Brilliant Reasons to Employ Disabled People

Jane Hatton is an author who runs Evenbreak which is a jobs site, career service and consultancy for disabled people and employers. I talk to her about why and how to recruit disabled people and we take a deep dive into her latest book covering four key areas that employers really should be thinking about to get more disabled talents into their organisation.
Jane Hatton

For this conversation, I spoke with Jane Hatton. I first met Jane in 2012 when I was working at the BBC as a project manager in technology. At the time I wasn’t even doing diversity and inclusion, but I was running the disabled staff network. I went along and spoke at a conference that Jane was organising. Jane’s business is Evenbreak, a jobs and career website to attract and recruit disabled talent into your organisation. Jane’s also written a couple of books, which are well worth a read. Her latest book is called A Dozen Great Ways to Recruit Disabled People.

I started our conversation by asking Jane to tell me about her journey to reach this point in her career.

‘I was in the field of diversity and inclusion for most of my working life. That included race, gender and sexual orientation – the whole spectrum of diversity. When I talked about disability particularly, I noticed there were two reactions from employers. It seemed to be either, “Why would I want to employ a disabled person?” or, “We really want to employ disabled people, but we don’t know how to”.

I saw there was a real issue there. When I spoke to disabled people, they said, “Well, we don’t know which is which, because every organisation says they are an equal opportunities employer, but actually our experience tells us that most aren’t”.

Then as fate would have it, I became a disabled person. I’m one of the 83% of disabled people who become disabled as adults when, aged 44, I developed a degenerative spinal condition. The issue around disability became much more up-close and personal and I decided that nobody else seemed to be doing anything about this, so maybe I should.

Myidea was to come up with a job board that was just for disabled candidates who were looking for new or better work and for those employers who were enlightened enough to see us as a great pool of talent rather than as a problem. I wanted to set it up as a social enterprise, not a charity because our candidates aren’t charity cases. They’re very good candidates and business people. But I didn’t want it necessarily to be run for the benefit of shareholders either, so it’s a social enterprise. I also wanted it to be led by lived experience, because I think there is no substitute for that. We’ve had generations of non-disabled people telling other non-disabled people what disabled people need, and we don’t need any more of that, thank you very much.

I decided early on that we would only employ people with lived experience with disability, and that was back in 2011. 10 plus years on, we’ve grown, we’re global now. We have 20 staff and we’re all disabled. We also offer training and consultancy to employers and career services to disabled people who are looking for new or better work. We do that as we’ve discovered that the career services that were out there weren’t always accessible, suitable or appropriate for disabled candidates so it’s grown from a job board into much more now.’

Barriers of Perception

I asked Jane what she thought the main concerns employers had about hiring disabled people.

‘When I first talk to employers about disability, it turns into very quickly kind of, “Oh, what a shame, poor people, we’re really ought to…” I interrupt and say, “Actually, no, this has nothing to do with pity. This is about talent and they agree but I think there is a mistaken perception that disabled candidates and employees will somehow be not as good as non-disabled candidates or employees. There’s the perception that we might be less productive or we might have to have more time off sick. We might leave, or we might have lots of accidents or we’ll need lots of expensive adaptations. There is fear of getting it wrong as well. What happens if we say the wrong thing and we’ll get sued or whatever.

It’s a wrong perception, but I can see why it happens because of the whole negative rhetoric around disability in society generally. I think it’s fear of the unknown that’s based on myths. The reality is that disabled people are on average, just as productive as non-disabled people. On average, we have significantly less time off sick, we tend to stay in our jobs, we bring additional qualities with us because, by definition, we’re facing barriers that other people don’t face every day.

We’ve all had to gain skills in doing things differently, being persistent, creative thinkers because we can’t do things maybe the same way as other people do. From an employer’s perspective, that means that they’re getting a workforce that is resilient, problem-solving and determined. What’s more, they understand disability and can help the organisation appeal to disabled clients or customers. That positive narrative around disability has been poorly lacking.

Particular conditions can be invaluable. A number of our team are neurodivergent, they might have autism, ADHD or dyslexia. Sometimes we’ll be in a team meeting, and somebody will come up with a problem and we’re stumped. Then one of the neurodivergent team members will come up with an idea that initially the rest of us go, “No, that’s ridiculous.” And then you think about it a bit longer, and you think, “No, it isn’t, it’s genius”.

