Being an inclusive employer means different things to different organizations. Many take the prevailing a la carte view to building an inclusive organization, often based on strategy best practices that are implemented to prioritize certain diversity groups. Strategy decisions can be driven by “comply or explain” regulatory directives. Increasingly, however it is outcomes of studies from organizations such as McKinsey and Accenture suggesting that inclusive ecosystems generate greater workplace engagement, innovation and more meaningfully reflect external customer markets that are drawing the attention of executive leadership.
A failure of the a la carte approach is that it does not allow for a bigger ‘talent’ picture to emerge. When it comes to hiring people with disabilities, we know all too well what marginalization of a potential talent pool looks like and its negative socio-economic outcomes. Misinformation about the definition of disability, a general lack of knowledge of disability, bias and stigma inherent in defining abilities, and general discomfort about how to engage with and support the workplace needs and interests of people with disabilities are commonplace. One only needs to look at global economic data to see that people with disabilities continue to be underemployed and underrepresented in the employment market.
In Canada, youth with disabilities are far less likely to have had access to experiential or work integrated learning (WIL) opportunities, let alone employment opportunities with which to apply hard and soft skills curricula, and to build that robust resume so entrenched in the candidate selection process by employers. In addition, without the job experience and full academic credentials (still expected from employers within the structured degree timeframes) students with disabilities are further disadvantaged by barriers to managing and accessing employment opportunities through applicant tracking systems. (Website accessibility as a critical starting point for enabling more inclusive employment, and customer access is in and of itself a topic worthy of further discussion– blog coming soon! For now, read Kat Holmes’ Mismatch).
Fast forward to SenseAbility’s Life After School project funded through the leadership of the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, Government of Ontario. By engaging three colleges and a host of enterprise level employers, SenseAbility set out to connect talented college students with disabilities to inclusive employers through a non-resume-based job-matching portal, exclusively for students with disabilities. This portal tested students for basic “soft skills” identified by employers and SenseAbility as key elements towards job success. Students with disabilities were then provided the opportunity to apply for WIL opportunities posted by employers such as Air Canada, Borden Ladner Gervais, IBM Canada, Maple Lodge Farms, Norton Rose Fulbright and RBC through the portal.
This pilot had asked employer partners to step up to the plate to create that level playing field where college students with disabilities would have an opportunity to bring their best self to the incredibly competitive employment landscape for WIL placements. Our employer partners each defined their commitment by thinking beyond their organizational status-quo to enable opportunities for students to enter the competitive WIL arena. The intent of the project was not to guarantee a job placement for each student with a disability, but to test for soft skills and their importance in defining employment success, and to provide an exclusive pathway for students with disabilities to connect with WIL opportunities. In addition, disability inclusion “training” customized to reflect the “customer journey” – defining students, college ecosystems, employers as the customers – was provided to encourage organizational self-reflection and actionable tools towards successful placements. Not all students who were successful in completing the necessary soft skills badges and garnering an interview were successful in securing a WIL placement. After all, one of the key test outcomes was to remove systemic barriers to optimize the right candidate for the job required, reflecting the real world of employment.
Project outcomes are being gathered and analyzed, but suffice it to say that it’s the commitment of our employer partners to the “bigger picture” of the business opportunity for inclusion, and the willingness to step out of their organizational norms and self-reflect on how to enable “talent” to surface that is deserving of further exploration and serious recognition. Employers taking ownership in defining their talent needs and working with academic and inclusion partners to see beyond “the norm” to attract diverse perspectives are positioning themselves to not only be employers of choice but also to respond more nimbly to changing employment, customer and regulatory forces.