The Value of Diversity - Triple Wins from a Truly Diversified Workplace

There are many good reasons to diversify the front line

There have been many studies of late that have shown that diversity at the board and executive levels has correlated with improved business performance (see for example, McKinsey: Diversity wins: How inclusion matters 2020). There are also articles suggesting many benefits of diversity within the customer facing parts of business and we believe they are considerable. Diversity is a much-used term but here we’ll use the definition that it covers, “the full spectrum of human differences”. The term gets used to cover age, gender, disability, ethnic background, sexual orientation and marital status. In this paper we will focus more on the disability aspect of diversity. Sadly, Australia has a poor track record when it comes to disability with the ABS reporting 31% lower participation rates among those with disabilities. Yet in contrast employers of those with disability reported to the ABS that 90% of those with disabilities matched or exceeded the productivity of other employees. This paper will look briefly at the theoretical benefits of diversity and then explore disability in more detail and how that landscape is changing.


In theory, every organisation should see the benefits of diversity and follow the range of legislation that makes discrimination and exclusion illegal (e.g. the Disability Discrimination Act). Use of a diverse workforce opens up a larger talent pool than businesses that unintentionally recruit to a narrow profile. There have also been studies that shows diversity of the team adds to the range of ideas in a team and thereby prevents “group think”.

There are some other logical reasons to increase diversity. Excluding any one group from recruitment narrows the field. For example, as nearly 20% of Australians (see ABS) have some form of

disability, any unintended exclusion will make recruitment harder. Being less diverse in the employment base on any diversity dimension can also mean that an organisation is less well equipped to deal with that cohort of customers. On the flip side, it would seem logical that organisations who have products and services that are geared towards any sub section of the population, would have a workforce “over represented” by those groups. For example, you would hope that government bodies that handle disabilities would be overrepresented by those groups. Those who have lived experiences have greater empathy and understanding than employees who have never been there and done that. In this paper we’ll explore some other benefits that organisations can obtain.


Despite this trend to greater diversity, recent research of Australian employers shows that almost two thirds of employers are largely uncommitted to employing jobseekers with disability. Those working with the Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) have told us that companies appear not to understand the potential of employing people with different abilities. Organisations tend to be risk averse in this regard, thinking that they will have to reconfigure office environments or that their work can’t accommodate those with learning difficulties. Few businesses we have seen have been through the thought process of whether parts of their workflow may be ideal for people with specific disability types (e.g. autism, intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, visual impairment). The good news is that a range of developments have changed the way companies can approach diversity and benefit from it. In this paper we’ll explore five related developments:

  • The counterintuitive diversity benefits

  • The implications of work from home for diversity

  • The potential support from the NDIS

  • The potential to organise work to enable work for those with learning difficulties and

  • The technology that may help remove hidden biases and enable diverse recruitment.


The counterintuitive diversity benefits

An organisation that goes to the effort of creating an effective workplace for people with disability is sending a clear message to employees and customers alike that it is socially aware and cares. This can be a benefit for employee loyalty and external reputation. These days there are many social media sites that rate workplaces so having this kind of positive reputation helps an organisation recruit and retain staff. Another benefit is that people with disability are often more loyal and reliable. Absenteeism and turnover amongst people with disability is often lower than the rest of the workforce and studies have shown that 86% of those with disabilities have attendance equal or superior to their colleagues.

Problem solving often rates as a key attribute that organisations look for in their staff. Those with disabilities have to solve far more problems in life than others. For example, everyday activities in the home present a range of issues that those with disabilities solve every day. Those with disabilities bring these capabilities to the workplace and are natural problem solvers. Just over 7% of university graduates have some form of disability and have already shown their resilience in getting through school and university systems that are often not set up well to handle their needs. Given the problem solving and resilience attributes, you would think employers should recognise the superior skills and attributes that this cohort has demonstrated and seek them out.

There are other benefits for morale and culture. For example, many employees with an intellectual disability come to work happy and enthused more often than their colleagues – work represents independence and identity, much more than a paycheque. People with some types of disabilities (e.g. cognitive impairments), are also happy to take on, and prefer, work that is routine and predictable. Some workplaces have found that this creates a more positive culture and workplace because of this diversity. For ‘mainstream’ employees, sharing a workplace with greater diversity and inclusiveness can create a greater sense of purpose and loyalty within a workforce. It can help make a good culture great.


The Implications of work from home for diversity

A hidden barrier to employment for people with disability has been the location and physical configuration of offices. We have written elsewhere that work from home makes it easier for those who want to work shorter shifts or split shifts to work around the needs of their families or possibly their duties as carers. If the new normal becomes two to three days in the office not five, this may also be much easier for some who couldn’t contemplate commuting for a 9-5 role.

