Staff With Disabilities an Asset

( Kiwi businesses could be more profitable and improve their organisational culture if managers committed to hiring a more diverse group of people, and rethink their concept of ‘disability’, says GSK’s general manager Anna Stove.

The concept of diversity in the workplace is by no means a new one, and the benefits are being proven around the world, but in New Zealand SMEs – where resources are often tight – there can be an unconscious bias preventing managers from embracing diversity in all its forms.

Numerous studies have shown that having a diverse organisation, at all levels, is good for business, as this brings better quality decisions through diversity of thought, experience and style, and a more balanced approach to risk, along with having a direct impact on the bottom line.

In New Zealand, managers particularly need to rethink their traditional concepts of ‘disability’, and conquer their unconscious bias around hiring people with disabilities.

It’s estimated around 96% of people living with a medical condition have a disability that is not visible, which means many managers are unaware of disabilities their staff or potential employees may be dealing with – whether that’s persistent migraines, chronic back pain, developmental challenges, or mental health issues.

Many companies fail to recognise the value of these people for their workplace, or simply don’t have the time or resources to find ways to make it work for both the business and the employee.

That is demonstrated by research in the latest New Zealand Disability Survey, which found that just half of all disabled adults were in the labour force (either employed, or unemployed and looking for work) compared with three-quarters of non-disabled adults1.

It also showed the changes to workplaces required were not substantial, with relatively few disabled workers under the age of 65 needing special modifications or equipment in their workplace. In fact, just 10% said such changes had been made to their workplaces, and 7% said they needed modifications or additional modifications1.

However, the benefits for companies of hiring and providing a flexible workplace for a more diverse group of people, including those with disabilities and ‘invisible’ conditions, are being proven globally.

Successive studies have shown that having a diverse organisation, at all levels, is good for business as this brings better quality decisions through diversity of thought, experience and style, and a more balanced approach to risk.

One international retail chain ran a pilot programme where its distribution centres were staffed with a diverse mix of employees, including those with autism and developmental disabilities. Their results showed that this group performed better than others without the same mix of employees2.

Along with improved performance, diversity can also have a direct and positive impact on a company’s bottom line. A recent international study looked at the top executive teams of 180 public firms in France, Germany, the UK and the US, and found those with more diverse teams outperformed their peers in EBIT margins by an average of 14%3.

At GSK, there is a focus on flexible hours and working from home as ways to accommodate employees, and a constant review of other ways the company can address specific needs in the workplace.

It could be as simple as ensuring that standing desks are available for those with bad backs, adjusting lighting for someone who suffers from frequent migraines, or having a quiet, private workspace available for someone who needs to concentrate on specific tasks without distractions. IT requirements and access to buildings may also need to be looked at a little more closely.

Globally, the company culture is improving with staff feeling like their individual needs are being recognised and there are processes in place to ensure employees are supported and enabled to do the best job they can.

It’s clear in New Zealand that employers need to do more to make it clear to those living with disabilities that they should be applying for positions and will be fairly treated when it comes to recruitment.

Many companies simply don’t attract any applications from those with disabilities. It’s important to ask what more could Kiwi businesses be doing in recruitment processes and employment offerings that can encourage greater diversity in workplaces when it comes to ‘disability’?

To reap the benefits of a diverse workplace, managers need to truly believe that diversity is the right thing, and walk the talk. Diversity means that your workplace should reflect the society you live in, because when we understand our society, we understand our customers. Products and services can be better designed to meet their needs, and managers and business leaders become better corporate citizens.

Attracting a diverse range of people to apply for jobs, including those with disabilities, and ensuring the workplace allows those people to do the very best job they can, could be perceived as challenging for many Kiwi businesses operating with lean resources, but the rewards are absolutely worth the hard work.

Anna Stove is the GSK NZ general manager, and sits on the GSK Global Disability Council, which aims to make the company more disability-confident for the benefit of its 100,000 employees around the world.

Media Release 12 May 2015.