Building disability-smart employee networks – and how to make the most of them

By Ebunola Adenipekun, Business Disability Forum

“Try to do a few things really well” and “Think about the range of access to networks” were just two of the many take-aways at Business Disability Forum’s latest construction roundtable, this time focused on employee networks and held at Balfour Beatty earlier this month.

If businesses wonder what the benefits are of creating employee networks, they include: helping create a diverse workplace and talent pipeline, belonging for employees, increasing awareness, a place to provide expertise and peer support.

Balfour Beatty kicked off their presentation on the day with an explanation of their Allies Affinity Network which includes gender equality, multi-cultural and multi-racial, LGBTQ+ and disability – and how they intersect. The different networks often ally up and provide back up for business cases and programs.

Sam Pierce and Natalie Parker from Balfour Beatty explained the process for setting up the employee network: “When you set up your network, establish interest from within your organisation. Think of a great name! Consider the structure that the network will take and how many meetings you will need to hold, think about the communications you’ll need to send out to your organisation and the budget you’ll need. Secure senior leader support and if you can set up a launch, it’s great if you can link it to an existing event or awareness day.”

A leaflet that says: "Balfour Beatty - Include Everyone - Our Affinity Networks help make Balfour Beatty a great place to work"

Balfour Beatty has a range of employee networks

Strategy must always be a key factor in creating an employee network: get a clear plan of who, what, and how the network will positively affect the organisation. Who should the network include? Balfour Beatty encourages inclusivity, inviting allies, as well as those who identify with the protected characteristic. How will the network meetings take place via members, employees, external parties?

The attendees at the roundtable also discussed how workers on sites might not feel they can tap into employee networks, especially if they are contractors or sub-contractors and not employed directly, but came to the conclusion that it is about educating all of the labour force and supply chain that employee networks can include them!

Indeed Emilia Hardern from Network Rail stated that her organisation was one of the first to invite supply chains and external partners to join their employee networks – so do consider them in the process of forming them if you work in the construction industry.

Emilia also talked about the number of lives that are positively affected by the networks and the opportunity it provides to affect the commercial aspect of business. If employees felt listened to and their needs addressed, this creates better morale and productivity.

Jodie Greer from Shell shared that her approach for her disability-focused employee network Enable was targeted at people who say “it’s not for them”. “That’s exactly who it’s for!”. Jodie herself doesn’t have a disability but wanted to be part of a network that affected change and positive solutions: “If you can change a culture, disability awareness will come.”

Throughout the day, attendees were really keen to pose questions on how they could start implementing employee networks as they were at different levels on the journey and different organisations had useful tips to get the ball rolling such as creating an action plan and partnering with other organisations. Indeed, Balfour Beatty thanked Business Disability Forum for the help it received in setting up its employee network around disability – and Karan Snuggs, Business Disability Partner at Business Disability Forum thanked all who attended.

The day finished with Karin O’Donnell at DWP sharing their processes for networks, and the role that networks play in creating an inclusive environment and helping shape the strategic plan – and how this might help the construction industry think about how they set up their networks.

A networking session rounded off the event and delegates left with another take-away: the role that employee networks play should be driven with SMART objectives to ensure the benefits can be measured.

To find out more about how to attend our networks and taskforces, go to businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/our-services/our-taskforces, and if you are interested in becoming a Member, find out more at businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/membership

Learning disability: shifting the dial on employment

Diane Lightfoot, Business Disability Forum

Diane Lightfoot

Diane Lightfoot

Identity means very different things to different people and it can change many times in a lifetime.

Our Identity is shaped by our experiences and the world around us.

It’s also shaped by what we do every day; one of the main ways that most of us define ourselves is through our job and one of the first things we tend to ask when we meet someone new is “what do you do?” or even “where do you work?”.

For too many disabled people, that’s a really difficult question to answer. But for most people with a learning disability, it’s impossible. Though the figures for the employment of disabled people overall have crept up to 51%, those for the employment of people with a learning disability remain at a woeful 6% – as compared to over 80% employment for working age adults as a whole.

So, to mark this year’s Learning Disability Week, I wanted to shine a light on what’s needed to change this.

