How to Foster a Company Culture That Values Diversity and Disability

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Sep 8, 2010

By Jim Hasse

Putting diversity values into practice is essentially a management function.

The central goal of creating a positive environment for a diverse workplace is harmony, and harmony fosters productivity.

While the normally stated goal of “doing the right thing” is all well and good (and doing right, by the way, often results in greater harmony), your responsibility is to your company’s bottom line. When people get along and act as a team, they produce more, stay longer, and have fewer gripes — all of which favor effective and efficient work.

When, on the other hand, staff members harbor resentments or perceive inequities, they can build an obstructionist interplay that handicaps everyone involved. No one can perform at a peak level. Time is wasted in foot dragging, absenteeism, and higher turnover. And time is money.

As a manager, supervisor, or proprietor, you are responsible for ensuring that your work environment is amicable. If your department has poor performance because of interpersonal friction or errant behavior, this performance deficit will be attributed to you. You need to set and maintain the right tone for your work unit.

There is no upside to ignoring tensions and no downside to preventing or resolving them. In fact, neglecting to give tension its due attention will most certainly result in a greater negative impact than that of any time taken to prevent that tension. Not having time to address tension is a common excuse.

Frank Acceptance of Differences Is the Key

Another underlying reason employers may not pay attention to fostering a harmoniously diverse workplace, perhaps especially in the case of disabilities, is discomfort about discussing the differences between individuals and between groups. It is natural to feel awkward about a person’s disability, but, in fact, that awkward reluctance is what you must dispel in your employees.

One unique characteristic of disabilities (compared to differences in terms of race, ethnicity, or gender) is that there is an obvious mechanical difference between someone who is, say, mobile, and others who are mobile only with some kind of aid (e.g., crutches, a wheelchair, or a scooter).

Glossing over this fact can only result in an uneasy atmosphere. Your staff will conclude that open discussion about disability is forbidden.

The key to fostering a friendly and, therefore, productive work environment is recognizing but not magnifying differences. Many supervisors unwittingly cast an employee with a disability in the role of child or sacred cow by communicating to him and to other staff members that he is somehow “special” or is better than others or to be more protected than others.

Being treated as someone “special” will likely foster resentment from your employee with a disability. That employee will eventually display his resentment in some form of disruptive behavior. If he tends to be a workaholic, he may try to overcome his feeling that he has not gained an equal sense of dignity by burying himself just that much deeper into his work.

An employee who has a disability is really no different from others who are not disabled. He just has to do his work with different tools or techniques. He is not more emotionally vulnerable, not unable to do quality work, not somehow more admirable or heroic because he is disabled.

You set the tone. If you coddle a disabled worker, so will other employees—and others will resent that special treatment. If you are hypersensitive about her disability, you will make everyone else uncomfortable. If you treat her as a burden, that will be the view throughout your department.

Instead, you must foster the recognition that every staff member is entitled to an equal sense of dignity, but each has his individual role, responsibility, and work style. The difference with a disabled worker falls only under work methods and refers entirely to what tools he uses to do the work he shares with his peers.

Awareness Honors All Employees

One benefit for bringing employees back quickly after they become disabled is the positive impact it has on morale. Other workers see that the individual’s contribution is valued, that she is not disposable, and that they can count on being similarly valued. Ultimately, fostering harmony for a new worker or a returning worker who has recently become disabled has the same impact on those within the existing workforce.

A work environment in which each person is welcomed, valued, and respected not only benefits the employee who is “different.” Companies that see all positions as necessary to the bottom line and all workers as coworkers bring out the best in people.

Creating an atmosphere of collaboration rather than assertion of status encourages high performance and a sense of responsibility for results from the CEO to the mail room clerk. An atmosphere that honors diverse (and, in particular, disabled) employees as equal contributors to the common goal allows each worker to recognize the collective talents of the group instead of a new employee’s deficits.

Basically, it is your responsibility to prepare other staff members for including a worker with a disability — and it is also up to that worker to get involved. Showing her and the other staff members that you regard her as the chief educator on the subject of how she works and how to relate to her both empowers her and shows her that you expect her to take responsibility for dealing with her peers. She cannot wait for you or others to guess at what she needs. She must speak up.

By insisting on this forthright candor, you are supporting your other workers, too. They see, from your attitude, that you require equal effort from them as well as the employee with a disability.

Remember, it will ultimately be up to you, as a supervisor, to step in when miscommunication or inappropriate behavior on anyone’s part has not been resolved on a peer-to-peer level. If, for example, a new visually impaired employee has asked politely and repeatedly that other staff members not change the location of important tools or supplies but they forget, you may need to emphasize to them the practical reasons for consistency.

If, on the other hand, you discover that the employee has not communicated this need but expects others to “magically know” (and is becoming contentious when they genuinely don’t know), you will need to make it clear that everyone, not just that employee, deserves such courtesy.

Excerpted from Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities by Lighthouse International, Compiled and Edited by Jim Hasse. Copyright © 2010 Lighthouse International. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved.