An Untapped Talent Pool

Persons with disabilities can add much-needed talent to your organization.

By Margery Weinstein

Your organization probably prides itself on its openness in finding new talent. You’re eager to add people with diverse backgrounds and skills to your roster of employees. Yet, like many companies, you might be hesitant to actively recruit persons with disabilities. You worry about your company’s liabilities since you know you would have to accommodate their physical and health needs. It’s true that recruiting and integrating these individuals may require greater care, but what you get may be even greater—enthusiastic new employees with talents waiting to be tapped and a well-rounded workforce.

For Cargill, an agricultural and food company that has 131,000 employees in 66 countries, having a diverse workforce is an objective. “Our view on diversity is that we must further develop our ability to use the full range of talents and perspectives of our diverse employees,” says Senior U.S. Diversity Consultant-Cargill Global Diversity & Inclusion Team Diane Murphy. “We want to ensure we have the breadth of viewpoints, experiences, and intellectual skills needed to succeed across our global environment.”

The company’s Global Diversity & Inclusion group has established relationships with organizations such as the Minnesota Vocational Rehabilitation and Placement Partners of Minnesota to accept candidate referrals, says Murphy, who conducts much of this outreach herself. “I meet with the agencies to discuss typical opportunities Cargill has to offer and what we look for in candidates,” she says. “I conduct informational interviews with referred candidates and share [that information] with our talent recruiting department for current opportunities and pipelining for future openings.”

Cargill’s recruitment outreach to persons with disabilities is just another way its Global Diversity & Inclusion department helps stoke the talent pipeline, Murphy explains. To that end, her department

ensures recruiters reaching out to those individuals are well skilled and experienced. She says that as long as recruiters are experienced and competent, Cargill does not need outside help to find and integrate persons with disabilities into its workforce. What’s more, Murphy says the first day of employment, in which the company introduces new hires to the opportunities available to all employees, is not different for persons with disabilities. Like all other employees, these individuals are given information about leadership and mentoring opportunities.

To make your company more diverse by recruiting persons with disabilities, Murphy says to actively focus on it as a corporate goal. “The best advice is to have a stated focus on diversity,” she says, explaining that her department touches on nearly every aspect of corporate life. She says it “creates focus and builds foundations to increase diversity in Cargill’s workforce globally; creates and implements relevant programs that provide opportunities for the organization to retain employees to compete in a global market and be an employer of choice; increases organizational capabilities and capacity to effectively lead and manage diversity and inclusion; and positively impacts diversity thought and practice through knowledge generation, analysis, and reporting to support Cargill’s organizational goals.”

Cargill continues to come up with new ways of making employment open to persons with disabilities. Next year, for instance, the company will launch Project SEARCH at its Excelsior Crossing campus. An event in September on that campus will help kick the program off for the coming year. Project SEARCH provides educational opportunities and work experience for individuals with disabilities through a one-year “total immersion” internship program, says Murphy. The internship program will help students focus on building competitive and sustainable work skills. Highlights of the program include a one-year, high school transition program that provides training and education that may lead to employment for individuals with disabilities, an alternative for students in their last year of high school. Three elective high school credits can be earned for successful completion of the Project SEARCH program. Five days a week, 12 students will report to Cargill and learn employability skills in the classroom and job skills while participating in a variety of internships/experiences. Certified special education teachers and job coaches will work with both the students and the business staff. Students end this one-day program with reflection, problem solving, planning, and journaling key learnings. “The ultimate goal upon program completion and graduation is to utilize their internship skills for gainful employment,” Murphy points out.

The company also has its ongoing Disability AWARENESS Council, whose motto is Attract, Welcome, Advocate, Resource, Educate. “This program goes across the spectrum, and provides a face and a voice to the issues people living with disabilities encounter by offering and sponsoring education and awareness programs,” says Murphy. The program focuses on recruitment and selection, education and awareness, and to serve as a resource for persons with disabilities and managers within Cargill looking for new talent. Says Murphy: “The group has a business plan that is being acted on, and is doing a lot to attract, welcome, advocate, be a resource, and educate.”

