Event review: Managing difficult conversations at work

On 13 November, we were joined by Members, Partners and guest speakers Tony Cates, Head of Audit, KPMG UK, Aisling Tuft, Recoveries Manager, Enterprise and Alastair Campbell, writer and political commentator at the launch of our new guide on ‘Managing difficult conversations’ at work.

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The event was hosted by KPMG and Stephen Frost, Head of Diversity & Inclusion explained that KPMG had sponsored the guide because they understood that being able to manage difficult conversations is fundamental to building and deepening business relationships both internally and externally.

016Our chair for the evening, Business Disability Forum (BDF) Associate Phil Friend OBE, suggested that conversations about bereavement, divorce, poor performance are challenging enough, but when you add disability or potential mental ill health into the mix the thought can scare even the most experienced line manager.

BDF Chief Executive Officer Susan Scott-Parker OBE explained that the guide was developed after we identified a need for up-skilling line managers to have honest and meaningful conversations with their teams. BDF’s aim is to get the practical tool into the hands of 4.5 million employees who work for our Members and to stimulate an ongoing interest in face to face training on the subject.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur panel found the guide useful in:

  • Providing constructive feedback during tricky conversations
  • Reminding managers that in spite of busy workloads sometimes setting aside the time for a difficult conversation and giving people time to speak in their own words will reap business rewards
  • Helping people to effectively prepare for difficult business discussions with people both inside and outside the organisation

The other recurring theme of the evening was how to have conversations about mental ill health at work. Alastair Campbell spoke openly about his own mental illness and the value of working with employers including the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair who understand the importance of judging employees on the wider performance and not on mental health episodes.

This advice was backed up by employers like KPMG and Deloitte who have supported directors and senior partners in openly talking about periods of mental ill health and recovery. This newfound openness has interested the business press who are starting to proactively report on positive examples of mental ill health at a senior level.

We left the event feeling that our guidance and the commitment of our Members in raising awareness of mental ill health at work, was contributing to a bigger conversation and a sea change in how we manage difficult conversations at work.

Disability confident one year on

By George Selvanera

Business Disability Forum (BDF) were more than delighted when Ian Duncan Smith decided in 2013 – inspired by his joining our annual President’s Group dinner for ‘captains of industry’ and disabled opinion leaders – to help us to promote wider recognition of the term ‘disability confidence’- which we created back in 2005 in an effort to make it easier to engage and equip business leaders to improve their corporate disability performance.
Disability confidence enables us to demonstrate the business and ethical rationale for learning how to recruit on the basis of merit; for learning how to adapt so that human beings in all their diversity can contribute to business success; and learning how to deliver excellence at every step of every customers’ experience. Disability confidence is about leaders and managers across the private and public sectors feeling more confident at a personal level as they interact with ever more disabled applicants, disabled colleagues and disabled customers.

And here we are, one year on in the Government’s Disability Confident campaign. At BDF,  we work with many companies and public sector organisations striving to improve their disability performance. We are all too conscious that there is still much more to do, so we encourage everyone to support the Disability Confident campaign and:

  • Understand that disability impacts all parts of the business;
  • Identify, and remove barriers, for groups of people;
  • Be willing and able to make adjustments for individuals; and
  • Not make assumptions based on someone’s disability.

Business disability confidence in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

By George Selvanera

With the Government keen to enhance the UK’s export performance of professional and business services from the already net £19bn receipts per year, Business Disability Forum (BDF) has been undertaking some rather extraordinary professional services exporting to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

BDF, a membership body that comprises some of the UK’s biggest and well-known business and public sector organisations collaborating to improve disability performance, has been contracted by the KSA Ministry of Labor to assist with the development of a KSA Disability Confidence Index to support improved disability confidence amongst the Kingdom’s private sector.

This is truly ground-breaking work in applying lessons learned from the more than 20 years of working with UK corporates and public sector organisations.

