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I am often asked by organisations just starting to think about disability inclusion where they should start and what they should focus on. And one of the things I tell them is that senior leadership in champion and driving change is key. That’s not new; we see time and time again the difference that senior leaders can make in driving disability inclusion across organisations in all sectors. But perhaps what is new is how widely this is beginning to be recognised. Back in July, Business Disability Forum carried out a major piece of global research with over 100 global brands, thanks to the support of our partner Royal Dutch Shell. In it, 91% of respondents said that identifying a senior leader early on was essential to the success of a global disability inclusion strategy. Closer to home, the same is true. Senior leaders have a critical role in normalising the conversation around disability (and everything else); they set the tone and, like it or not, what they say has a disproportionate impact – for good or for bad.
This is particularly important when you consider that over 90% of disabilities are not immediately visible; as I often say to people who haven’t really thought about disability, it is almost certain that you already employ and work alongside many more disabled people than you realise! This may not matter – but it might if people are trying to conceal a condition, take medication, or manage pain or fatigue – all things that take a lot of energy, and energy which could be focused on doing the best possible job for you. Simple adjustments are often all that’s needed, but many people feel very nervous about sharing this with their employer for fear that they will be treated differently. In 2019, our Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey, sponsored by our partner Microlink, found that:
- 28% of those with adjustments and 34% of those without adjustments said they did not make requests because they were worried their employer might treat them differently.
- 23% of those with adjustments and 31% of those without adjustments said they did not make requests because they were worried other colleagues would treat them differently
Leaders have a central role in creating a culture that makes it feel safe for disabled employers to ask for the support they need. This is particularly important in the context of Covid-19 as employees who are more susceptible to Covid-19 – people with asthma, COPD, and other auto immune conditions for example – who may never have had to tell their employer about their condition and never have thought of themselves as “disabled” now need to make difficult decisions about “coming out” at a time when they know businesses are making many tough decisions about their workforce.
But how to do it? Sharing personal stories is immensely powerful. The CEO of HSBC UK talks very publicly about having four grown up children of whom three are disabled. The CEO of Lloyds Banking Group has talked openly about his own experiences of mental ill health. Conversely, a now departed CEO at a large organisation that I won’t name had a conversation with me about how to support colleagues with their mental health and wellbeing and then in the next breath was boasting of never having had a day off sick including immediately after having an operation! Whatever the message he intended to be heard I can well imagine the one that struck home! Leaders also worry about saying the wrong thing but the power of talking about disability, routinely, can be transformative in normalising the conversation.
We also know that the more senior you are, the less likely you are to have a disability – and if you do have a disability you are likely to hide it, perhaps because you don’t need to tell people. If you are senior, you probably don’t have to ask if you want some kit or to work from home (back in the days pre Covid-19 when we had that choice) or to work flexibly. You can just quietly get on with it. You might not even think of yourself as working with adjustments. But if you can share what you do and how you work that can make a huge difference. Role modelling working with adjustments and working differently can be hugely powerful.
But what if as a senior leader you don’t have personal experience? How close are senior leaders to understanding the need of their disabled employees? Perhaps more so than they were. Back in April – in lockdown 1! – we carried out a survey of our members and partners to see how they were responding to Covid-19 – and who was leading the response. We found that decisions were generally being made at the most senior, strategic level:
- 83% said that how the business has responded to Covid-19 generally – including arranging internal communications, home working, and ensuring staff have the adjustments they need – was being led by the chief operating officer or chief executive
- And, whilst the figure for responsibility for ensuring staff with disabilities and long-term conditions specifically can move to home working was much lower – 31% said this was the direct responsibility of the COO or CEO as compared to 69% for HR – this is still encouraging. Giving senior leaders direct visibility of the issues facing their disabled employees should have a lasting and positive impact.
I hope that another positive legacy of the pandemic will be a kinder and more human style of leadership. We are all having to be more human in the way we are working now; much of our workplace “armour” is gone and the intimacy of letting people into our homes (albeit via our video camera) is a powerful thing. Let’s also remember though our privilege. Not everyone has a dedicated home working space or good wifi. Don’t compel people to turn their camera on.
Of course, senior leadership on its own is not enough; it needs to go hand in hand with the confidence of people managers throughout the organisation to have those all-important conversations with their employees and be backed by practical support in the shape of a really good workplace adjustments process that gives people what they need to perform at their best. But it is an excellent place to start.
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