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Disability Outreach

Creative recruitment programs help employers build diversity into their organizations by taking advantage of the under-used talents of disabled workers. HR should also make sure collaborative discussions are held with the recruiter, hiring manager and candidate about long-term career goals and whether accommodations will be necessary to smooth that career path.

Monday, April 2, 2012
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Roughly 624,000 Americans with disabilities want to work, but can't find a job.

Last December, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 13.5 percent, more than 50 percent higher than those with no disability (8.1 percent), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although that number may drop slightly drop as the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs pushes for a 7 percent disabled workforce among federal contractors -­ in a recently proposed regulation before Congress, some employers are targeting this untapped resource to fill all sorts of jobs, ranging from business consultants to customer-service representatives.

Besides generating good will within their communities, they believe their outreach efforts are paying off by enabling them to build stronger, more diverse workforces.

Bayer is a good example. The pharmaceutical firm began recruiting disabled individuals back in the mid-1990s for its IT service desk, which was experiencing high turnover, says Gary Dick, vice president of information systems at Bayer in Pittsburgh, who oversees in-house recruiting programs for the disabled.

These employees were so successful that Bayer stepped up its efforts by introducing a one-year co-op program in 2007 to help one individual with disabilities each year develop valued work skills and experience. The program now supports four people annually in a variety of positions within research and development, the master data group, organization and information, the IT service desk and the office of the president.

"We found a strong barrier for them to getting jobs was lack of experience," Dick says, adding that Bayer partners with Bender Consulting Services Inc., a firm that recruits and hires people with disabilities.

Although Bender hires them and provides each with a job coach, Bayer pays their wages and assigns each participant a volunteer employee mentor to provide job guidance. Each quarter, the coach and mentor conduct a performance evaluation so, by the end of year, co-op employees have a strong set of skills and resume to match.

When they've completed the program, Dick says, employees can bid on any Bayer job or find employment elsewhere. But no matter how well they perform, or how much managers insist they remain, co-op participants can't be hired into those jobs, which have been designated as co-op positions.

Of the eight people who completed the program, Bayer hired one -- a master data analyst. The rest are employed at other companies.

To generate internal enthusiasm for the co-op program, Dick says, his department sponsors a dinner every fall with Bayer executives, program graduates and current participants. He says the networking event is an opportunity to lure more senior staff into the program.

"The hope is, at the same time you're investing in these individuals, you're also establishing yourself as an employer of choice," says Dick, adding that the program will be expanded to other Bayer locations soon. "Even if their first job isn't with Bayer, they're keeping an eye out, considering Bayer as an employer in their future."

While offering co-op programs is one of many effective ways to establish a talent pipeline (see sidebar), not all employees may feel comfortable working with the disabled, adds Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the Washington-based American Association of People with Disabilities.

"There are a lot of folks who still have trouble seeing past a person's disability to their talent, intellect, and what they might have to offer an employer," he says. "Employees oftentimes are faced with a very simple question: 'How am I going to work with them?' The answer is very simple: 'Just like you work with anyone else.' "

Among the best ways to overcome this stigma is to invite people with disabilities into your organization. By meeting them, working with them or getting to know them personally, Perriello says, existing employees will feel more comfortable around them and understand their value to the organization.

There are ample opportunities to do so. HR can also consider celebrating annual events, such as Disabled-Mentoring Day on the third Wednesday in October.

CSC has been participating for years. The global service provider of IT outsourcing, professional services and system integration employs more than 90,000 people. Its Newark, Del., office has bused approximately 25 disabled students each year from area high schools to its workplace to participate in four daylong sessions that include a kick-off meeting, mentoring activities with CSC employees and a graduation ceremony for those completing the program.

"They get the experience of what it's like to work," says Mary Davis, vice president of IT Infrastructure Solutions at CSC in Chantilly, Va. Davis is heavily involved in the company's hiring and outreach programs for the disabled and oversees the hiring managers in her business unit. "Once they graduate, these students are usually the first people we look to hire."

Every quarter, Davis says, her office conducts mock interviews between various company managers and approximately 20 job candidates with disabilities, who are also sent by Bender Consulting. The idea, she says, is not only to polish their interview skills, but also to showcase their talent. Roughly 25 percent are hired from these sessions each year.

Of the company's 40,000 people who are employed in North America, she says, 4.65 percent have disabilities. But she suspects the rate may be higher, since some workers don't feel comfortable self-identifying or revealing their disability.

"We're focused on building and sustaining a diverse workforce that creates an inclusive culture," Davis says. "It's part of our DNA."