BDF’s pioneering Disability Standard provides a whole-of-organisation framework for improving disability performance recognising that a corporate approach championed by a senior sponsor is the surest way of embedding good quality accessible recruitment, retention and career development opportunities for disabled people.

However, context is critical. The Saudi starting point is totally different to the UK.

There are no enforced legal protections for disabled people and culturally, disability often remains taboo.

It was to my great sadness that I realised that deaf people would largely be non-verbal too, as they had never been taught to speak and that schooling for deaf children is wholly different and substantially simpler than the curriculum for hearing children.

Many people have told us that non-visible impairments such as mental health, autism and dyslexia are not talked about at work or in the wider society.

Indeed, for some people they find out accidentally, sometimes decades later, that close friends have another child- a disabled child who may even be in their 20s or 30s.

BDF’s work is developing and piloting a bespoke KSA Disability Confidence Index collaborating with seven of the largest corporates in the Kingdom and contributing to the wider development of a business disability confident certification system.

These cover industries including pharmaceutical and medical supplies distribution, edible oil production, steel and air conditioning manufacturing and tractor manufacture.

We have been impressed that there are some examples of good practice that should be nurtured and promoted and we would encourage here in the UK. For example, several companies have:

  • Forged links with disability non-government organisations to support active recruitment of appropriately skilled disabled candidates
  • Established cross-functional teams led by senior executive sponsors to review and improve disability confidence across all areas of the business, and
  • Implemented flexible workplace adjustment processes that are responsive to individual disabled staff needs.

There is obviously a long way to go to mirror where the UK is; and that’s even accepting UK companies have some way to go in achieving best practice for disabled employees, candidates and customers as well.

All in all, an assignment like no other.

That said, the Middle East is a rapidly growing market for business and professional services and the UK is uniquely positioned by language, trade and cultural ties and business practice to support that growth.

Awkward about disability in work as well

By Susan Scott-Parker

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Scope’s Awkward campaign shows how far we still have to go. In particular, it reveals how much depends on bringing human beings together, to start a very different person to person conversation, if we are to see these damaging deep rooted assumptions and stereotypes regarding people with disabilities finally fall by the wayside.

The Scope study, read alongside two other recent publications, should give us all food for thought – all three require us to face up to the fact that for most of society, (including many themselves legally protected as ‘disabled’) the word “disability”, is still heard as almost an insult. It’s a code word for someone who if genuine is inevitably dependent, sad, ‘unfit’, and if not genuine, for example when a government needs to justify throwing one off benefit, is a fraudster, scrounger, and irritant.

We know that at least one in three Europeans will be disabled or close to someone who is – yet 43% of those answering the Scope survey state that they do not know anyone who is ‘disabled’. Not only do they believe the label does not apply to them personally, (logically 10-15% of these respondents will themselves have a disability), but they have apparently never met anyone with diabetes, cancer, alzheimer’s, depression, stammer, dyslexia, hearing loss, RSI, arthritis… It doesn’t add up – unless you spot the fact that people tend to apply the label ‘disabled’ only to those they do not know personally, and then usually only to those who fit the visible stereotypes of wheelchair users, guide dog drivers, BSL interpreter users, etc…

It is clear that for many a stranger can be ‘disabled’ (it will always be stranger ‘faking’ disability to gain unfair advantage) but people we know, people a lot like us, well, they have a health condition, a balance problem, a wonky knee, a rugby injury…are feeling a bit down….

I often ask audiences to stand, if they can, and then read out a list of commonly encountered ‘disabilities’ – saying: “please sit down when I mention a disability which you have yourself or which applies to someone you know”.

In almost every case the entire audience will be sitting down before I finish. At one event, one man was left standing from the one hundred delegates when my list ran out. We decided afterwards he probably had a hearing impairment. My message: “obviously disability is about us …not about them.”, but the message is taking a long time to permeate to the world around us.

