It isn’t as simple as just saying employer culture needs to change

By George Selvanera


On Channel 4’s Leader’s Debate last month, a member of the studio audience asked “What do the Conservatives plan to do to get more disabled people into work?” Prime Minister David Cameron said:

“The culture of employers needs to change.”

I imagine it was a convenient shortcut for David Cameron to say the culture of employers needs to change. The ways culture needs to change, how these changes are made and the role of Government in influencing change – both directly and indirectly – doesn’t really make for a neat, short answer.

After all, it isn’t straightforward to make and sustain changes in systems, processes and practice generally, let alone when addressing disability – a wonderful catchall term for everything from dyslexia to dementia; to diabetes to wheelchair user; to mental ill health. That said, I am encouraged by increasing numbers of private and public organisations which are making real change, with more than a hundred large private and public sector employers using the Business Disability Forum (BDF) Disability Standard to help guide their disability performance improvement.

Office environment with focus on man working in foreground

Last year’s Government disability and health employment strategy wasn’t especially practical when it pointed to BDF Partners Sainsbury’s, BT and Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) as examples of businesses that have a strong record of recruiting disabled people and then called on other businesses to do the same.

Sainsbury’s, BT and LBG each have senior disability sponsors championing a whole organisation approach to improving their disability performance. They all have networks for their disabled staff that inform employee and customer innovations for disabled people. They all invest in improving the skills and confidence of line managers to manage the needs of staff members with disabilities and long-term health conditions. They all operate workplace adjustment processes that enable access to adjustments for employees so they can be productive and happy in the work environment. They also increasingly deploy disability-smart procurement processes. The latter point is essential given the number of outsourced functions that directly impact the ability of any business to deliver for disabled people in areas such as facilities management/property, technology, recruitment and occupational health. So yes, they do well in recruitment of disabled people, but it is because they are prioritising and investing in improving disability performance across the whole organisation.

Building disability confidence is a permanent work in progress, and at BDF, it is exciting to see the way in which businesses and public sector organisations are learning from each other – sometimes even competing with each other – to get better at how they recruit, retain and do business with disabled people.

We are working with a group of BDF Partners that include Royal Mail, EY, de Poel Community and the Department of Work and Pensions to understand more about what helps and what gets in the way of organisations retaining their disabled employees. This working group is overseeing a large scale research project where more than 140 private, public and third sector organisations nationally have participated and shared their perspectives about their own skills and confidence and the quality of their systems and processes in retaining and developing disabled employees. The research will be published in June (watch out for the launch date) and sets out just how important it is to have people with visible disabilities in workplaces, effective workplace adjustment processes and organisational policies that encourage disabled people to achieve at work. It also makes clear that many organisations are getting better and want to do more.

The Government could help too. At BDF, we are often told that Access to Work remains overly complex, unfriendly and in need of substantial improvement. While some of the recent changes to Access to Work are good – most notably the end of the 30-hour guidance and the potential development of IT portals, the opportunity to make Access to Work better for business and subsequently better for disabled people, was not taken up. It seems very odd not to have an employer helpdesk or workplace based assessments that involve the employer and the employee or an accreditation scheme that would reduce red tape for employers who have a positive record of employing disabled people and interacting with Access to Work. Further still, it is extremely bad policy to introduce caps that will limit businesses capacity to recruit disabled people and so disabled people that might have worked and contributed to the tax pot, instead risk consignment to benefits.

Similarly, the Government’s multi-billion pound Work Programme would benefit from Welfare to Work providers proactively engaging with employers to ensure they are skilled and confident in managing the impact of particular disabilities for individual candidates in the specific workplace, and have the knowledge needed to support disabled staff to perform at their best.

Indeed, this approach is something for the wider recruitment industry so that they are working with candidates and employers to ensure that candidates with the right skills for a particular job are being ‘pushed’ to organisations that are confident about managing the impacts of a particular disability within a particular role at their workplace. Again however, I am encouraged by BDF work with the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCO) who are keen to build the skills, confidence and expertise of the recruitment profession to do just this. In a similar way, the Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative Awards (RIDI) spotlight and celebrate excellent recruitment practices that are making a difference in securing sustainable employment for disabled people.

Increasing the number of disabled people in work and being fulfilled and achieving at work won’t happen overnight and yes, David Cameron is right about the importance of culture. But it isn’t anywhere near as simple as that. We all have a role. Government does. All parts of an organisation do – not just their recruitment section, but facilities, procurement, HR, learning and development, senior leadership, communications, IT etc. Suppliers and partners do. And as customers, we all can by transacting with businesses that state and deliver on public commitments to recruit and retain disabled people.

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