A ‘Welcome Back’ For Workers with Disabilities

Verizon Wireless’ HR professionals help employees recover their productivity.

By J. Adam Shoemaker Oct 1, 2009
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October CoverPaula—not her real name—was a Verizon Wireless supervisor of customer service representatives when she was diagnosed with progressive corneal degeneration. Over time, her vision deteriorated; although she has some sight, she is legally blind.

Paula was always a highly motivated and well-respected employee, but her performance declined as she coped with physical and psychological issues connected with losing her vision. Verizon Wireless’ HR professionals implemented three strategies to support her.

First, we empowered information technology, facilities and HR employees at her location to partner with Paula, our national human resource team and a disability management vendor.

Second, we made technological accommodations—including screen-reading and magnification software—and provided appropriate training. One application—our call-monitoring graphics software—remained inaccessible, so Paula monitors calls the old-fashioned way, periodically observing each representative, listening to calls and creating personal monitoring reports.

Third, we temporarily reduced the number of Paula’s direct reports from 12 to eight. As Paula grew more confident with her new tools, we gradually restored representatives to her team. She was supervising a full team within six months.

Such disabilities can strike at any time. They can happen suddenly or develop gradually. They can be visible and obvious, such as an injury, or may be a condition with no outward signs, one that comes to the employer’s attention only when an employee discloses it.

Until about five years ago, Verizon Wireless’ efforts in accommodating our employees with disabilities tended to be uneven and reactive rather than systematic and proactive. We recently established specific policies to ensure that our employees with disabilities would be managed more consistently.

Our program is available at all retail, customer service and administrative locations nationwide. We have dealt with conditions such as vision loss, hearing loss, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and lupus. Twelve employees have needed to participate since we began tracking results; six remain with the company. The others left for a variety of reasons—including other job opportunities. We estimate that the approximately $60,000 we have spent on the program has enabled us to avoid spending about $160,000 in recruiting, hiring and training costs. Moreover, our retained employees are still gainfully employed.

Through these experiences—and with the help of Virtual Vision Technologies, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm—we have learned that physical rehabilitation of an employee who becomes disabled represents only one step in a longer process to facilitate return to work. And if the process gets interrupted for some reason, it can be costly for the employee and the employer. It is always less expensive to make accommodations and keep an experienced person on staff than to hire and train a replacement.

The Early Signs

Before an employee’s emerging disability produces obvious physical changes, there may be subtle but noticeable signs, such as sitting unusually close to the computer monitor, showing sensitivity to light, using the keyboard or mouse inefficiently—or not using them at all.

Our employees are encouraged to notice and report such changes among their co-workers so support can be offered sooner rather than later. Sensitivity training sessions help ensure that when employees report possible signs of disability in others, they do so constructively and without feeling as though they are "tattling." More-extensive training is offered to HR and other managers to help them be sensitive in approaching employees who may be facing disabilities.

We strive to foster a supportive environment where employees feel safe to talk about debilitating conditions and understand that it is truly in the company’s best interest to help them remain employed.

When the employee is able to confirm his or her condition and is willing to accept help, retention work can begin.

The Initial Stages

When a condition begins to affect an employee’s daily life and work activities, the individual may go through a time of physical and emotional crisis similar to the grieving process, with feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, fear and depression. Until these feelings subside, it is counterproductive for the employee to try to remain at work or for the employer to introduce retention solutions such as equipment and training.

During this adjustment period, we encourage the employee to take short-term disability leave. This time is typically consumed with medical appointments, arranging support systems, and renewing a desire to regain function and ability.

If the employee takes long-term disability leave, we expect it to last two to three months at most. Experience has shown us that if the employee is gone too long, the aim of returning to normal work life can be lost.

We think it’s important that during long-term disability leave:

  • The employee remains in contact with HR professionals to provide progress updates.
  • Support teams, including HR professionals, information technology, direct supervisors and peers, strive to understand how to support and accommodate the employee.
  • The accommodation team and the employee set a realistic date for return to work.

