Small businesses offer perhaps the most promising opportunity for the employment of people with disabilities. They create 55 percent of all jobs, and while big businesses have eliminated four million jobs since 1990, small businesses have added eight million jobs.
But should small businesses open their doors wide to people with disabilities? A comprehensive review of the literature on the employment of people with disabilities, conducted for the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy and sponsored by Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute and The Conference Board, identified five concerns of small business leaders, and assessed whether those concerns were well founded. Bottom-line best practices that offer the greatest impact for dollar- and time-constrained small businesses are identified for each concern.
This article defines small businesses as those with 500 or fewer employees. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which governs many small businesses (companies with fewer than 15 employees are not covered by the ADA), defines disability as:
1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
2. A record of such impairment
3. Being regarded as having such an impairment
Concern #1: Finding and Hiring Qualified Employees with Disabilities
Two key concerns of small businesses with regard
to attracting people with disabilities are complying with relevant laws and finding qualified employees with disabilities. Although businesses should consult their attorneys about legal matters, compliance is relatively straightforward. Businesses should follow three basic principles:
1. Make all steps in the application process accessible
2. Focus on the match between the skills, experience, and education of the applicant and the essential functions of the job
3. Treat all applicants equally
Finding qualified candidates is equally straightforward: 1) Start by finding community partners through The NET, a service provided by the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, which links callers to their state VR program; and 2) Offer internships that give people with disabilities needed work experience and allow firms to assess prospective job candidates.
Concern #2: Retaining People with Disabilities
Employees with disabilities have lower turnover rates. With the costs of turnover running one-fifth of an employee’s salary or higher, hiring people with disabilities can reduce costs. Five factors are important for retaining people with disabilities and creating workplaces where they excel—onboarding, reasonable accommodations, workplace climate, employee resource groups, and mentoring.
Almost 90 percent of managers believe that new hires make the “decision about whether or not to stay at the company within their first six months on the job.” The period of time between the offer letter and the first few months on the job is critical for ensuring the engagement, retention, and productivity of new employees. Best-practice onboarding companies differentiate themselves by focusing on socialization into the company culture, offering new-hire training programs, and assigning a mentor or coach to each new hire.
Reasonable accommodations make employees more productive. A particularly effective accommodation
is a flexible work arrangement that allows employees, in collaboration with their managers and team members, several work options, including flexible start and end times, part-time, work weeks compressed into fewer days (e.g., 40 hours in 4 days), and telework from home.
For all employees, including workers with disabilities, the routine treatment they receive in the workplace may be one of the greatest determinants of the quality of their work life. The attitudes and behaviors of colleagues, and especially supervisors, can have a profound impact on employees’ ability to succeed and advance. Unfavorable attitudes toward employees with disabilities are among the greatest barriers to workplace success. Training that helps employees understand the challenges their colleagues with disabilities face and how to interact with them, company involvement in relevant community activities, and opportunities to come together do
much to improve attitudes and treatment.
Employee resource groups (ERGs)—internal networks for employees with disabilities and their allies—offer mutual support systems for employees and many benefits to businesses. In forming them, companies should ensure they have a clear purpose, enjoy sponsorship from top managers, and serve as a vehicle for communicating the needs of people with disabilities up the organization.
Mentors can provide support, counsel, and constructive examples for employees with disabilities as they acclimate to the work environment and their job responsibilities—and throughout their career life cycles. Mentoring takes many forms, including formal, structured programs in which a mentor and mentee are carefully matched and monitored, and mentors know their roles and how to execute them; virtual mentoring; peer mentoring; and group mentoring, in which a more senior manager meets with a group of mentors, usually around a particular leadership topic, such as influencing, career self-management, or interpersonal communications. For a comprehensive guide to mentoring in a private business setting, see the Workplace Mentoring Primer from askearn.org.
Concern #3: Costs of Employing People with Disabilities
Four areas of cost are of particular concern: workers’ compensation, health care, accommodations, and legal costs. Workers’ compensation costs actually tend to be lower for people with disabilities. Accommodations have minimal costs and significant benefits. Health care costs, although difficult to assess with precision, are higher for employees with disabilities. However, most of the increased costs of health care are for those not in the workforce. Legal costs relating to the settlement of charges brought under federal law are, for the most part, preventable by businesses in which “…managers engage in positive ‘diversity behaviors,’ such as promoting cooperation, being flexible, and respecting everyone.”
The financial benefits of employing people with disabilities significantly outweigh the costs. The net estimated economic benefit (benefits minus direct cost) in the first year of providing an accommodation is $11,335. Employees with disabilities are typically more loyal and productive, produce higher quality work, have better safety records, and enhance innovation and team decision making. In addition, several government programs provide financial incentives for hiring people with disabilities and subsidies for underwriting the costs of accommodations, including the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program; Disabled Access Credit, Internal Revenue Code Section 44; and Architectural/Transportation Tax Deductions, Internal Revenue Code Section 190.
Concern #4: Business Growth
People with disabilities, their caregivers, and their families represent substantial markets, both as consumers of assistive technologies and support services (a roughly $90 billion market, excluding medical and residential services) and as general consumers of products and services (greater than a quarter of a trillion dollar market).
Consumers want to do business with companies that employ people with disabilities. Eighty-seven percent of consumers agreed that they would prefer to give their business to companies that employ people with disabilities, and 92 percent were more favorable toward companies that hire people with disabilities. Eighty percent of consumers stated that, if the quality and price of two brands were equal, they would be likely to switch to a different brand if they knew that it supported a specific cause.
To achieve growth benefits, businesses should brand themselves as employers of people with disabilities. Brand differentiation can be achieved through PR initiatives, and by speaking in the community, focusing on employees with disabilities on the company website, and volunteering on the boards of organizations that serve people with disabilities.
Concern #5: Top Management Commitment
Numerous studies cite top management commitment as a critical variable in successfully recruiting, hiring, retaining, developing, and advancing employees with disabilities. Two elements are critical for success: Gaining top management commitment; and demonstrating that commitment inside and outside the organization.
Many top managers embrace the employment of people with disabilities because they have personal experience, community involvements, or simply think employing people with disabilities is the right thing to do. Others need to be motivated. Some factors that can help top managers commit to employing people with disabilities include presenting a strong business case, providing data on the current state of employees with disabilities in the business, exposure to people with disabilities through community involvements and inside the business, hearing from other executives who have embraced the employment of people with disabilities, sponsoring an employee resource group, and mentoring a person with disabilities.
To motivate employees, top managers can demonstrate their commitment internally by communicating the business case and plan for hiring people with disabilities, supporting and participating in training, establishing an employee resource group, appointing an individual to lead the employment initiative, and providing a budget.
For minor additional costs and management time, people with disabilities are usually more loyal and productive, have lower rates of absenteeism and better safety records, produce higher quality work, enhance team decision-making and innovation, and expand product markets and the talent pool. And cost differences may be reduced or eliminated by financial incentives and retention savings. Improvements for employees with disabilities benefit all employees. After a comprehensive review, and carefully weighing the data, the answer to the question, “Should small businesses open their doors wide to people with disabilities?” is an emphatic, “Yes!”
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