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Employees Often Refrain from Disclosing Disabilities
 

By Eytan Hirsch  7/10/2012
 
Employees with nonvisible disabilities often wonder whether to disclose their condition when applying for a job or working for an organization, because they fear negative repercussions will arise if they do so.

Yet people with disabilities are the largest and fastest growing minority group in the world, representing more than 750 million individuals, according to a recent webinar. In the U.S., there are more than 54 million people with disabilities. However, people with disabilities are employed at less than half the rate of their nondisabled counterparts.

A number of factors, including people with disabilities’ own fears about applying for jobs, workplaces that are unsupportive or unaccommodating for people with disabilities and workplace harassment and bullying, are preventing many of these people from finding employment.

In a June 28, 2012, webinar titled “Strategies for Increasing Self-Identification for Candidates and Employees with Disabilities,” experts discussed various ways to create work environments that allow applicants and employees to disclose their disabilities.

The webinar, conducted by the Employer Assistance and Research Network (EARN), included two speakers who provided insights into ways organizations can accurately represent their workforce composition and consider various methods for accommodating employees with disabilities.

The first, Martha Artiles, served as the global chief diversity officer at ManpowerGroup. She focused on various strategies organizations can use to create a climate in which people are willing to disclose more about themselves. “Employees need to be truly engaged at all levels of the organization and truly believe in what they are doing and what the company is doing,” she said.

According to a study conducted by Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), released in December 2011, potential employees are more inclined to express interest in organizations with an inclusive workplace culture.

Artiles explained that an inclusive culture should:

  • Engage employees at all levels.
  • Employ leaders who set a clear purpose, values and accepted behaviors.
  • Eliminate employees who do not demonstrate the desired behaviors.
  • Revisit core values periodically to make sure they are still relevant.
  • Educate employees and hold them accountable at all levels.

Organizations that achieve these outcomes are likely to become known as best places to work among prospective employees, Artiles said. In addition, such practices can increase retention and loyalty of employees and customers.

Deciding Whether to Disclose the Disability

Of the 598 respondents with disabilities surveyed by Cornell and AAPD, 68.2 percent said the “need for accommodation” is a very important factor when deciding whether to disclose a disability to an employer. Other popular responses included a “supportive supervisor relationship” (63.5 percent) and a “disability-friendly workplace” (56.8 percent).

These results further Artiles’ view that an accommodating workplace environment is essential for employees to be willing to disclose their disabilities. But this is not only important for employees, the study found. It is crucial for employers to be aware of ways in which accommodations can improve employee productivity and improve the reputation and sustainability of their business.

According to the webinar, organizations should create environments that encourage disclosure by:

  • Targeting people with disabilities for employment.
  • Conducting disability awareness training for staff.
  • Enacting flexible workplace policies.
  • Having fair systems to address complaints.
  • Creating accessible workplaces.
  • Fostering supportive supervisor-staff relationships.
  • Including disability in the diversity statement.

In addition, Cornell/AAPD survey respondents listed very important factors when deciding not to disclose a disability to an employer. “Risk of being not hired/fired” was the most common response with 73 percent, followed by “employer may focus on disability” (62 percent), the “risk of losing health care” (61.5 percent), and “fear of limited opportunities” (61.1 percent).

What Employers Need to Do

The second webinar speaker, Alicia Wallace, equal employment opportunity program consultant and disability outreach manager for WellPoint Inc., agreed with many of the suggestions noted by Artiles. She said HR departments should focus on:

  • Recruiting and hiring people with disabilities.
  • Working with internal employee networking groups which support disability initiatives.
  • Mentoring opportunities.
  • Portraying people with disabilities in a positive light.
  • Offering workplace flexibility.
  • Looking into the process for accommodations.
  • Educating associates about disabilities.
  • Sponsorships with disability-focused organizations.

Wallace suggested that employers avoid treating employees with disabilities differently than other employees, specifically with regard to interpersonal interactions, opportunities for advancement, hiring, termination and performance reviews.

People want to feel like they are joining an organization because of their skills and abilities, she said, which is why employers should integrate diversity into their workplace culture seamlessly, rather than making it an obvious issue.

Eytan Hirsch is a staff writer for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Accommodation Practices Highlighted in Study, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, May 2012

Are Your Employees Comfortable Disclosing Disability? SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, January 2012

Do You Know Who Your Employees Are? SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, November 2010

Be Aware of Disabilities, Whether Visible or Not, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, September 2010

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