On June 13th 2019, disability@work hosted a round table that brought together leading academics from around the world with senior officials at the DWP, the Joint Work and Health Unit and No.10 involved in developing the government’s disability employment policy. The round-table was chaired by Liz Sayce, former CEO of Disability Rights UK. Below she draws some key lessons on what works in overcoming barriers to the employment of disabled people.
Inclusive employers? Learning from evidence on government and employer action to increase disabled people’s opportunities at work
By Liz Sayce
This one-day symposium with a focus on the potential role for employers in overcoming barriers to the employment of disabled people was an amazing experience bringing together some of the world’s leading experts in disabled people’s employment with people working on employment policy here in the UK. Academics came from universities across the world, from Switzerland, USA, Iceland, Israel, Scotland and Belgium. We focused resolutely on what employers and governments can do to make work inclusive. We didn’t fall into the trap of assuming disabled people have to change to fit into work as it is. One of our big take-out messages was that the world of work needs to – and can – change.
It’s sometimes easy to think that we don’t have enough evidence to be confident about which policies would make most difference. But if this day taught us anything, it was that there is quite a bit we do know, so we can make a start. For me, some key learning points were these:
- We know quite a bit about which workplace practices have an impact, enabling disabled people to have greater equality in employment. Suzanne Bruyere, from the USA, gave us the evidence for some of the practices that work including targeted paid internships – to give people that all-important experience of work; strong senior management commitment, with tracking of issues like grievances, and turnover that are so important for workplace culture; and a centralised fund for adjustments/accommodations. Making accommodations extends duration of employment – it really matters for retention. She found 95% of requests for accommodations come from non-disabled people: most employers are making adjustments all the time.
- Engaging colleagues is vital. Alexandra Kalev from Israel shared evidence showing that if leaders just instruct employees to do things, or frame it as a requirement, it doesn’t work; if they fully engage them in finding solutions, the employees feel the success is their success, and progress is greater and more sustained.
- Understanding your disabled workforce is important – and can be done. Metrics are central for understanding and results. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me ‘but people won’t want to open up, how can we know who is disabled, what their experiences are’? But the evidence we heard showed that anonymised staff surveys do produce meaningful data, that can be tracked; and that employers who create cultures where people feel safe to be open find more and more people ‘come out’ – bringing multiple benefits as people ‘bring their whole self to work’. Measurement is complex – and our contributors had ideas for improving national as well as workforce measures – but that shouldn’t put us off. It’s important, not least for employers to improve their attraction and retention of talent and employee experience and morale.
- Requirements on employers are vital. Several experts identified the known value of requirements on employers, as well as the ineffectiveness of purely voluntary good practice schemes, which don’t have broad enough penetration to make a significant impact.
- We know where British equality legislation needs strengthening: not only in terms of reviving the commitment to awareness campaigns of the 2000s – since so many employers and employees don’t know even basic things like the legal right to workplace adjustments – but also changes in legislation and enforcement. Large employers could be required to report transparently on their employment of disabled people at different levels; Tribunals could regain the power to make recommendations to change a whole employer’s policy or practice, to have more systemic impact. Currently cases can too easily go out of time, individuals too often lack representation or advice, pre-employment health questions are not sufficiently policed and too much onus is on individuals to take cases – where systemic action is needed …..There is a clear agenda to fill gaps and improve employment rights.
- Collective action by employees matters to outcomes. We heard evidence that unionised workforces do better on equality (including disability) practices – as long as employers are willing to negotiate. Employers believe that disability employee networks are effective, as well. It is not enough for individuals to be able to exercise rights on their specific experiences: collective influence on systemic practice can achieve far-reaching change.
- Procurement can drive change. There are international examples, for instance US federal contracts requiring 7% employment of disabled people by contractors. Britain has used procurement in this way relatively little but there are opportunities here and the Government is consulting now on the inclusion of equality clauses, including the proportion of disabled workers employed on a contract and within the organisation, in its social value in Government procurement.
- As work is changing, disability inclusion needs to be in-built from the outset. Jobs are changing and it is vital that the routes into new roles – for instance, in new technologies – are fully inclusive. And as algorithms increasingly determine who gets shortlisted or hired, we have to strip out the biases from those algorithms.
To be sure, there is a lot that we don’t know. But that shouldn’t stop employers following known best practice, and policy makers incentivising and requiring them to do so. Nationally, we need measurement of progress that focuses on gaps in both pay and employment, to reflect our concern for equality. We hope that if current evidence is followed, and new research and evaluation carried out to add to it, we might see both those gaps shrinking, as more disabled people get decently paid, sustainable work with career opportunities.
A hugely useful day.