Painting a deeper picture of disability inclusiveness: Changing organizational culture and climate

Wendy Strobel Gower April 26, 2020

For most people, the phrase “disability in the workplace” conjures an image of laws, guidelines, and policies. In other words, it is largely seen as a bureaucratic issue involving procedures and transactions. However, a new understanding of disability inclusiveness is emerging. After all the forms are filled in and all the boxes are checked, organizational leaders are now recognizing that something is still missing—something intangible that prevents the organization from fully leveraging all their talent.

That “something” could more properly be called organizational climate. It concerns not only the work that takes place within an organization, but also what it’s like to spend your days there. It will also involve a shift in our attention from transaction to transformation. When we understand disability inclusiveness in the transactional realm, our attention focuses mainly on compliance, reporting, and routines; not on business goals. When we shift our attention to the transformational realm, we focus on different questions. How can we align our people practices and our inclusion efforts with our business goals? How can we ensure that we are fully leveraging the talents of everyone within the organization toward meeting our business goals? How can we ensure that people remain engaged and productive when a disability arises? How can we create conditions so that everyone within the organization, including those with disabilities, are fully embedded in their jobs and included in the social connections in the workplace? How can we build trust so that our employees are willing to come forward when a disability impacts their job performance? Answering these questions causes us to take a long hard look, not at formal routines and processes, but at the everyday, lived experience in the organization.

Inclusion efforts driven solely by compliance are less successful than those driven by an organization’s authentic desire to support its people. How can employers make the shift from seeing disability inclusiveness as a question of simple legal compliance to one of making deeper changes around everyday life in the workplace? Despite the fact that many employers are truly trying to change how disability is viewed in their organizations, there is still a great deal of stigma and misperceptions around disability--assumptions that must be overcome for people to feel safe to come forward when a disability arises. Right now, in most organizations, only a brave few have come forward.

While most employers now “get it” when it comes to the formal requirements posed by laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, many struggle with these more elusive questions that have to do with deeper issues around the social and emotional tone of the workplace. The research literature on organizational climate and culture is immense. Yet, few research studies have considered disability in organizational climate research. A ProQuest search of research done over the past decade, using the terms “organizational climate” resulted in 1,785 articles. But when “disability” was added as a search term, only 9 articles appear. Yet, there are some bright spots in the practical application of these issues in the workplace. Consider this blog from the Huffington Post, Why Hire Disabled Workers? 4 Powerful (and Inclusive) Companies Answer. At the Yang-Tan Institute at Cornell University, we work with some of these companies to help address these issues on a regular basis.

Organizational culture and climate are often used interchangeably. Yet, they are somewhat different. “Culture” is a broad term that refers to the shared values, beliefs, and worldviews of a group of people. “Organizational climate” is a term that’s usually specific to the workplace. It refers to aspects of the emotional and social tone of everyday life in the workplace. More specifically, organizational climate is seen to predict employees’ decisions and actions that are key to success in meeting the larger organization’s business goals, such as engagement, performance, productivity, innovation, decision to stay, discretionary effort and learning efforts. Organizational climate is not a static object; it is continually created and negotiated during the course of everyday lived experience in the organization.

Translating Research into Action

What does the research literature on organizational climate tell us about disability inclusiveness in the workplace? How can these points be translated into practical guidelines for action? Consider the following key points.

Making the connection: Hiring, organizational climate, and disability inclusiveness. When employers design hiring processes, they often think of procedures and legal compliance. Yet, on a deeper level, hiring is a powerful statement of what the organization really stands for and values. Many organizations publicly express a commitment to disability inclusiveness; but, does this commitment actually translate to hiring practices? Research at the Yang-Tan Institute at Cornell University (Erickson, et. al.) found that having explicit, articulated goals around disability recruitment and hiring was a key organizational strategy that lead to increased hiring. Generally, research shows that when employers start hiring individuals with disabilities, they want to hire more. So having explicit hiring goals isn’t just about reaching the numbers. Hiring goals can set into motion deeper cultural changes as more workers interact with colleagues with disabilities during the normal course of their work. It lets the talent acquisition team know that disability inclusiveness is something the company is serious about and can lead to goal development and target setting for recruitment. Without these goals, the commitment to disability inclusion can be tacitly dismissed as lip service to an issue that doesn’t really matter to the company.

Walking the talk: Top leadership commitment. In addition to the article referred to earlier, additional research has shown the importance of top leadership in setting the tone for a truly disability inclusive organizational climate. When top leaders set the expectation of a disability inclusive workplace and then back that expectation with measurable goals and accountabilities, things change. Why? Because an organization is moving beyond talk and asking for action. They are illustrating what’s important by what gets measured.

Managers set the tone for inclusiveness and engagement. Over the past two decades, research has highlighted the importance of face-to-face leaders—of managers/supervisors and team leaders—in setting organizational climate and employee engagement. The organization’s diversity/inclusion policy is only as strong as the face-to-face leaders who really implement it on a daily basis. They make the decisions that impact their team’s engagement in the job. Research by Lisa Nishii and Susanne Bruyere at Cornell University has also shown this in their research on organizational climate and disability inclusiveness. Efforts to enhance a disability inclusive organizational climate will fall short if managers/supervisors are not targeted. The Yang-Tan Institute at Cornell University regularly works with companies about this issue through our Just-in-Time Toolkit for Managers Program. Our experience with this program has taught us that the “why” is as important as the “how” when it comes to communicating about disability inclusiveness in the organization. While every company has a different way to reach managers, all agree that connecting disability inclusiveness to the goals of the organization is key.

