Beyond the Illusion of Inclusion

Many myths and biases prevent people with disabilities from being hired or promoted

Dori Meinert By Dori Meinert July 1, 2019
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LAS VEGAS—Many myths and biases prevent people with disabilities from being hired or promoted, but moving beyond them can help your company attract and retain loyal and productive workers, two Cornell University experts told HR professionals at a June 26 concurrent session at the Society for Human Resource Management 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition.

A 2017 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that employers were less likely to interview applicants with disclosed disabilities. Hiring managers might exclude people with disabilities because of conscious or unconscious bias.

Bias is a strong feeling for or against something that distorts the way we respond to it. Unconscious bias reflects assumptions and stereotypes that are beyond our awareness or control.

"In life, we start with all of this data and information. At some point, we begin to select certain data … and that leads us to assumptions" based on our experiences, said Susan W. Brecher, director of human capital development, legal programs, at Cornell. Those assumptions might lead a hiring manager to tell HR that he or she doesn't want to hire a person with disabilities, Brecher said.

To reduce hiring bias, Brecher suggested HR professionals do the following:

  • Use the same interview questions for all applicants.
  • Ask managers to use behavior-based interview questions rather than hypothetical situations. For example, instead of assuming an applicant who uses a wheelchair can't travel for a job, ask that person to describe a time he or she faced challenges when traveling—but all applicants should be asked that same question.
  • Have diverse teams conduct interviews and make hiring decisions.
  • Train managers to use objective, fact-based hiring techniques.
  • Hold hiring managers and supervisors accountable for diversity in hiring.

The first step to removing bias is to recognize it in yourself or others.

"Change cannot occur without recognition," Brecher said. "That's your starting point."

To help hiring managers recognize their own biases, the best approach is to ask them why they think a disability will interfere with a person's ability to do the job, rather than suggesting they are biased.

Second, expand your frame of reference. If you've never met a person who uses a wheelchair, you might make inaccurate assumptions about what that person can or can't do. "If you've never interacted with people coming back from military [service], and therefore you don't see how they function as individuals, you may then start out with that bias," Brecher said.

Third, get others' opinions. "Bias leads to decisions only based on one voice," she said.

Finally, participate in training and education about bias. "A lack of information and understanding supports actions based on bias," she said.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Handle an Employee's Request for an ADA Accommodation]

Seek Inclusion

A diverse workforce can provide valuable perspectives that drive innovation and creativity in your organization, but only if all employees feel comfortable speaking up, said Judy Young, associate director at the Scheinman Institute of the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell.

Young cited a common adage: "Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being invited to the dance."

Do people with disabilities feel respected and included in your organization? Or is inclusion an illusion?

More than 66 percent of workers with disabilities have experienced negative bias, according to a 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation. More than 75 percent have disabilities that we can't see—such as a mental illness—and these employees are unlikely to let their employers know, for fear of losing their jobs or being treated differently.

If employees don't let their employers know about a disability, then they can't receive accommodations that would make them more productive at work.

"So it is really important to create an environment where people feel comfortable to identify, comfortable to be who they are," said Young, who is responsible for the instructional design and management of the institute's public programs for HR and diversity and inclusion practitioners.

She suggested the following actions to reduce disability bias in your organization:

  • Ensure that information about people with disabilities is included in bias training.
  • Review job descriptions for language and requirements that might exclude people with disabilities.
  • Check career websites to ensure they're accessible, with screen readers used by people with visual impairments.
  • Adopt language in company policies and communications that encourages self-identification.
  • Establish disability-focused employee resource groups rather than groups only for people with disabilities. The former, broader group would include any interested employees, such as those whose children have disabilities. This will encourage people who have invisible disabilities to attend because they won't feel they are disclosing their disability.
  • Ask employees with disabilities to alert you to potential biases at all stages of the employment cycle.
  • Ensure all employees can participate in company events, and include pictures of employees with disabilities on your website.

Some managers fear that the costs of providing reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities will come out of their budget.

"Many organizations have provided a specific, centralized fund for these expenses so there isn't resentment from managers" about having to provide accommodations, Brecher said.

After the session, conference attendee Elizabeth Millan, a recruiter at U.S. Bank in Henderson, Nev., said she was surprised to learn that so few people with invisible disabilities disclose them.

"I don't feel we offer enough resources for supporting and fostering an environment of inclusion for [people with] hidden disabilities," she said, adding that she hopes that she and her HR team can find ways to make applicants and employees feel comfortable requesting an accommodation.

Mary Ingolia, a bookkeeper at Consulting Engineers Group in Mt. Prospect, Ill., found the session invaluable because she's currently creating an HR role at the rapidly growing company.

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