How advertising can tackle its disability deficit

Tim Cecere

Diversity will be a hot topic at New York Advertising Week. As of this writing, no fewer than 12 sessions are scheduled that will focus on diversity in the industry.

But while issues related to racial, gender and sexual diversity will be deservedly discussed, there’s a large swath of the population that remains significantly underrepresented in these conversations: the 30 million disabled individuals in the US labor force.

Finding, nurturing, retaining and rewarding diverse talent remains at the forefront of every CEO’s challenges in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Much has been done in the last decade to address diversity as a business imperative with a degree of success that is both measurable and, at times, elusive.

Although the industry is still not where it should be (especially in the boardroom), advertisers have made great strides building networks, relationships and pipelines of top-tier talent that represent the world in which we live and the clients that we serve.

However, per May 2017 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while disabled individuals account for 12 percent of the American labor force, these workers represent only 3.7 percent of the employed individuals.

While myriad reasons underlie these statistics, a leading factor is employers’ failure to appropriately engage and accommodate this population. Take the experience of ‘Rachael,’ who commented for the World Health Organization’s seminal 2012 World Report on Disability:

“A lot of people, when I tried to get into university and when I applied for jobs, they struggled to see past the disability. People just assumed because I had a disability, that I couldn’t perform even the simplest of tasks, even as much as operating a fire extinguisher… I think the main reason I was treated differently, since I set out to become a nurse, was probably because people were scared, because they’ve never been faced with anyone like me before.”

Rachael’s story is common, and employers are missing out on an incredible pool of talent as a result.

GroupM has had the good fortune of hiring inspiring individuals with a range of disabilities, who are also critical members of the company. An employee living with cerebral palsy particularly stands out for the magnitude of the physical challenges she overcomes. Nothing has stood in her way; quite the contrary. There have been no work-life balance concerns and inclusion issues; and in many ways, our people – her colleagues – exceeded our expectations about how they would embrace her into our culture.

GroupM plans to expand its efforts to engage and accompany people with disabilities across the entire organization. While we still have a long road ahead before we effectively represent this segment of the population, we have learned keys lessons along the way:

Ensure that HR standards, including hiring processes, job descriptions and role qualifications, align with the desire to attract and employ persons with disabilities. Unless explicitly designed with disabled job candidates in mind, hiring processes and job descriptions may unwittingly deter qualified candidates from applying. Reviewing and revising these procedures, such as including language that expressly encourages disabled candidates to self-identify and apply, can have a positive impact.

Establish a hiring target for persons with disabilities. To help meet the goal of attracting, hiring and accommodating persons with disabilities, companies can develop a specific hiring initiative, such as developing policies that ensure these goals are incorporated into the organization’s KPIs. Specialist employment agencies that help find challenging roles for high functioning people with disabilities can also be engaged to help.

Prepare to ask uncomfortable questions during the hiring process. Treat persons with disabilities just as you’d treat anyone else. Afford them the same consideration, respect and opportunities as any other colleague. However, to fully accommodate their needs, you must understand the exact nature of those needs, which may require discussing sensitive issues. Only through understanding can you help to set up your new colleague and the company for success.

Provide human resources staff and recruiting team members with specific training. A desire and willingness to recruit and hire persons with disabilities is just the first step. Companies must prepare staff to effectively engage potential hires. That preparation should include training programs demonstrating why hiring people with disabilities is a priority for the company and offering best practices for navigating the hiring process. Companies should also consider adding persons with disabilities to their recruiting teams to broaden their organizational perspective.

Accessibility goes beyond the physical space. Naturally, if a company wants to attract and accommodate people with disabilities, they will need to adapt their buildings and office space to provide the necessary access. But information and data are more critical than ever in today’s digitally-oriented workplace. Employers also need to provide persons with disabilities with usable tools offering effective access to necessary information.

Your employees – particularly younger workers – may be far more accommodating than you realize. Ensuring the success of your new employee is a team effort, requiring coworkers to step outside of their day-to-day and rethink the way they work. Many employers are concerned about putting additional burdens on their existing teams. While employers should be mindful of that, it’s likely less of an issue than you’d think. We have found our employees overwhelmingly support coworkers with other needs. This empathy and willingness to help has been most notable among our younger workers, who proactively retool their approach and ensure their new teammates are comfortable and engaged.

In terms of immediate steps, every CEO should commit in writing a pledge on their company’s hiring site that includes its policy and procedures, code of conduct and mission statement to cultivate, facilitate and nurture a welcoming environment for people with disabilities. This statement can help make companies and their leadership accountable for disrupting the norm by re-writing the rules to allow for the flexibility and freedom necessary to take this bold step.

Hiring should be fearless and you should support the courage of your hiring teams and the courage of disabled individuals looking for career opportunities. Keep an open mind. Accept big challenges. Disrupt the status quo and set an example for your organization and your industry through the people you hire.

Tim Cecere is the global chief talent officer and director of human resources for GroupM

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