Disability and HR Strategy: Identifying Diverse Leadership Talent Within Your Existing Workforce

May 10, 2017

Disability and HR Strategy: Identifying Diverse Leadership Talent Within Your Existing Workforce

How do you identify diverse leadership talent in your existing workforce? Susanne Bruyère, Ph.D., explains in Part 2 of our Disability and HR Strategy series. In Part 1, Susanne talked about how organizations can expand their talent pools and diversity outlooks.

A diverse workforce brings with it a richness of perspective, problem solving ability and creativity. Organizations and HR professionals are increasingly aware of this, as evidenced by ever-more-frequent discussions about building a more diverse workforce through affirmative recruitment and hiring, as well as internal efforts to address gender and racial/ethnic gaps in career advancement opportunities. Seldom, however, do companies consider that people with disabilities already within their workforce also have the potential to add the diversity of talent and perspectives that the organization is seeking.

Overlooking the population of people with disabilities within your own workforce as a potential place to diversify your leadership talent is a commonly missed opportunity. Companies have historically not focused their energies in this area when building their human capital pipeline and bringing more diversity into their leadership roles. Yet, with almost six percent on average of the American workforce identifying on national census surveys as having a disability (Erickson, 2016), we know that the talent is there waiting to be tapped. Identifying individuals with disabilities for successful leadership cultivation among your human capital and using effective practices to bring them into the desired leadership roles is an opportunity waiting to happen.

Overlooking the population of people with disabilities within your own workforce as a potential place to diversify your leadership talent is a commonly missed opportunity.

Recognizing the talent within your organization might be the first challenge to successfully moving ahead, as organizations have historically shied away from capturing demographic information about disability from their applicants and employees. In addition, unless an accommodation was needed, individuals applying for jobs or already in the workforce are often unwilling to disclose a disability for fear of jeopardizing being hired or retaining their positions, or compromising future career growth opportunities. These concerns about disclosure, as well as workplace policies and practices that can mitigate them, were captured in research conducted by Cornell University. In a survey of approximately 600 people with disabilities about what  workplace factors would facilitate or impede disability disclosure, we have been able to identify some helpful hints for companies.

More than three out of five respondents said that factors that made them hesitant to disclose were:

  • Fear of not being hired in the first place or being fired once employed
  • The employer would focus on the disability in the future
  • Apprehension about losing health care or limiting future opportunities
  • Concerns that the supervisor might not be supportive


In contrast, factors reported by more than half of the respondents as facilitating disability disclosure were:

  • A need for an accommodation
  • A supportive supervisor relationship
  • A disability-friendly work environment as evidenced by active disability recruiting and disability in the diversity statement
  • Knowing of successes by others in the organization that had previously disclosed their disability


Two out of five respondents said that a belief they could access new career opportunities by disclosing was a reason to come forward (von Schrader et al., 2014).

Yet, disparities in equitable access to career advancement opportunities have been documented (Colella & Bruyère, 2011). People with disabilities tend to experience jobs with less autonomy and decision-making as well as jobs that require less education than people without disabilities with comparable backgrounds. Knowing ways to mitigate disparities, support employees with disabilities, and encourage disability disclosure and requests for accommodations can assist in identifying possibly previously overlooked diverse talent within your organization.

A survey conducted by SHRM in collaboration with Cornell University asked HR professionals whether their organizations had put in place any of eight policies and practices that facilitate career development and retention of individuals with disabilities (Erickson, von Schrader, Bruyere & VanLooy, 2013). Fewer than one in five of the almost 700 HR professionals responding to the survey reported doing the four practices which can facilitate career advancement opportunities, such as: having a structured mentoring program to support employees with disabilities (17 percent); offering special career planning and development tools for employees with disabilities (16 percent); having explicit organizational goals related to retention or advancement of employees with disabilities (13 percent); or, including progress toward retention or advancement goals for employees with disabilities in the performance appraisals of senior management (9 percent) (Erickson et al., 2013). Results of this survey suggest that there is quite a bit of work that needs to be done within companies to make strides in the area of career advancement and retention.

The strategies listed above are ones that all employees can benefit from, but might give individuals with disabilities within your workforce a needed advantage to move their career on the desired trajectory. Some of the known benefits of mentoring, for example, include:

  • Affording a broadened perspective on the transferability of the person’s skills to other positions and settings
  • Becoming aware of future career directions to consider
  • Acquiring the support and motivation to take calculated risks
  • Gaining access to advice on the “politics” of relationships within the organization
  • Getting honest and constructive feedback about problem areas in performance
  • Getting encouragement, when needed
  • Gaining access to networking contacts, references and introductions to key contacts of organizational influence

Employee/colleague or business resource groups with a “diverse” abilities focus can be another very useful way to both identify previously unidentified diverse talent who are people with disabilities for leadership cultivation within your existing workforce, as well as successfully recruit new applicants with these characteristics for job openings when they occur. Support of activities like this send the message as well that people with disabilities are desired and valued within the organization and that supports will be available, when they need accommodations and chose to come forward and disclosure their disabilities.

Companies using ERG/BRGs report that tasking them with a “business purpose,” such as strategic outreach for new applicants with disabilities or a review of the effectiveness of company accommodation policies and procedures, heighten the likelihood of people being willing to join and vigorously contribute to the group’s energy and productive outcomes. In addition, having an existing top leadership champion who is a person who has come forward and disclosed a disability, is an added incentive for people to join the group and feel confident that in so doing, affiliation will not lead to a future devaluing of the many talents that they bring to the success of their organization.



Colella, A., & Bruyère, S. (2011). Disability and employment: New directions for industrial/organizational psychology. American Psychological Association Handbook on Industrial Organizational Psychology, Vol. 1. (pp. 473195–503). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Erickson, W. (2016). Calculations using 2014 American Community Survey Data

Erickson, W. A., von Schrader, S., Bruyère, S. M., & VanLooy, S. A. (2013). The employment environment: Employer perspectives, policies, and practices regarding the employment of persons with disabilities. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 57(4), 195–208. doi:10.1177/0034355213509841

von Schrader, S., Malzer, V., & Bruyère, S. M. (2014). Perspectives on disability disclosure: The importance of employer practices and workplace Climate. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal 26(4), 237195–255. doi:10.1007/s10672-013-9227-9


The Authors: 

Susanne M. Bruyère, Ph.D., CRC, is currently professor of disability studies and the director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, ILR School at Cornell University. Dr. Bruyère is also project director and co-principal investigator of numerous federally-sponsored research, dissemination, and technical assistance efforts focused on employment and disability policy and effective workplace practices for people with disabilities including: the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Employer Practice to Improve Employment Outcomes for Persons with Disabilities; and the Organizational Practices to Increase Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities: The Power of Social Networks. She is a past president of the Division of Rehabilitation Psychology (22) of the American Psychological Association, the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association, and the National Council on Rehabilitation Education. She can be reached at smb23@cornell.edu.