully realize the opportunities of diversity and to reduce risk.

Reducing Risks that Arise in D&I

Employers can take simple proactive and preventative steps to reduce risk. These steps simultaneously help maximize performance and increase the morale of a diverse workforce, especially employees with disabilities.

1) Review Policies and Practices

Laws and their interpretation are continually changing.

Return-to-work and other policies and practices should be reviewed annually.

Some employers are surprised at how many inconsistencies turn up during these reviews. It’s easier and less expensive to identify and correct them before an employee compels a review through an EEOC/DOL action or a private lawsuit.

2) Get Legal Involved

More than at any other time in recent history, risk, human resources and absence and disability management professionals need to understand basic legal requirements.

The good news is that these professionals have resources available to gain this knowledge. The presentations by attorneys and other legal experts at DMEC’s conferences and webinars are among our most popular resources, and our FMLA/ADA Employer Compliance Conference has become one of the “go to” conferences for industry professionals.

But there’s no substitute for input from your legal department or outside legal team.

That means more than a review at the end of the process.

Legal can provide importance guidance from the beginning on how to shape compliant policies, programs, and processes. It’s important to break down the typical silos around absence, disability, leave and workers’ compensation.

3) Training

Many workplace discrimination cases originate with supervisors and other front-line managers. And most of those result from a lack of awareness of the basic requirements of the ADA, the FMLA and other relevant laws.

Training can go a long way towards addressing this shortcoming. The goal isn’t to turn supervisors into legal experts; rather, it’s to help identify when a request has been made; instruct supervisors in the most obvious actions to avoid; and train them to reach out to HR when they encounter a situation where there’s a question about how to treat an employee.

There are many short and inexpensive trainings available, including DMEC’s FMLA/ADA Training for Supervisors and Managers. Training itself is a way to demonstrate legal compliance and reduce the risk of an audit or other regulatory action.

Despite the Risks, Rewards Abound

Diversity has always helped drive innovation. Employers have an unparalleled opportunity to gain the performance and insights of a diverse and inclusive workforce.

Employers risk missing out on the innovation diversity can drive if they don’t take proactive steps to accommodate a more diverse workforce.

They also risk legal action from employees and government bodies attuned to equal and fair treatment.

With a few simple steps, employers can greatly reduce these risks and take advantage of an important source of competitive advantage. And while we still have a long way to go before there is genuine and full inclusion, the realities of global markets will continue to provide a strong motivation to move in that direction. &

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