Five ways to better manage employees with disabilities
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Five ways to better manage employees with disabilities

When Simon Minty got a job in Barclays in the mid-80s, the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equality Act) wasn’t in existence. Though he interviewed well, as a new starter he encountered real concern over whether his short stature and limited mobility meant he could do the job. With supportive managers and a little adjustment in the workplace, however, he proved an effective employee for the bank.

He now specialises in disability in the workplace and his consultancy, Sminty Ltd, works with major organisations like Barclays and Lloyds Banking Group to improve the recruitment, retention, and promotion of disabled staff. Here, he talks about the benefits of reasonable adjustments, the importance of employee networks, and how to be a better manager to employees with disabilities.

Inclusion policies don’t always translate to the real world

I think all organisations know that there’s now legislation for employees with disabilities, that they have duties to them. But where the difficulty lies is that a process for inclusion doesn’t always translate to the real world. Managers don’t always ‘get’ the importance of reasonable adjustments, sometimes it can seem like it’s just more work they have to do. And if you’re a manager who has tight targets and you have someone on your team with a disability that affects their productivity, you can feel in a bind.

When I work with individuals who have disability-related issues, I help them make their managers understand that reasonable adjustments are an investment in productivity. I get them to change, ‘Do this for me’ to, ‘I could be more effective if this happens.’

Disability inclusion in the banking industry

Lloyds are a leader in the sense of employment for people with disabilities – they’ve had personal development programmes and reasonable adjustments in place for 10 years now, they’ve put out ads saying, ‘We welcome applications from disabled people.’

Barclays are fabulous when it comes to training frontline staff to serve customers with disabilities. They’ve done a lot of work around accessibility – with things like sign language interpretation on their iPads and communicating by text. In terms of disability, Lloyds and Barclays lead and others follow.

Something that’s changed significantly since the introduction of the legislation are disabled staff networks. People are coming forward to say, ‘I have this condition and I want to talk to other staff with similar experiences.’ Networks are about building confidence and knowledge around disability.

And if an employee network is good, it informs the organisation how to do better. They often have budgets and a dedicated chairperson, secretary and so on, and employers are allowing staff a few hours each week to contribute. Good networks often also get funding so that they can hold events and train their managers.

Lack of opportunities for disabled jobseekers

It’s been 20 years since the original Disability Discrimination Act was introduced, yet the unemployment rate remains pretty similar for people with disabilities – why is that? Is it employers or managers who are turning people down? As disabled jobseekers are we not offering the right skills?

There are government programmes, training schemes and great employers out there. I don’t think it’s as simple as employers are the problem, unemployed disabled people are the problem – it could be a mixture of things. But we need to start having a more honest conversation to work out why and what to do.

Five ways to better manage employees with disabilities

  1. Talking to people is important
    One of biggest problems around disability at work is that no one wants to have the conversations – whether it’s the individual or the manager. People get nervous about language and etiquette, but two or three sensible questions get you beyond that. What is the issue at work and how do we solve it?
  1. Keep calm and think of the role
    When an employee discloses to you that they have condition X, don’t just Google it and think you know how it affects them – all you’ll get is medical stuff, limitations and probably confusion – so have a real conversation. I always suggest, ‘Relax a bit and think of the job.’ The name of their condition or the history of their impairment often isn’t especially relevant. Focus on their role, focus on how their disability impacts at work. You don’t need to know everything or get too personal.
  1. Early intervention is vital
    If a member of your team is having a difficult time, if something is not right with their attendance or their performance, the presence of a disability or a health condition should be on your list of questions when you talk to them. The worst thing to do is to kick it into the long grass – if their performance isn’t right, for example, thinking that it’ll sort itself out. It doesn’t. Early intervention is vital.
  1. Reasonable adjustments equal future productivity
    At Sminty we often go into companies offering mediation. One example of this was where a blind employee had asked for different software, but their well-meaning manager wanted to work around this and had an attitude of: ‘We’ll help you, we’ll be alright without it.’ The thing that people need to understand is that, it’s not about working around the issue, if you make a reasonable adjustment for someone, that person will be a more effective employee.
  1. Inclusivity means being fair
    Generally speaking, managers want to do the best for their employees, but a lot of it depends on their relationship with the individual. The concept of reasonableness gets very broad if you think they’re a great employee. If they’re seen as a troublesome employee, however – if their attendance or performance is problematic and you don’t know why – then that concept of reasonableness can become a bit narrower, and that’s legally dangerous. Being inclusive is about being fair, and this can mean not necessarily treating everyone the same.