On Wednesday, October 23rd, the Buffalo Niagara Human Resources Association (BNHRA) hosted their monthly professional development event: Diversity in Hiring. It’s more than policy, it’s best practice.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the BNHRA was excited to host an experienced panel of speakers that answered questions about diversity and hiring, mental illness in the workplace, invisible and visible disabilities, accommodation practices and accommodation success stories. The panel featured:
- Brandon Bless, Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor with the New York State Commission for the Blind (NYS-CB)
- Jean Mulligan, Federal Investigator at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
- Kinsey O’Brien, Senior Associate at Hodgson Russ, LLP
- Frank Torres, Manager of EEO/Affirmative Action Programs at M&T Bank
- Jennifer Zeitler, EAP Account Manager at Child and Family Services
The following are a few of the questions that were asked of the panel:
The ADA is almost 30 years old, What positive changes have you seen in hiring practices since its inception, and what would you like to see? What positive changes have been seen?
More awareness about employing those with disabilities. The fact we are even having this panel discussion event here tonight is a positive change. Employers and HR professionals are curious about how they can improve. Managers, for the most part, have caught on. If they hear something medical-related they loop in HR.
What would you like to see moving forward?
More funding available to the community programs to use for sales/marketing. The programs themselves have ample funding but there isn’t much money to advertise that these programs and resources are available to employers. When employers have questions on how to handle a disclosure or accommodation situation, they should know what resources are available to them. Education and information are available. Some helpful resources in addition to seeking legal counsel include:
Job Accommodation Network: https://askjan.org/
New York State Commission for the Blind: https://ocfs.ny.gov/main/cb/about.asp
Employee Assistance Programs (EAP): http://workplacementalhealth.org/Mental-Health-Topics/Employee-Assistance-Programs
1 in 5 persons will be diagnosed with Mental Illness in their lifetime. It is a nonvisible disability yet there is much stigma surrounding it.
How can we work to remove the stigma for Mental Illness?
Make mental health just as important as physical health in the workplace. Consider if mental health aspects are incorporated into your workplace wellness program. It’s important for managers to check in with their staff often, and provide support and recognition. Engage in the interactive accommodation process. Stress and anxiety can be caused by a lack of structure in job duties, too much noise in the work environment, lack of recognition, etc. Be creative in your ways of approaching accommodation. Time off is not always the answer.
What kind of accommodations can best be used?
It’s always a case by case basis, but some examples include managers can check in with their staff more often to discuss expectations and progress updates, ask how employees are doing and what they need to do their work, create a task list of daily work to be completed, allow for more frequent breaks or a flexible schedule, provide written instructions.
What is your most memorable success story in relation to the reasonable accommodation process?
Our panelist who is a federal investigator at the EEOC said that a deaf person accepted an offer and then hadn’t heard from the employer, so they went to the EEOC to file a claim. The EEOC reasoned that the person had been given an offer, so the employer was satisfied with their skills and experience, so let’s give the employer a call to see what’s going on. The EEOC representative called the employer and the employer said they were installing lights around the new employee’s workstation and training a shadow/buddy for the new hire so they hadn’t called him yet with his start date. It was a great example of how communication can be improved between employers and candidates, and how the employer had been taking great steps to prepare for this new hire.
Some great questions and comments were added from the audience. Once comment included how there is a lot of fear of the unknown. Employers are afraid of doing the wrong thing, while attempting to do the right thing. Workers are afraid of backlash for voicing their concerns. So in the face that risk, both sides may do nothing at all. But we must persist and continue to educate ourselves on resources available and how we can best support our employees.
A question that was raised was about how employers can mitigate risk. One of our panelists answered that you likely already have employees working for you who are struggling with their mental health. The focus shouldn’t just be on worrying about who you hire, but supporting your current workforce. This includes having a good EAP in place and making it part of regular communication to remind staff that it’s available and confidential. There are certain situations where you can mandate employees to call the EAP as well. All the information the employer should get from the EAP provider should be that the employee called and that they are following recommendations. The employer shouldn’t get information around the specific health issue. This can protect employers from risk as well.
The panelists and attendees agreed that it was wonderful to have an informal, open discussion where everyone could ask questions and obtain information. The room was engaged and genuinely curious about learning to handle accommodation requests and support their employees better.
Events like these put on by the local SHRM chapters allow for networking, learning and advancing the HR profession.