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Is your workplace blind to staff diversity?

Is your workplace blind to staff diversity?

I had a neck massage recently to relieve pain from being hunched over a computer. To my surprise, the masseuse was blind. She was friendly, funny and did a fantastic job. It made me wonder: why don’t more businesses hire people with disabilities?

I’ll return because the service was great and I like supporting businesses that give people a go. In this instance, another staff member briefly helped their blind colleague before and after the massage. It seemed like the business had an excellent culture that embraced diversity, caring staff and decent owners.

The federal government’s Job Access website says one in five Australians have one or more disabilities, and the figure is rising as the population ages. About 37 per cent of employees with disabilities are professional, managers and administrators, and 30 per cent are clerical sales and service workers, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows.

Simply put, businesses that don’t think about hiring employees with disabilities, or avoid them, are overlooking a huge and important chunk of the workforce. In this era of skills shortages, few businesses can afford to neglect this pool of workers.

It’s a shame we don’t hear more about the benefits of hiring workers in the skills shortages debate.

What’s your view?

  • What stops businesses hiring workers with disabilities?
  • Have you seen more companies hire such staff in the past few years?
  • What are the benefits and risks?
  • Does the federal government do enough to help businesses who employ workers with disabilities?

I am no expert on disabilities or the challenges those with them face in the workplace, and apologise in advance is this blog offends any such worker or seems patronising.

But I’ve written enough about boards, executive teams and entrepreneurial ventures over the years to know that true organisational diversity – across gender, race, skills, and physical capabilities – usually leads to better decision-making and more sustainable organisations.

The Venture has written many times in the past few years about the incidence of mental health issues among entrepreneurs and struggling small business owners, and the terrible lack of support for them. About 11 per cent of people with disability have mental health issues, ABS data shows.

Diversity is such an important issue for business. Look at the boards of large Australian companies, where  representation of female directors has been shamefully low until recently and still needs plenty of work.

It is well known that more diverse boards make better decisions over time because they have people who can consider complex problems from different perspectives. Over time, boards will have to focus more on diversity across gender, skills and culture. It would be great if more boards chose suitably qualified directors from among those with disabilities -not only for not-for-profit organisations -and set an example for management to follow.

The other great benefit of diversity is its effect on organisational culture. I’m convinced that businesses that embrace real diversity have a stronger, ethical culture that motivates staff to make good and right decisions more often. It’s a no-brainer, really: staff see the organisation will give a worker with a disability a chance, provide extra support where needed, and get so much more back in return. Employees do the right thing because they can see their employer does the right thing.

Customers, supplies and other stakeholders see the organisation genuinely embraces diversity, and feel good about their relationship with it, just as I did with the shop that fixed my aching neck.

Yet I completely understand fast-growing ventures that don’t think about the benefits of diversity or hiring workers with disabilities. Unlike a large business, the small venture does not have a large human resources team that can advise management on recruiting and working with such employees, or the resources to modify the workspace if needed.

The entrepreneur may be so busy that they cannot afford to spend extra time with a worker with a disability who needs more management support, at least at the start.

Other ventures might worry about employment complications or health and occupational safety risks, and, right or wrong, feel that hiring workers with disabilities is a headache they can do without. I suggest they read information on the federal government’s Job Access site, which has simple, clear information on how to recruit and provide support for employees with disabilities.

I doubt the shop I visited gave such deep thought to using a worker with a disability. They probably just wanted to hire a good person who does a good job. In doing so, they are a long way ahead of many businesses that are blind to the benefits of true diversity.

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