Hearing the voice of disability in the workplace. Employee groups (ERGs) have been shown to change the organizational climate around inclusiveness by enabling employees with shared interests and backgrounds to have a voice in shaping organizational culture. Effective ERGs are not just “support groups.” Rather, they are also tapped to add value to the business in several ways. ERGs can have a voice in identifying potential barriers to inclusion, reviewing workplace policies, and reaching new markets. Until recently, disability-themed ERGs were rare, but this has been quickly changing. Organizations should think about how they will seek information from their ERG, and how they will empower their ERG to contribute to a positive climate around disability inclusion in the organization.

Build in more thoughtfulness about what “job fit” means. An employer recently told us that the job description is the ticket to the game, but understanding the competencies of working within an organization (social, soft skills, characteristics of the environment) are what will help to determine success over the long-term. Research tells us that a key barrier to employers hiring applicants with disabilities is the automatic assumption that they would not “fit” the job. A self-fulfilling prophecy can fuel this notion of job misfit, especially if these assumptions mean no one with a disability is given the opportunity to work within the organization, or if people with disabilities are allowed only to work in low-level positions. In these cases, the idea that they are incapable of doing “real” jobs is reinforced, and new employees with disabilities are unlikely to be hired. But when diverse employees, including those with disabilities, are seen in all levels of jobs in the workplace and seen using effective reasonable accommodations, this fuels the perception that individuals with disabilities can perform and can be qualified—that they can and do “fit” many different jobs. This in turn leads to more hiring and promotion of applicants with disabilities.

Unconscious bias and organizational climate. Unconscious bias is simply part of how the human brain works. It’s a kind of shortcut to deal with the multitude of information that bombards us every waking minute. We make many decisions without being fully aware of the assumptions that are driving our choices. For individuals with disabilities, unconscious bias has been a subtle but powerful barrier to equal treatment in the workplace. Research by the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion shows that unconscious bias against workers with disabilities is more pervasive than ever. Unconscious bias is difficult to counter because it is hidden. Several organizations have begun the process of surfacing these hidden assumptions in order to examine how they impact organizational climate. Ensuring that your organization has strong policies in place as they relate to disability and practices that may impact disability (such as a flexible workplace policy) and applying those policies in a uniform fashion can help to limit unconscious bias.

Building trust. Trust is difficult to define and even harder to build. However, trust is the cornerstone, not only for a disability inclusive workplace, but, in a larger sense, for a positive organizational climate. Employees with disabilities who come forward to be counted or to request an accommodation take a risk. Many will not be willing to take this risk unless the actions of their team and organizational leaders warrant it. Though there is little research on trust, studies show that trustful vs distrustful organizations differ in three features. First is credibility. If organizational leaders can’t be believed—if they can’t be relied upon to be truthful and transparent, trust cannot be built. Second is respect. Organizations who have built a climate of trust have a basic respect for their workers. They are committed to developing and growing their employees and consider their ideas when making decisions. Third is fair treatment. Employees who believe they have been treated fairly and that their contributions matter are more likely to trust their employers. When applicants or employees are making a decision to come forward with a disability in your organization, what will they decide? Do they see credible evidence that individuals with disabilities are accepted? Do they have reason to believe they will be treated fairly and with respect?

It’s about accountabilities and metrics. Remember the “sensitivity training” of the 1980s? Research on “what works” for diversity and inclusion generally has shown that traditional training alone will probably not be effective in creating an organizational climate for disability inclusiveness. Rather, efforts that do work involve introducing real accountabilities across the span of people processes that create the architecture of organizational climate: recruiting, hiring, performance development, and advancement. To be truly impactful, these accountabilities need to be connected to measures. What gets measured, gets done. Make sure your managers and other key players have goals and measures that track key aspects of disability inclusion in your organization.

Powerful Stories

But it’s also about powerful stories. Data and evidence are part of any effort to change the organizational climate. But the emotional currency of storytelling tips the balance between fleeting efforts and authentic, sustained change. Stories are powerful ways to communicate a shared understanding of what we stand for as an organization, what we’re really about and what really drives our choices. Create a way for employees with disabilities to share their stories in ways that show them, not as objects of pity and charity, but as fully contributing, valued members of the organization. These stories should come from all levels of your organization.

The Effort Is Worthwhile

Clearly, building a positive organizational climate for disability inclusiveness is not simple or straightforward. There is no single formula that can move all organizations from a transactional to a transformational view of disability inclusiveness. And there is no one recipe that will work in all organizations. But there are a few points that come to mind. It will take more than formal trainings and nice posters in the hallway to truly change organizational climates in ways that will enhance disability inclusiveness. Rather, it will take scrupulous self-reflection, open communication, self-assessment, deliberate accountabilities, and thoughtful processes. Mostly, it will take an unwavering and courageous honesty. But it will be worth it as the organization realizes new ways to communicate, attract and retain talent, engage all workers and build trust.