The road to a truly inclusive workplace; learnings from enterprises already on track
There is a large and rich demographic which a talent-hungry economy like India cannot afford to ignore anymore. I’m talking about the 2.68 crore people with disabilities (PWD) in the country, according to census data released by the Registrar General of India.
To view PWD as implications of added cost in the form of special facilities, access, etc., is both old fashioned and myopic, particularly in an age of rapid technological advancement. Companies have come to realise that if PWD are unable to function or integrate effectively, it is a poor reflection of the company’s own infrastructure and human resource (HR) policies. Besides, as the largest minority group in the world, PWD are an integral aspect of a diverse workforce.
In India, one of the largest employers of PWD is Flex, a Sketch-to-Scale™ solutions provider that designs and builds intelligent products for a connected world. From shop floor to senior managerial levels, nearly 100 PWD are integrated into every stage of the company’s operations, proving that this is not only possible, but also sustainable.
As HR managers, it is our responsibility to leverage all available avenues to identify and integrate skilled PWD into the work force – from government provisions like tax benefits, to company policy. Once on board, it is up to us to make them feel comfortable and train them to be confident, competitive, collaborative and creative.
However, this kind of integration requires an understanding, time and some initial investment.
At Flex, the PWD we have on board have exhibited reliability, excellent problem solving skills and a degree of adaptability that is extremely relevant to dynamic business environment. They understand the need to innovate, to find new and better ways to complete the job. Often overlooked in job interviews, their confidence tends to take a beating. Conversely, when an organisation puts its faith in them, they blossom. Their endurance against obstacles and their enthusiasm is infectious and greatly improved work dynamics. It is no accident that some of the most inclusive companies with robust policy for PWD are also among the most profitable.
An added advantage for a product brand that employs specially-abled people is that these employees can provide keen insights on consumers with disabilities and may help develop products or services keeping the customers’ needs in mind.
It is important to build repeatable, effective processes. This ensures that no matter the touch point, sensitivity towards the employee is never compromised. For instance, creating tailored interviews that use an alternative medium of communication while maintaining recruitment standards. Where needed, interpreters or sign language specialists are used.
The things most people take for granted can be difficult for PWD. HR managers have a responsibility to ensure that PWD are comfortable in their new work environment and that all concerns with respect to access are addressed. The obvious first step is to ensure that the facility, and all spaces therein, are conducive to free movement for PWD. Any public space – for work or utility, which is accessed by a regular employee must be accessible to PWD.
The next level is to provide the tools necessary for PWD to carry out their duties. This includes clear channels of communication where required – including translation, and structured training. HR should ideally assign mentors/supervisors for these employees so that they can be inducted in to the workforce properly and can learn the ways of the company.
A majority of PWD have limited job experience (rate of unemployment for PWD is twice that of the rest of the population) resulting in a lack of confidence. It is important to not only give them confidence, but also to sensitize the rest of the team. For example, an entire team at Flex has been trained in sign language to be able to communicate effectively with their colleagues. This is a powerful step towards two-way integration.
Additional initiatives like stress management training, facilitating skip level and one-to-one meetings to address concerns directly,
It Takes Collective Will
While perceptions are changing, the numbers in our country are still low, a lot of work needs to be done. The ratio of jobs between people with and without disabilities in the country is skewed towards the latter.
To create an inclusive environment, companies will need to make reasonable adjustments to the work areas, modify technology and make information accessible in alternate formats or make changes to tasks or working hours.
A sustainable model must maintain strict control over rights and policies. They should be executed in a way that will minimize discrimination during the hiring process and in rewards and recognitions. For instance, Flex wages are in line with industry standards and compliant with wage board rules; it provides insurance cover and there are plans to soon bring PWD into the Provident Fund ambit as well.
Strengthening the Brand
As a welcome side effect of creating an inclusive workplace, the brand’s reputation as a preferred employer is cemented. The sentiments of stakeholders – suppliers, consumers, employees or even prospective investors, are kept positive. Hiring from the local community becomes more efficient.
The PWDs at Flex have been often featured by prestigious publications for their courage and remarkable journeys. And as an enterprise, Flex is the recipient of the Best Private Employer Award instituted by the Government of Tamil Nadu. We take these with quiet satisfaction, and as indicators that we’re doing something right.
It is, however, important to bear in mind that the hiring and retention of PWD is not based on philanthropy, but on purely progressive and practical principles. It isn’t just about doing the right thing, but doing the smart thing. There is no better time than now.