Three organisations share the business case for inclusive hiring and their strategies for truly embracing the disabled workforce.
By Michael Switow
Employee turnover in a key department at ADERA Global, a Singapore-headquartered data management company, had reached critical levels. The company processes several million pieces of data on a daily basis for financial companies and government agencies. Its end products include credit card bills and bank statements posted to consumers every month. However, more than half of all the employees in the customer billing department—even part-timers—were quitting within three months.
“It’s a very meticulous job,” explains Marvin Tan, the company’s co-founder and group executive director. “In the past, we would have people keying in data and then reconciling it to make sure that we bill the customer correctly.”
Tan decided to try an unconventional approach to solving the talent problem. With support from SG Enable, a government body dedicated to enabling the employment of people with disabilities, ADERA hired three high-performing autistic individuals. Whilst it took time and “understanding on all sides” to develop the workers from interns to trainees to full-time employees, the outcome was more than worth the effort. Today, ADERA employs nine people with autism.
“They are really focused,” observes Tan. “Some of the things they do are better and more accurate.” And unlike other members of the team, Tan says they are not distracted by social media.
Susan Hwee, managing director and head of group technology and operations at Singapore’s United Overseas Bank (UOB), recounts a similar story about a department responsible for scanning and digitising documents so that they can be presented in court. After hiring people with autism, turnover dropped nine-fold to just 5 per cent, the lowest in the company.
“The staff comes to work on time,” Hwee notes. “Their work is more accurate than you and me. They catch inaccuracies faster. When I have a bad day, I go there. Everyone there (differently-abled or not) complains less!”
Backed by Research
ADERA’s and UOB’s experiences are hardly unique. A recent study conducted in Singapore by Professor Elijah Wee of the University of Washington demonstrates that inclusive hiring has positive ripple effects throughout a company, including significantly higher levels of organisational pride, compassion, and work engagement. Accenture also published a report in the United States showing that companies that embrace inclusion and disability employment outperform their peers. More specifically, these organisations experience 30 per cent higher profits over a four-year period.
Wee’s research, conducted over five months in collaboration with the Singapore-headquartered Pan Pacific Hotel Group, tracks changes in employee attitudes and behaviours following the announcement of an updated inclusive hiring policy. Pan Pacific employs differently-abled individuals to work in housekeeping, stewarding, administration, and in its restaurant kitchens.
Wee concludes that inclusive hiring on its own is not sufficient to impact a company’s business. But when combined with immersion activities that relate to the work environment, the results show that hiring candidates with disabilities leads to better customer service, as employees can more easily anticipate consumer needs and proactively develop solutions. He also finds that employees make an extra effort to listen to colleagues from different backgrounds, leading to fewer conflicts among team members.
From Corporate Responsibility to Corporate Strategy
“We know the benefits of inclusion, so why are we not doing more?” Wee asked whilst presenting his results to a seminar in Singapore. “One of the answers lies in how we do inclusive hiring. We think about it as CSR, a corporate social responsibility. It’s like you are asking a company to choose between profitability and social good. An easier way to think about it is to reframe it. If you can make it part of your corporate strategy, then you don’t need to make this choice.”
UOB’s Hwee agrees that if a company views hiring differently-abled individuals as CSR, the initiative will neither scale nor last. “Work with HR to build a system of employment that’s inclusive and that becomes sustainable as a corporate practice in the hiring process. It needs to succeed beyond the champion that started it,” she says.
Such a system should be based on an equal pay for equal work mentality and include a process to match applicant skills with applicable jobs. Otherwise, inclusive hiring may cease when a new manager with different priorities enters the scene.
“Respect and valuing people needs to be embedded from the top and at every level,” adds Pratima Amonkar, head of Microsoft’s APAC cloud solution partners and member of the company’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. “If not, the experience will be rocky and unpredictable.”
Creating a Safe, Efficient Work Environment
Once hired, there are a number of issues a company needs to address in order to provide a safe working environment for all of its employees.
Top of the list may be ensuring that there are accessible facilities in the building and handicapped parking spaces nearby.
Organisations need to take into account individual considerations as well. Some autistic individuals, for example, have a low tolerance for noise. In cases like these, ADERA provides employees with noise-cancelling headsets that can be used to listen to soothing music or simply block out the surroundings.
Thinking ahead and providing specific instructions is also important. “We have individual workstations that list out the things ‘to-do’ and ‘not-to-do’,” Tan explains. “Basically, what are the questions to ask? For example, if you are tired, you don’t need to ask, you just rest. If you want to go to the restroom, just go.”
Tan says that company business processes may need to be adjusted as well. For example, ADERA’s clients used to provide data in an ad hoc manner, but once the decision was made to hire differently-abled employees, the IT department created new software to standardise the inputs.
“It could have been done way earlier,” says Tan, but the decision to hire more inclusively “motivated our guys to redesign how the software looks and works.” ADERA then communicated the inclusive hiring policy to its customers to encourage them to use the new software and submit the data correctly.
It Takes A Village
A supportive ecosystem within and outside of the company is another key ingredient for success.
The Singapore government encourages inclusive hiring as both a community initiative and a way for companies to find workers in a tight labour market. Singapore has several schools for differently-abled students; there are also organisations, public and private, that help place people with disabilities in jobs.
UOB, for example, launched an initiative called “The Unlimited” earlier this year to raise awareness of the contributions that differently-abled workers can make and to facilitate inclusive hiring among its corporate clients. Some organisations also provide job coaches who play a role in helping differently-abled employees better understand the company culture.
But whilst additional efforts are needed to integrate differently-abled individuals into the workplace, the dividends can far outweigh the costs. One key to success is reframing how employees view disability.
“What makes us human is our ability to adapt over and over again,” says Wee. “If we are able to see disability as an example of adaptation and strength, then we won’t feel sympathy or feel bad. You feel inspired because that is the essence of the human spirit. If you can help [people] think about what inclusive hiring means to the organisation, then we can see inclusive hiring as corporate strategy.”