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Diversity and the differently-abled - a best practice exemplar from SAP

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 15, 2018
While most diversity and inclusion initiatives focus on gender and, to a lesser extent, ethnicity, SAP believes it is breaking new ground by starting to concentrate on the “differently-abled”.


More than a billion people, or 15% of the global population, are estimated to live with some form of disability, according to the last comprehensive report on the subject undertaken by the World Health Organisation and World Bank.

This number is only set to increase, of course, as populations, particularly in the developed world, continue to age, and chronic health conditions associated with disability such as cardiovascular disease and mental illness continue to increase.

The problem is that barriers ranging from discriminatory attitudes and practices to the availability of inadequate services all take their toll on disabled people’s lives.

As a result, despite the achievements of remarkable individuals such as physicist Stephen Hawking who suffered from motor neurone disease and died earlier this week,  it is unsurprising to learn that people with disabilities are less likely to be employed than their non-disabled counterparts - and generally earn less even if they are.

For example, a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is cited as saying that the average employment rate for disabled people stands at a mere 44% compared with just over half that for people without disabilities (75%).

On the one hand, this means that individual potential is failing to be realised on a massive scale. But on the other, it also means that people with disabilities actually comprise a largely untapped talent pool, which given today’s extensive skills shortages, it would appear sensible to woo.

And this is exactly what software giant SAP is attempting to do by setting up a work stream for “differently-abled people”, which sits alongside ‘gender’, ‘generations’ and ‘ethnicity’ in its diversity and inclusion (D&I) portfolio. Stefanie Nennstiel, the company’s senior director of D&I, explains:

When looking for early-stage talent, the market, especially for IT or so-called STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] profiles, is almost empty. Everyone is going after the same candidates so we discovered we needed to think differently about the situation.

Delivering through diversity

Moreover, research shows that there is a connection between having a diverse workforce and creativity and innovation, she adds. For instance, according to McKinsey & Co’s latest D&I report entitled ‘Delivering through diversity’,  there is a correlation between increased levels of innovation and higher levels of profitability.

The study indicates that the top 25% of companies surveyed with a good gender mix at the executive level were 21% more likely to demonstrate above average profitability. This figure rises to 33% if ethnicity and race are used as the marker - and although the study focuses on these most commonly-addressed minority segments, presumably the same rules apply for other groups too. Such facts are important for SAP because, says Nennstiel:

We’re a purpose-driven organization so all of the programmes delivered by D&I are designed to have an impact on our bottom line. It’s not just duty or corporate social responsibility – we’re convinced there’s a huge business case behind it.

Included within the company’s “differently-abled work stream” is both an ‘Austism at Work’ programme that was introduced in 2013  and a nascent initiative for people with physical disabilities. Autism at Work currently operates in 10 countries and has resulted in 150 people who are on the spectrum being appointed by the firm. Nennstiel says:

It helped us to learn more about what it means to hire someone with additional needs so we’ve completely revised our structures and also provide dedicated, individualised support. But we’re now moving to the next level and thinking about the needs of people with other disabilities. We’re currently in the planning stage, but we’re the one and only company that’s doing it, as far as I know.

Because she has been unable to find any coaches to guide or advise the organisation in what to do, however, it has been a matter of taking “small steps” in the right direction. One of the lessons learned from the Autism at Work scheme though has been always to involve the individuals concerned rather than simply provide them with ready-made initiatives. Nennstiel explains:

It has to be an open dialogue. You shouldn’t talk about people – you should talk with them to better understand what they require. People really hate it if they’re not involved because, after all, they’re the experts, and if you have regular discussions, you can get a pretty good idea of what needs to happen. People also feel safer as they’re in a trusted environment.

No one programme fits all

Although she says that from a data protection standpoint, SAP is unable to collect information on exactly how many differently-abled workers it employs, the estimate is about 3,000 out of a total workforce of 88,500. But because of the vast array of disabilities that individuals experience ranging from visual impairment to requiring a wheelchair to move about, it is not possible to take a “one programme fits all” approach.

As a result, the organization is taking a two-pronged tack. The first involves developing an “overarching, comprehensive programme” to provide structure, while the second is about creating an “individualised support initiative” with the help of mentors and coaches.

In programme terms, the focus will be on four key areas – recruitment, management, training and procurement. In the first instance, Nennstiel points out that hiring people with disabilities can be difficult:

It’s very hard to find them on the market as typically they don’t apply for open positions. What we learned from hiring people on the spectrum was that we had to develop new sources to build a talent pipeline. It’s why you need to be connected with local organisations as they know where the optimum candidates might be and they encourage them to apply for positions. We’re also looking for dedicated social media channels so we can actively approach people on them.

In management terms, it is just as vital to provide individuals with training, guidance and clear structures to support them in everything from recruitment to day-to-day life. As for training activities, SAP’s learning organization has been tasked with ensuring its online courses all conform to specially-devised accessibility guidelines by the end of this year.

Finally, Nennstiel says that accessibility standards were introduced into the procurement processes in 2017 to ensure that products purchased from the firm’s third party suppliers comply. She concludes:

There are lots of benefits to taking this approach. Because of the different perspective people have on things, there’s a lot of value-add in terms of being innovative and creative, which is important for an IT company. But if you hire people with disabilities, the retention rate is also very high – globally for our Autism at Work programme, it’s 94% and, in Germany, it’s about 98%.

My take

Although much of the focus in D&I terms has so far been on gender and, to a lesser extent, race, there is much to be gained in supporting other minority groups such as people with disabilities to play their part. The same applies for those who are socially and economically excluded - but that is likely to be an even bigger nut to crack.

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