A confession: I have a particular interest here, having worked for a learning disability charity for 13 years before joining Business Disability Forum. During those 13 years, it struck me that work – good work – is, for many people with learning disabilities, the most genuine form of inclusion there is. It’s something many of us are lucky enough to be able to take for granted and so we probably don’t think of all the myriad benefits of work when we begin our commute each morning. It’s not just about paying the rent or mortgage (though few would argue that’s pretty important!) but also a social group, emotional support – a natural way of building the “circles of support” that are so often talked about for people with learning disabilities), self-esteem and yes, identity.

At Business Disability Forum, we work with organisations across all sectors to help them get better at recruiting retaining disabled employees and serving disabled customers. Our 300 members employ around 15% of the UK workforce and around 8 million people worldwide. But what we are ultimately here for – I believe – is to transform the life chances that disabled people have as employees and consumers – and includes people with a learning disability.

I’ve been at BDF for 2.5 years now and one of the things I am pleased to see is increased interest and focus on recruitment rather than just retention. Skills shortages in sectors such as construction mean that employers are recognising the need to reach the widest possible talent pool.

So how can you get better at employing people with learning disabilities?

When recruiting, think about what you really need for the job. We’ve all been there when someone in our team leaves and we think we must get the vacant post filled as soon as possible; yesterday, ideally. So it’s all too easy to dust down the old job description and person spec and even the old advert, give it a quick once over and do exactly what you did to recruit last time.

But what if you took a step back?

What if you paused for a moment to think about whether you really need those qualifications or three years’ experience or a driving licence or whether someone might be able to demonstrate to you that they can do the job another way? What if you thought about the outcomes you need from the job and whether they might be achieved differently? It’s also about challenging your frame of reference; the Maynard Review made recommendations to the entry level for apprenticeships to open them up to people with learning disabilities by waiving the requirement for Maths and English GCSE. That’s great news. But I’m willing to bet that the people who originally set the entry criteria weren’t trying to set them high to exclude people with a learning disability! They probably thought they were setting them at a really attainable level. So, its’ worth challenging yourself about what you really need.

Then, when you advertise, make sure you offer alternative formats including easy read (simple text supported by pictures). It’s also vital to make sure any sifting process – whether automated or human – doesn’t automatically screen out people with a less traditional CV or one that has gaps as this may well exclude people (not just with a learning disability) who for whatever reason haven’t had the opportunity to build their portfolio.

And once at assessment, it’s about testing the right skills. I don’t know many people who actively love interviews but for some people with a learning disability (or indeed who are neurodiverse) may really struggle with the traditional panel format. Offering a work trial – which is legally a reasonable adjustment – gives people to demonstrate the skills they will need to show in the workplace.

Once in the job, inclusive onboard such as buddying schemes of “week one mentors” for new employees with a learning disability can really help with orientation and helping someone get used to their new role and environment. And other approaches such as job carving (where you remove an aspect/s of a job that someone may find a barrier – for example dealing with money) or Training in Systematic Assumption (TSI) where a job is taught by breaking processes down into individual component tasks – can make all the difference in an employee with a learning disability thriving at work. Our Advice Service recently worked with a large employer to understand why people with learning disabilities were being recruited into the organisation but not successfully completing the probation period. We found that passing the probation period was dependent on every employee scoring well in a comprehensive health and safety training exercise. The health and safety training was generic and not tailored to job roles. When we tailored the health and safety assessment to the employee’s specific role, the employee passed his probation and remained successfully in post.

There are still challenges; people with learning disabilities are among those most impacted by the Access to Work cap. Whilst the cap has been raised, it still remains a barrier for people who require “human support” a work – and that might be the difference in being able to afford a job coach for an employee with a learning disability or not.

There are challenges too in raising aspirations, well before the workplace. Far too many young people with a learning disability are still growing up without the encouragement to – let along the expectation of – working. Job readiness needs to keep pace with the changing landscape of entry level jobs – the dwindling of supermarket checkout roles being an obvious example – and the changing requirements of employers. Equally, employers need to be open to doing things differently and to understand a work trial is not only a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act, but is also, for many jobs, a far better measure of whether someone can actually do a job as opposed to telling you about it.

This Learning Disability Week, let’s work together and shift the dial on those woeful statistics once and for all.

Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum

 

To mark Learning Disability Week, we are offering a 25% discount on two year intranet licences on a resources bundle to include our Learning Disabilities Briefing, Managing Difficult Conversations and Line Manager Guide on Non-visible Disabilities. Please contact our publications team on +44 (020) 7089 2430 or email publications@businessdisabilityforum.org.uk” to find out more and to order your bundle.