Less commuting may also remove a barrier for people with disability for whom a commute is a great physical and mental effort. However, it is wrong to assume that people with disability would rather work from home. We all value social interaction regardless of our physical and intellectual capabilities. Assuming anyone with disability “would rather work from home” runs the risk of being a form of discrimination and exclusion. We hope that work from home enables more choice and flexibility and it may remove the barrier of a whole week of commuting for people with disability.


Potential Support from the NDIS

One of the primary goals of the NDIS is to get more Australians with disability into the workforce. In support of that goal an NDIS participant can plan and budget for some “support” in the workplace and assistance with some physical reconfiguration. There are also a range of other employer grants that facilitate workplace improvements that make it easier to support employees with disability. Some funding can be used to bring in expertise to help configure the work or workplace to make it accessible. NDIS participants may also have funding to pay for different support workers to help them adjust, manage the work or participate in activities like team meetings. For example, this kind of support is particularly valuable to people with intellectual disability for whom a new workplace and new job can be intimidating. Knowing that participants can access this support paid for under the NDIS, may remove another barrier for many organisations.


The potential to organise work to enable work for those with learning difficulties

Many organisations have “offshored” simple and repeatable work. For example, many companies have offshore teams that receipt and classify incoming documents so that more expensive on shore staff don’t have to do it. This idea of separating these tasks may be extended to create onshore opportunities, for example, for people with intellectual disability who might be more suited to simple and repeatable work. We’re not expecting that large organisations with major processing teams offshore are going to bring them back onshore. However, for smaller organisations or those that don’t want to consider offshore, some simple and repeatable processes may be ideal for a different and diverse cohort of staff.


In contact centres there are a mix of tasks with varied complexity. Work can be reorganised to pull out simpler tasks. For example, having a “human switchboard” rather than an IVR has been something companies like AAMI have been famous for. This answer has many benefits as it saves time for customers, creates a human face for the business and may produce more accurate routing than speech or push button IVRs. Many people might not want to do a job that involves answering 300-500 calls a day and transferring them all, but for someone with autism or other intellectual difficulties this may be a great job fit. It’s interesting that companies are happy to employ offshore workers with distinct accents and who speak English as a second language, but many companies would resist hiring someone on shore who might have slightly impaired speech.


Another task that may suit a different workforce is all the fulfilment activities at the end of call or in a fulfilment centre. In large operations this may be automated but in smaller businesses having someone who handles envelope stuffing, incoming and outgoing mail and perhaps some form of email sorting may be perfect for those who seek simple and repeatable tasks. Part of the trick here is to go through the thought process of assessing whether there are simple and repeatable tasks that will enable the remainder of the workforce to focus on the tasks with greater complexity.


Technologies or Processes to Take Out Unconscious Bias

One potential obstacle to diversity, is that all those involved in the process have unconscious bias that make them likely to recruit “people like me”. That is a reason why some industries are dominated by “middle class white males”. Some organisations consciously use a diverse recruitment team to try and prevent this bias. A range of AI technologies are an emerging answer that can be used to screen resumes and applications. They can be programmed to match to certain criteria and therefore help remove unconscious bias (unless of course the criteria themselves contain a bias). The AI will always do what it is trained to do and it screens far faster than a human can and can therefore cope with larger pools of applicants.


We saw a great example of this working at a software-based business. They had started using AI apps in recruitment and the results surprised them. The applicant who emerged top of the recruitment list was visually impaired. This was a very smart and well qualified individual with great technical skills. The organisation admitted that the human recruitment process might have screened out this applicant at an early stage. The AI applied criteria objectively and hence this person emerged on top. None of us can help having unconscious bias, but we can use tools and processes to try and offset it.


Summary

In this paper we have run the risk of simplifying a complex landscape. It’s dangerous to generalise when it comes to people with a disability as there are so many individual types. There are people who are incredibly highly functioning as well as those with cognitive impairment, different physical and emotional challenges. Any manager in any workforce already has to manage diverse capabilities and personalities in their team. Inclusiveness is about taking the time to learn and find out what capability each person can bring to make a team and workplace that will make it more productive and effective.


In this paper, we hope we have explained that recent changes and technologies have added to the potential for diversity in the workforce. There are benefits for the organisation, the workforce as a whole and of course for the individuals involved. If this is of interest, please feel free to get in touch at info@limebridge.com.au or call 03 9499 3550 or 0438652396.

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