Filling in the Gaps

Children's Healthcare of Atlanta opted for a slightly different tactic in 2007. While partnering with Briggs & Associates, a Georgia-based employment agency for the disabled, the two organizations placed 27 people with intellectual disabilities at the hospital, says Michael Landis, HR manager at Children's, which employs 7,500 workers.

The organizations implemented the Project Search model, which originated at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. The model basically requires Briggs employees and hospital managers to jointly identify tasks that individuals with cognitive disabilities can perform. Then Briggs matches people to specific jobs or tasks and assigns job coaches who train them and offer ongoing coaching as needed.

Some of the tasks employees perform include stocking clinical carts with general supplies such as needles and bandages or checking expiration dates on drugs. While every state offers funds for such programs but operates differently, the Georgia Departments of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and Vocational Rehabilitation fund the job coaches and behind-the-scenes recruitment processes.

Landis says the hospital only pays for employee wages, which are significantly lower than the salaries of nurses who previously performed these tasks.

"The [employees] are not high-functioning, but can do fantastic jobs in certain roles, especially in a hospital setting where you have a lot of accreditation jobs that need to be done," Landis says, adding that employees, who may be autistic, recovering from traumatic brain injuries or have Down syndrome, mainly work 20 hours a week over a four-day period. More than 90 percent of the 27 are still employed.

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Other employers participate in creative career fairs organized by Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities, says Lori Golden, inclusiveness-consultant-accessibility leader at Ernst & Young in McLean, Va. The membership organization, composed of college disability service offices nationwide, sponsors two annual conferences -- one on each U.S. coast.

Golden says only 10 sponsoring companies participate in addition to between 50 and 75 college students who are preselected by COSD based on the employers' criteria. She says the two-day event helps employers and job candidates really learn about each other.

"Our goals are not necessarily to make direct hires, but to have high-quality interviews and discussions, and expand our pipeline among a very high-quality student population with the kinds of academic backgrounds we're interested in," Golden says.

But when hiring, she says, it's not always easy to determine if someone can perform the job with or without accommodations. Some tasks are not clearly spelled out in job descriptions, so people don't always understand what's expected of them.

She also suggests that recruiters look beyond the job toward the long-term demands of their career. Will their disability potentially interfere with their career path?

"It's often very important to have very detailed, collaborative discussions, where the recruiter, hiring manager and candidate figure out how things [can] be done," Golden says.

Honor and Duty

Last year, Booz Allen Hamilton began recruiting severely injured or disabled veterans, says Pamela Hardy, senior associate who leads the diversity recruiting programs and outreach efforts at the strategy and technology consulting firm based in McLean, Va.

"We've partnered with a number of external organizations across the military community that will allow us access to those individuals who are ready to return to work," she says, pointing to the Navy Safe Harbor, Army Wounded Warrior and Marine Corp Wounded Warrior Regiment programs as examples.

Although company policy won't allow hiring numbers to be released, she says disabled individuals fill jobs ranging from intelligence analysts and computer specialists to contract administrators.

But what's really unique is the program's flip side: approaching disabled vets not yet ready to return to work.

Hardy says more than 100 employees who volunteer as mentors have already received mentorship training in-house. They either self-assign by selecting a veteran from an online list offered by her department or take a company-sponsored trip offered several times a year to nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center to meet with participating veterans, then pair up on their own. Many meet weekly or monthly; some provide online mentoring or spot mentoring (one session) while others develop long-term relationships.

Likewise, Merck reaches out to disabled veterans. It created a veterans and people-with-disabilities recruiting council last year that works closely with line leaders to better understand their business needs and identify veterans and other job candidates with disabilities to fill positions, says Stephanie Pallante, global university and diversity recruiting leader at the pharmaceutical firm in Whitehouse Station, N.J.

Between 5 percent and 7 percent of its 80 co-op college students are also disabled. However, she says, this is the first year her team allocated funds for 10 disabled individuals to participate in its summer internship program. Roughly 15 of its 350 interns nationwide are disabled.

What distinguishes this internship from others is that Merck pays for participants' housing -- usually college dorm or apartment-style hotel rooms -- and provides them with transportation to and from work. Typically, 55 people are offered jobs at the end of the internship. Approximately 75 percent accept.

"Through our partnerships and sourcing activities, we get great employees," says Pallante, adding that most thoroughly analyze the position and company because they plan to stay on the job long-term. "As a recruiter, that's the employee profile we want with us for the long haul."

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