Throughout the process, we expect our local HR teams to provide the employee with comprehensive information about available community resources.

Verizon Wireless

Products and services: U.S. wireless voice and data network with 87.7 million wireless phone customers.

Ownership: Joint venture of two publicly traded companies—Verizon Communications, based in New York City, and Vodafone, based in Berkshire, England.

Top executives: Lowell C. McAdam, president and CEO. Martha Delehanty, vice president, human resources.

Headquarters: Basking Ridge, N.J.

2008 revenue: $58.6 billion.

Employees: 88,000.


The Next Level

An assessment of the employee’s needs is generally performed when the employee is on leave, and it is our first step toward vocational rehabilitation. The assessment can be performed by phone or in person. Typically, it consists of measuring and learning about the employee’s duties on a task level, as well as the person’s technological skills before he or she became disabled.

A needs assessment and job analysis should be performed by a qualified source early in the process to ensure that mistakes are not made ordering equipment that cannot be used. While the employee is on leave, we assess the person’s return-to-work needs, then plan for and set up appropriate accommodations, assistive technologies and training.

We encourage the employee to return to the workplace briefly so that, in cooperation with the supervisor and HR employees, he or she can participate with our vendor to assess the workstation, job-specific applications and regular workplace tasks.

The result is written documentation addressing the recommended equipment and training the employee would need to resume work. The documentation includes a formal agreement between the employee and the company that details how and when needs will be met and what will be required of all parties.

We emphasize training time before the employee fully returns to work to provide the employee the individual coaching necessary to re-establish productivity. Because of the interruptions and demands of daily work, it is virtually impossible to learn new assistive technologies while on the job.

We also establish a time frame for support and follow-up. Temporary, remote support provided by the professional who trained our employee is usually most effective in helping the employee return to productivity.

After regularly scheduled follow-up for two or three months following training, we allow informal check-ins during the next three to six months. Employee and staff support continues indefinitely, though the need for follow-up typically declines after a year.

Tailoring the Approach

There is no "one size fits all" solution for every employee. Disability tends to result in a shifting of life roles and frustrating challenges to self-image. For someone struggling with a disabling condition, an innocent miscommunication can feel like a direct result of the disability.

A realistic understanding of training objectives is crucial for the returning employee. Setting clear expectations allows the supervisor and the work team to comprehend the employee’s new work patterns and to evaluate performance accurately.

Equipment accommodations and training can include any number of physical changes to an employee’s workstation. However, a comfortable work environment that enables productive performance means more than just a personal computer. A relatively small matter can make all the difference. When an employee first returns to work, remember less-obvious support questions: How is this person affected by fire drills or by getting to the restroom or the cafeteria? The returning employee will not be instantly aware of how to proceed safely and quickly. We also try to anticipate transportation issues and stay flexible when assigning work shifts to facilitate travel needs.

Performance Goals

Managers often ask whether employees with disabilities should receive a break on performance goals. We say no. Rehabilitation and retention are intended to restore productive performance. We all depend on employees who can conduct business productively. One member of our organization must not place a burden on the rest, especially when we have come to expect a particular level of performance from the employee.

Further, the returning employee knows the performance standards he or she could once maintain and should expect to re-establish those standards. The goal is to recapture as much as possible of the lost function and performance.

Certainly, reasonable accommodation requirements must be respected. Returning employees need time to make the changes that rehabilitation demands. Our end goal still remains: to restore comparable productivity and performance. Our organization strives toward this goal so that no employee with a disability settles for less. This expectation must not be compromised. If lowered expectations become the norm, those will be the highest level of achievement attained.

Given appropriate motivation, accommodation, training and performance standards, an employee with a disability will succeed. According to the National Federation for the Blind, "Judge employees with disabilities by the same standards you use for other employees in the same position."

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