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International Day of Persons with Disabilities - how the tech sector can do a better job of recruiting disabled talent

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett December 3, 2021
After exploring the difficulties that people with disabilities face in finding employment in the first of our two-part series, the focus shifts to what employers can do to better recruit and retain them.


On International Day of Persons with Disabilities an important question for the entire tech sector ought to be, 'What can be done to make recruiting and retaining people with disabilities better for everyone?'. 

A simple but widely overlooked secret to success for employers keen to do a better job of recruiting and retaining people with disabilities is simply to ask them what practices and policies work and what don’t.

As Diane Lightfoot, Chief Executive of not-for-profit membership organization Business Disability Forum, says:

When designing any kind of new policy or process involving employees, especially if they’re disabled, is important. No one wants to get it wrong, so if you involve people they can tell you if a particular approach is accessible or not, for example, if a corridor is too narrow for a wheelchair. The thing is here that you don’t know what you don’t know.

In recruitment terms, meanwhile, she advises thinking through from the very outset what skills are truly required for a given role rather than just sending out the usual generic job description:

Think about whether someone needs a degree or a driving licence and whether they have to be in the office full-time or not. Also question how things can be done. For instance, someone with a disability may have a degree and the right set of skills but may not have any work experience, so think about the situation in broader terms.

But it is not just about focusing on ‘hard’ or technical skills. Language also needs to be thought about in soft skills terms too. Lightfoot explains:

So if you use terms like ‘team player’, what does it mean and would it put someone with autism off? It’s a standard in so many job descriptions, but is it really necessary? So focus on what you really need.

Another important consideration when trying to attract candidates is ensuring that all corporate messaging and materials, including case studies, reflect a diverse range of employees. Indicating upfront that you as an employer offer flexible working and assistive technology, while also providing relevant examples to illustrate the point, will likewise “show you mean it”, Lightfoot adds.

Overcoming employment barriers

In addition, conducting work trials rather than recruiting via a traditional panel interview or timed test can likewise be helpful, particularly for neurodiverse people. As Sascha Dietsch, Product Security Associate at SAP in Germany, points out job interviews are often a “huge barrier”:

Most people on the spectrum have issues with looking someone in the eyes or reading facial expressions and making small talk, which can make it very hard to pass your first interview. Those little things are what can decide between you getting the job or not. Luckily I got a lot of training to do those things – nobody notices you aren’t looking in their eyes if you look at their nose instead. But it would help if more people knew what those on the spectrum usually struggle with.

Another big hurdle can be the “openness and directness” and the need for clear and direct communication of people on the spectrum:

A lot of people, myself included, have severe difficulties with processing things like sayings, irony, metaphors and sarcasm. I ‘mastered’ it by reading a lot of books about sayings and readings. I still have some problems with sayings and detecting irony, but it’s got better over the years. But for those not on the spectrum: please use clear, concise and direct language. That would help a lot.

But there are also wider organizational benefits to be gained from making these kinds of simple changes. Dietsch explains:

If the management and team support is right, the communication culture will improve drastically because we need clear communication. You can also be sure that if we say something, it’s usually direct and honest.

Og Maciel, a Senior Software Engineering Manager at IBM’s open source software subsidiary Red Hat, also believes that many organisations would benefit from overhauling their recruitment processes to reduce the focus on experience and qualifications. He says:

Companies need to revisit their processes and procedures to look first and foremost at the potential of their people. It’s about giving them more of an opportunity as, for example, disabled people may have had less work experience and so their resume may feel a bit light. Oftentimes organizations are hiring under pressure as they need to find top talent quickly and so they immediately eliminate someone with a non-traditional path or who’s not a straight, white male with a degree in computer science. But changing your recruitment practices to hire for potential is key. It’s a crucial change not just for your people capability now but also for the future.

Providing the experience employees want

As for how best to offer practical support tailored to each individual, Lightfoot recommends addressing what adjustments or accommodations they might require at the interview stage. She explains why doing so is important:

They can be very small but essential tweaks or changes to how or where someone does their job, such as using assistive technology, an adjustable desk or having different working patterns. But it really helps to ask everyone routinely ‘what do you need to do your job well?’ Don’t try and guess but instead open up a conversation as often employees are worried about approaching managers about things themselves.

But it is these line managers, Lightfoot believes, that are the “key link” in enabling disabled employees to thrive:

Managers worry about having to be an expert but they really don’t need to as most disabled people know what they require and are experts in their own condition. So just ask what they need, identify the barriers and what the affect is on how they work, and evaluate how to solve it. If you need expert support, get it, but opening a conversation is the really big part, particularly as it’s not always obvious if someone has a disability or health condition.

Maciel agrees, but also believes company culture and how people are treated on a day-to-day basis is also important:

I want to see that my opinion matters and that I have a seat, not at the children’s table but at the adults’ table. So it’s about knowing I’ll be heard and I can contribute and there’s nothing to prevent me from collaborating at the professional level and building rapport with my colleagues at the personal level.

He also believes that line managers have a vital role here, which means that having effective soft skills at their disposal is key:

It’s important that managers are empathetic and use emotional intelligence when talking to their teams and associates, especially these days when most meetings are online. So it’s about doing things like ensuring the loudest aren’t dominating and introverts contribute. When you all get together, it’s also about not going to a bowling alley if someone can’t bowl, or not going for drinks if someone doesn’t drink alcohol. If people are to bring their full selves to work, it requires social skills and the ability to create a safe environment, and managers need to make an important shift. Many still tend to look for output over outcomes but we’re talking here about supporting human beings not productivity targets.

My take

It’s a simple but true fact that listening to your staff and understanding their needs will provide that frequently all too elusive but much craved positive employee experience and engagement, which ultimately is the secret to retention - particularly in the middle of the so-called ‘Great Resignation’.

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