A few weeks ago, we hired a young woman to be a cashier at one of our company’s stores. Our company is The Bazaar, Inc., a family-owned business that has been around for three generations with more than 200 employees. When this woman came in looking for a job, we held a formal interview; she seemed capable and bright and willing to work hard, and so we extended an offer for her to come on board. She was thrilled—and so was her mother.
On her first day of work, the two of them showed up. The young woman’s mother wanted to talk to me and the hiring manager personally, just to make sure her daughter had the proper supports in place in order to be successful at our company. Her daughter has autism.
This is a very common scenario for us because the reality is most companies don’t have disability programs. And the ones that do treat differently-abled workers with the same stigmas and disadvantages society does. So we work very hard to make sure that is never the case. We provide equal job opportunities and equal pay—and every single person we’ve offered a job to has showed up with their family or support network and thanked us. They tell us they were running out of options, and what we’ve built was exactly what they were looking for.
I have always believed the true purpose of entrepreneurship is to build a business that leaves a legacy of more than just profit. Charity programs rarely work. Donations are short-sighted. Handouts never last. The best businesses are ones that build the positive impact they want to have on the world into their machine. It’s one thing to make a donation to a charity you care about, but it’s entirely another to see a disenfranchised portion of the population and help them play a role in the workforce.
If you’ve been thinking about implementing a disability program, whether you believe it’s a smart business decision or because it’s something you’re passionate about, here’s how we went about developing our program—and how you might consider developing yours.
Look at the areas of your business where you have the highest turnover rate
At the end of the day, the decisions you make as an entrepreneur or executive have to make sense from a business perspective. In order to realistically implement a disability program, a case has to be made for it internally.
For example, our turnover rate at our discount retail stores was over 75% before we implemented this program. We started looking at the data on turnover rates and employee engagement within our stores—specifically the productivity of our workforce compared to differently-abled hires. And what we found was the turnover and absentee rate with these individuals was much lower, and the employee engagement rate was much higher. On paper, the hires we’d made with disabilities were actually outperforming other people who showed up to work everyday bored and unhappy.
This is the best place to start. Ask, “What are some of the complex issues our business is facing? Are there any turnover issues?” In our case, we had a very challenging issue in our business of keeping employees engaged at our discount retail stores. By leveraging the differently-abled community, not only were we able to solve that business challenge, but we could also start doing some incredibly important work in society.
Find local agencies you can partner with to source talent
The next step is to build relationships with agencies that help differently-abled individuals find jobs. There are hundreds of organizations nationwide, and they are always looking for companies with disability hiring programs to work with. Aspire is one here in Chicago, and they help provide the support these people need in order to find a job. Understood.org wrote a grant to support our inclusion work and has been another key partner in catalyzing the growth of our program.
The important thing I want to note is how important it is for you to go meet with the local organizations personally. The best way to find the right individuals for your organization is to take the time for them to understand you and you to understand them.
Anytime we have a job opening, instead of going out to Indeed or Career Builder, we go to our 20 partners and say, “We have this job open. Here’s the behavioral analysis on this job, and here are our requirements. Do you have anyone in your system who you think might be able to do this job?”
Create behavior-based job descriptions
One nuance in how we created our program was that we recruited based on behavior-based job descriptions instead of skill-based job descriptions. Instead of looking at a candidate and saying, “He or she has good customer service skills,” we would say, “He or she is comfortable speaking with strangers about product features.” We really try to get to a place where the person’s natural behavior pattern and what they’re inherently good at is at the core of the position we put them in.
The way we do this is through observation and conversation. We do a four-hour test where candidates are placed in a variety of different positions, and we talk to them about how they’re feeling and responding to the role. Then, once the candidate is on-boarded, we have a behavioral therapist on staff who frequently checks in with the new hires and observes them.
Have an open mind about collaborating with people who have disabilities
If your mentality is, “This is how we do things, don’t ask questions and just do your job,” then you probably aren’t going to get very far. You have to be willing to help the differently-abled individual help you. For example, there’s a woman who works in our Amazon Fulfillment station who can stay in one place all day and make no errors. However, her finger dexterity isn’t quite as sharp, and her position requires a lot of taping of packages.
In her first week, we observed that she was working very hard and was very focused, except for the one component of her job that required dexterity. We bought a tool that would precut the tape for her, so that she could move more seamlessly through her work environment. One small tweak, and she is not only more effective at her job but she feels great about the work she does.
There is no “one size fits all” when building a disability program. It requires a lot of creativity and constant questioning of what people need in order to be successful. But I can say without question that creating this program has been one of the best business decisions we’ve ever made.