How to be an adaptable employer

Tony Stevens
Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Flexible working approaches adopted during the pandemic point to how organisations can embrace the many advantages of being an adaptable employer that welcomes and supports disabled employees.

Tony Stevens is head of development at Disability Rights UK
Tony Stevens is head of development at Disability Rights UK

Flexibility for employees to work from home and vary their hours and duties has taken on new meaning and recognition during the pandemic. An open and flexible approach to all policies and processes goes hand in hand with welcoming and supporting disabled employees and creating win-win situations for both individuals and organisations. The advantages are many. From a recruitment point of view, positively seeking applications from disabled people gives you access to the widest possible talent pool. Retaining valued staff who have become disabled is likely to be much cheaper than trying to recruit, train and develop new ones. It is also important to create a workforce that reflects the diverse range of clients it serves and the community in which it is based. In the context of supporting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities or disabled parents, it makes sense to employ staff who are “experts by experience”.

  1. Engage with your existing workforce. Engaging with existing employees and encouraging them to tell you about any disabilities is crucial to becoming an agile and adaptable employer. From there you can start open conversations about what is already working well, ways to make the recruitment process more inclusive and ways to better support the career development of disabled staff. If declaration rates are low, you need to be clear and convincing in staff surveys and other communications that your overriding aim is to improve workplace practices, develop solutions and provide support. Give examples of conditions that not everyone may consider to be a disability, such as cancer or mental health conditions, and reassurances on confidentiality and data protection. This will result in fewer anxieties and increased openness.

  2. Focus on the barriers. The best starting point with any disabled employee is getting a clear idea of the barriers they face. Barriers can be physical ones, such as the lack of a ramp; attitudinal barriers such as bias and stereotyping; or organisational barriers including inaccessible systems, inflexible processes and assumptions about the way things must be done. A conscious focus on barriers reflects something called the social model of disability. It can be liberating for disabled staff to know they are not seen as “the problem”. Line managers are not expected to become experts in every impairment or health condition, but they can draw on existing skills to have open conversations about ways to reduce or remove workplace barriers.

  3. Build knowledge and confidence around reasonable adjustments. The duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to support disabled people at work is enshrined in the Equality Act 2010. This can be through providing equipment, human support or removing physical or systemic barriers for disabled staff or job applicants. Disability Rights UK advises seeking the employee’s own views on what changes would help them perform to the best of their ability. Managers should give full and fair consideration to all reasonable possibilities. They also need to know where to refer cases if more specialist advice is needed or there is a cost which could be covered by the government’s Access to Work scheme. This could be someone from human resources, occupational health, a senior manager with responsibility for disability or even a disability champion. Ideally such people can, over time, become in-house experts on common adjustments, for example for people with dyslexia, musculoskeletal or mental health conditions. The Business Disability Forum has a range of resources and downloadable guides to creating workplace adjustments policies. AbilityNet is a good place to go for assistive technology and workstation adjustments. Becoming an agile and adaptable employer requires a commitment to go beyond minimum legal compliance and doing everything reasonable to support the health and wellbeing of all staff at work.

  4. Sign up to the Disability Confident scheme. The government’s Disability Confident scheme can be helpful to kickstart the process of thinking differently about disability and ways of recruiting and retaining disabled staff. It can support recruitment in various ways. This includes making sure you have all the right processes in place and offer a guaranteed interview to any disabled candidate who meets the minimum criteria. It enables you to use the Disability Confident logo to signal you are a disability friendly employer. The scheme will also give you lots of useful suggestions and food for thought about alternative recruitment routes such traineeships and apprenticeships.

  5. Provide training for managers. Disability awareness and confidence training for managers can help reinforce all of the above. Every piece of research reviewed by Disability Rights UK indicates an effective supervisor or line manager is one who can adapt their approach to an individual’s needs. Managers may understandably worry about causing offence, “saying the wrong thing” or invading an employee’s privacy. Training aimed at increasing managers’ confidence in initiating open conversations with staff about their impairment and any adjustments they need can help nip problems in the bud.

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