All-Talented, All-Inclusive

Opening recruitment to persons with disabilities is another way McDonald’s ensures no talent that could benefit the company is overlooked. “McDonald’s is an all-inclusive company. We value and respect everyone,” says Vice President of U.S. Training Diana Thomas. “In the U.S. alone, there are more than 56 million Americans with disabilities, and they have a phenomenal network that includes relatives, friends, counselors, etc. That’s a large number of potential customers, and we have always made a conscious effort to reflect the customers we serve.”

In addition, Thomas says McDonald’s takes seriously the studies showing that people with disabilities are hard-working and loyal employees. “In the past, we had a formalized program to work with Vocational Rehabilitation organizations so they could provide applicants from their ranks,” she says. “Today, the hiring is more personalized and localized. Many of our Owner Operators work with local vocational/rehabilitation providers and agencies when they have opportunities. Our previous program focused on one disability. Today, our company works with myriad disabilities and treats each situation on a case-by-case basis.”

McDonald’s has a history of public involvement with this issue, as the company was a long-term member of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. “When this group migrated to the U.S. Business Leadership Network, McDonald’s was a founding Board member and was a key company and Board Chair when a Business Leadership Network was formed in Chicago,” says Thomas. “To this day, McDonald’s holds a Board seat with the national organization.”

Developing Diversity

Making your company more diverse by recruiting persons with disabilities isn’t as complicated as you may think, and the opportunity for organization growth from such an effort may be richer than you expect. Here are some FAQS and tips to get you started.

• Recognize how large an opportunity you have. “We have a pool of 22 million working-age Americans who are underemployed and willing to work, but can’t get hired because of a disability. Though the Americans with Disabilities Act is more than 20 years old, people with disabilities still struggle with employment,” says Barbara Otto, CEO of Health & Disability Advocates, which is spearheading the Think Beyond the Label campaign on behalf of more than 40 states to promote the hiring of people with disabilities. “In a national survey released in July 2010 by Kessler Organization and the National Organization on Disability, 21 percent of disabled working-age Americans had a job in the last year, versus 59 percent for those without disabilities.”

“Smart companies know it’s not just about having a more diverse pool of workers. On the financial side, small businesses that hire people with disabilities may be eligible for state and federal tax credits,” says Otto. “In addition, as a group, workers with disabilities as a whole have equal or better turnover and absentee rates, ultimately reducing a company’s recruitment and retention costs. Hiring people with disabilities also has been proven to positively affect corporate image with a company’s customer base, which increasingly is filled with older Americans starting to encounter disability, veterans with disabilities, and children with special needs.”

• Know the help available to your company. “The first step a company should take is to contact its state agency to learn more about finding a job candidate with a disability,” says Otto, “and see if there are any good candidates the agency can recommend. Some states offer trial work periods. For a list of agencies, see our Web page,”

Think Beyond the Label also produced “The Field Guide to Evolving Your Workforce,” which Otto says describes many of the reasons a company should hire people with disabilities.

The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) operates Career One-Stop centers in all 50 states, which help employers hire, train, retain, and assess potential employees, Otto points out. Career One-Stop’s tools include America’s Career InfoNet where employers can create customized job descriptions to help them find and attract the best candidates.

• Educate the rest of your workforce about what persons with disabilities have to offer, says Gwen Ford, executive director of Project HIRED. “The first steps should be the education and training of your workforce (managers and executives included) about the myths and facts regarding people with disabilities and about disability etiquette. It should be a top-down commitment and effort,” she says.

“There should be an assessment of your workforce and workplace to identify any obstacles that may already exist for persons with disabilities, and to identify the rich resources you already have [for persons with disabilities] on which you can build,” says Ford. “Identifying a champion outside of your Human Resource department also can be helpful.”

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.