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Return-to-Work Programs, Flexibility Retain Employees with Disabilities
 

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  6/5/2012
 

Programs that help employees return to work following injury or illness and efforts to provide flexibility on the job are some of the most popular—and effective—practices used by employers to retain and advance employees with disabilities, a new study found.

Eighty-one percent of the 662 HR professionals selected randomly from among the U.S.-based members of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said they have a return-to-work or disability management program, according to the final segment of a three-part study released May 31, 2012, in collaboration with the Cornell University ILR School Employment and Disability Institute.

Forty-nine percent of respondents with a return-to-work program said it is “very effective” and 36 percent said their program is “somewhat effective.”

Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they encourage flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting, flextime and part-time work for employees—the second most prevalent practice addressed in the third segment of the research study. Forty-seven percent of those that offer flexible options said they are very effective.

Yet the program deemed very effective by the most respondents (54 percent)—having a disability-focused employee resource group (ERG)—is in use by just 14 percent of respondents, the research revealed.

This is one of several practices that is more likely to be used by large employers, said Susanne M. Bruyère, Ph.D., professor of disability studies and director of the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University, ILR School. “They have more employees to justify them as well as greater resources to invest in such proactive efforts,” she told SHRM Online.

Encouraging Disclosure of Disability

Inviting employees to disclose confidentially if they have a disability is the third most popular practice, used by 42 percent of respondents, and is deemed very effective by 36 percent of organizations that provide such an opportunity.

Yet organizations need to know how many people with disabilities they employ before they can measure accurately the effectiveness of efforts made to recruit, retain and advance employees with disabilities, Bruyère said, noting that Cornell is beginning to study the kind of work environments where people with disabilities feel comfortable disclosing their disability.

The study found that less than a third of respondents track metrics such as:

  • Accommodation numbers, types and costs (32 percent).
  • Applicants with disabilities hired (29 percent).
  • Number of applicants with disabilities (23 percent).
  • Turnover rate for employees with disabilities (11 percent).
  • Engagement levels of employees with disabilities (6 percent).

That’s why Bruyère encourages employers to seek the assistance of local community agencies as well as the disability student services offices of local community colleges and universities to help with referrals of qualified people with disabilities for available positions. By doing so, organizations can measure the number of qualified applicants in their initial pool more readily, she said, as well as determine how many make it to the interview and hiring stages.

However, as Bruyère noted, Cornell’s survey of American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) members, released in December 2011, found that employers play a critical role in creating an environment in which individuals are comfortable disclosing. In addition, she said employees will be more likely to disclose they have a disability if they know that:

  • Their employer has made concerted efforts to create a disability inclusive/friendly workplace.
  • Their employer is actively recruiting and hiring people with disabilities.
  • Other employees have disclosed their disability and were successful in the workplace.
  • Disability is included in the employer's diversity statement.

“We are finding that companies who include a disability self-identification option on their anonymous climate surveys will find that a significantly higher proportion of people will self-report a disability in this way when they know that it cannot be directly traced back to them and impact a supervisor’s or co-workers’ perceptions of their abilities,” she noted.

Other Findings

The SHRM/Cornell study found that less than 20 percent of employers:

  • Have a structured mentoring program for employees with disabilities (18 percent).
  • Offer special career planning and development tools for employees with disabilities (17 percent).
  • Have explicit organizational goals related to retention and advancement of employees with disabilities (13 percent).
  • Include progress toward such retention and advancement goals in the performance appraisals of senior management (9 percent).

When asked what prevents employers from expanding their disability-employment-related practices, Bruyère noted:

  • Lack of top management commitment.
  • Lack of understanding as to why hiring and retaining individuals with disabilities can be good for business.
  • Lack of attention to workplace climate factors that might impact an individual with a disability from accepting a position at a particular company or staying there.

“Sending a message from the top that inclusion of people with disabilities in all facets of the employment process—from recruitment, through retention, advancement and inclusion—will heighten the likelihood that the talent pipeline will be developed, but also that individuals with disabilities will be more fully and equitably included in career development opportunities throughout their working life within a given company,” she said.

The research was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

More information can be found on SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. 

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