We must confront the fact that most people (and I would include many in the House of Commons) still hear the word as to do with an individual’s failure, a personal deficiency and inadequacy, even a lack of moral fibre; disability is rarely defined as society’s failure to treat us all fairly and with respect. The DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) in 1995 was miles ahead of UK popular opinion – we still desperately need the public education campaign which enables everyone to explain why it is that: “to turn me down for a job because I am disabled is fundamentally no different than turning me down because of my race or gender”.

The Scope survey focuses on attitudes and attitudes tend to justify a worldview, which then triggers behaviour. In this instance, we have a worldview that by positioning disabled people as ‘the other’, as ‘not like me’ – takes away their right to dignity and respect. And so these attitudes reinforce and disguise a largely unrecognised, yet often shocking level of ill treatment and abuse, as revealed by the second report to hit my screen recently.

The 2013 research report ‘the ill treatment of employees with disabilities in British workplaces’ published in Work, Employment and Society makes for sobering reading.

The British Workplace Behaviour Survey found significant differences in the experience of poor treatment of employees with a disability or long term health condition, when compared with other employees. For example:

  • More than one in three disabled people have been shouted at or experienced someone losing their temper with them compared with less than one in four non-disabled people.
  • More than one in ten disabled employees have experienced actual physical violence at work compared with less than one in 20 non-disabled people.
  • Close to one in four disabled people have been insulted or had offensive remarks made about them at work compared with less than one in six in non-disabled counterparts.
  • Close to one in six disabled people have experienced hints or signals from others that they should quit their job as compared with just over one in 20 non-disabled people.

People with different disabilities also have different experiences, so as hard as it is for these disabled employees generally, it gets even harder for those with non-visible or hidden impairments. Employees with a learning difficulty or a mental health condition had an increased likelihood of experiencing poor treatment at work by an extraordinary 177%.

Deeply troubling is that nearly half of the more serious examples of poor treatment were from line managers, supervisors or employers. The research found that line managers failed to comply with legislation often because of rigid procedures on sickness absence and discipline. Senior managers implicitly convey the message that compliance with equality legislation doesn’t really matter, by leaving the detail of operationalising how relevant policies actually work to the line manager.

Yet when we move the conversation from: ‘About Them’ to ‘About Us and how our organisations adapt for human beings’ … a different story begins to emerge in report number three.…

Kate Nash recently launched her ground breaking work Secrets & Big News …55 public and private sector organisations, employing hundreds of thousands people, have said that they have much to learn if they are to treat their disabled employees properly and if they are to enable their people to be themselves at work. These employers are breaking new ground and genuinely want to develop a better and more meaningful conversation with their employees. By participating in an anonymous survey conducted by Kate Nash Associates they are creating new conversations and opportunities with their disabled employees. I will come back to this extremely important work in a later blog.

I want to conclude today by saying that these reports provide ample evidence that the status quo is neither acceptable nor unavoidable – however, we will not get different results in five years time unless we start doing things differently – very differently.

At the very least, we need to use this information to challenge the all too many organisations who flatly refuse to admit that they have any need to improve their disability performance. Ironically, it is precisely because so many organisations are out of touch with the people they employ, out of touch with their customers, out of touch with the demographic realities around them – that they continue to behave as though disability has no impact on their business – and can and should be left to doctors, charities and social workers.

A huge well known company employing hundreds of thousands of people, most at minimum wage, recently refused to join BDF because: “we aren’t broken”. Another company explained; “we are too young” to address disability though they only employed 70,000. And another argues ‘we need to focus and our focus is on women this year’.

We are looking for radical ideas for how to close the performance gap between those companies, often our Members, who are determined to deliver best practice and the thousands of ‘not yet- members’ and ‘never will be member’ organisations who remain trapped in the old medical damage time warp. Above all we need to invest in the leadership potential of disabled people – real change will only happen when we enable everyone to understand that disability and disabled people, and potentially disabled people are part of everyone’s world. We are determined to re-launch our leadership programme for disabled social entrepreneurs in the next 12 months – again all proposals for how to maximise the impact of this initiative are greatly welcomed.