All of the companies on The 2008 DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for People with Disabilities, which includes big name brands like IBM, PepsiCo., Kaiser Permanente and Sodexo, have employee resource groups for people with disabilities. Before offering such a group, however, employers should think about what they want the group to do.
Employees with disabilities are unlikely to come forward and ask a company to create a networking group, according to Nadine Vogel, president of Springboard Consulting LLC, a marketing and business strategy firm in Mendham, N.J. As a result, companies may believe there is no interest in such a group. “It has nothing to do with interest; it has to do with the fear of repercussions if there isn’t company support for the group,” she says.
Some groups, such as Awareness Benefiting Leadership and Employees about Disabilities (ABLED), the medical technology company Medtronic’s employee resource group, focus on the impact of disabilities on employees, their families and the workplace.
Disability resource groups may provide a way for employees with disabilities to support one another, but for many, the ultimate goal is business results.
For example, Ford Employees Dealing with disAbilities (FEDA), founded in 2002 by Ford Motor Company, strives to “help Ford vehicles become the mobility vehicles of choice for customers dealing with disabilities.” The group also provides information and networking opportunities for employees dealing with disabilities of their own or of others.
Another such group is the Abled and Disabled Associates Partnering Together (ADAPT) business resource group, sponsored by Prudential Financial, Inc., a network of employees who may have a visible disability, a chronic medical condition, or a family member with a disability.
ADAPT members educate others on disability issues, assist Prudential in reviewing policies and practices, identify marketing opportunities and provide feedback on the development of products and services tailored to people with disabilities.
"There are more than 50 million Americans with some level of disability," said Beverley Mariso, executive assistant and co-chair of ADAPT in a press release. "It's great working for a company that actively seeks out the perspectives of employees with disabilities and engages our population as a source of talent and a market for our products and services."
The Business Benefits of Support
Vogel says the support aspect of such groups shouldn’t be downplayed too much. “One thing that happens in the disability community is that 99 percent of the information you get comes from other parents and not from professionals,” she says. “Any time you can connect with other parents its beneficial – to discuss education, health insurance issues, and to band together on issues like work life balance.”
Employees responsible for a family member with a disability face the same kinds of challenges as employees caring for elderly parents, Vogel says.
As reported in the September 2008 edition of HR Magazine, “Health crises among the elderly often require immediate attention, a change in housing and a plan for managing the person’s day. It’s often difficult to reach doctors and services while at work, adding to the stress and making it difficult to focus on—or to remain at—work.”
The availability of elder care benefits, however, “can help curtail productivity losses, keep employees’ careers on track, and even bolster loyalty and retention,” the article continued.
The same can be true for employees dealing with family members with disabilities.
Vogel says organizations may find it is best to create two different disability-related groups: one for employees with a disability and one for employees with a child or dependent with a disability. “The parents group sometimes has a hard time sitting in the same room with the adults with disabilities; the issues are different,” she says. “Companies have later separated the groups and said it worked much better.”
Ernst & Young offers four disability-related groups to meet the diverse needs of its people.
The AccessAbilities People Resource Network raises awareness of workplace issues affecting people with disabilities and discusses ways the firm can better support employees with disabilities. This group isn’t limited to employees with disabilities, however, according to Lori Golden, AccessAbilities Leader at Ernst &Young. Many members do not have disabilities themselves; they may experience a temporary disability, have friends or family members with disabilities, or have had relevant work, educational or community service experiences, she says.
The Network for Parents of Children with Special Health Care Needs, sponsored by the company’s employee assistance program, provides support through confidential conference calls for the entire network as well as six condition-specific groups, all moderated by outside professionals.
The Caregivers Circle is a peer-to-peer support and information sharing network for EY people who serve as caretakers for adult family members with disabilities - typically parents, spouses, or grown children.
There is also an Abilities Champion Network of people drawn from across the firm's geographic areas and infrastructure groups who serve as on-the-ground leaders for disabilities-related initiatives. Abilities Champions liaise with local or business group leaders to ensure that disabilities-awareness messages and educational material are woven into communications, meetings, and events, and drive improvements in business processes that impact employees with disabilities.
The firm doesn’t currently ask employees to disclose their disabilities, anonymously or otherwise, in order to join a group or at any other time, Lori Golden told SHRM Online. “We do ask what needs people have in case of emergency evacuation but that information is only accessible by emergency personnel,” she says. Ernst & Young's goal is to identify and accommodate any needs its people have, not to identify the reason they have those needs.
“We want to know what we can do day-to-day to keep our people more productive and safe,” Golden says. “We also ask people in any new situation – such as when they are scheduled to go out to engagements at clients – if they need any accommodation so we can work with clients from the get go to ensure the right accommodations are in place.”
Vogel says disability-related groups, if formed, should be structured the same as other employee resource groups. “There needs to be a sense that there is a business imperative,” she says. “They should talk about the mission and intent behind such a group. What are you hoping these groups are going to do?”
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.