What they’ve thought of is something that as a neurotypical person I wouldn’t have come up with in a million lifetimes. It’s a completely different way of approaching a problem, and it’s invaluable in rapidly changing work environments that innovation, the challenge to the status quo, that questioning of the, “But we’ve always done it this way”.

There’s a skill shortage. To attract the best talent we have to do things differently. What you need in a workforce is people who are used to doing things differently and thinking differently so that they can come up with these amazing ideas. It’s magic.’

I asked Jane about the organisations that she came across which were a lot more forward-thinking, proactive and wanting to get disabled people into the business. What were the key reasons for their positive outlook?

‘They understand that staying still isn’t going to cut the mustard. That they need to be doing things differently and to do that they need to be getting people in who are different. A lot of the organisations we work with are in the public sector, and they recognise that the services that they’re delivering don’t always reflect the needs of that population because their workforce doesn’t reflect that population.

Private sector organisations understand that disabled people make up 20% of the population. If we’re ignoring them as customers and clients, that’s an awful lot of money being left on the table. You need that internal intelligence around inclusion, and disability inclusion particularly, to make sure that you engage with customers and clients in meaningful ways. Having disabled people working within your organisation is a pretty quick and easy way of doing that effectively using that lived experience.’

My reflection is that with an ageing workforce, an increase in mental health conditions and even long Covid, we’re going to see an increase in disability as well. There’s also disability by association, for example, a parent who’s caring for a disabled child or a disabled family member, meaning you’re covered under the Equality Act as well. I would encourage readers to buy Jane’s first book, which is ‘A Dozen Brilliant Reasons to Employ Disabled People‘. Jane says she wrote that because she had the same conversation so often with employers who thought disabled employees wouldn’t be productive and would be off sick that she thought, ‘I’m going to write this all down and give them a copy because it’s quicker!’

This brings me to Jane’s latest book, which is ‘A Dozen Great Ways to Recruit Disabled People‘. It is a lovely continuation of her first book. In this second book, Jane talks about four key areas that organisations should think about.

  1. Start at the beginning
  2. Attraction
  3. Assessment
  4. Selection

Start at the Beginning

Part 1 and the beginning is about creating an inclusive culture and deciding what an organisation needs. I asked Jane what key things does she cover for businesses at the beginning of this journey?

‘This is interesting. Sometimes we’ll talk to employers, and they’ll say something like, “We want to do this because we see the value for us as an organisation, but we’re not there yet, so we can’t start recruiting disabled people.”

My response to that is, “If you’re not there yet, how are you going to get there? If you’re not employing disabled people, you’re going to have to make assumptions about what disabled people might need, but you haven’t got any disabled people there to tell you that”, so actually, what we should be doing is recruiting disabled people in parallel with trying to get the culture right.

The other thing to say is, they are employing disabled people, they just don’t know they are. It may well be that they have 80%-90% of disabled people where it’s not visible. They will already be employing people with autism or dyslexia or diabetes, or a long-term health condition or whatever it might be.

To get the culture right, we need a workplace culture, where people feel comfortable in talking about their differences, whether they are hidden or not. If existing employees feel comfortable saying, “Actually I’m dyslexic, and it would be useful for me to have a assistive software. That means that they’ll be more productive because they’re being supported, but it also means that the organisation can learn from that experience. Then they can talk to candidates with some knowledge in this area.

I don’t know of any organisation that’s got this 100% right, and I don’t think it’s a destination because things change all the time. Every organisation is learning and improving, including Evenbreak. Even though we only employ disabled people, we still make mistakes. We’re still learning, and we learn from the people that we employ, from our candidates and our employees. For an organisation to get the culture right, it’s a lot about inclusive leadership.

Leading by example, but also leaders being open about their own differences. Whether they’re gay or whether they have a mental health condition if they feel able to be open about that it gives permission to everybody else in the organisation to talk about those things as well. It stops being the elephant in the room and starts being part of the conversations like what the weather is like, or what was on EastEnders last night, or whatever it is. It stops being something that’s seen as scary. Candidates can feel that they’re coming into an organisation where they can be themselves and be open. I think of this in parallel; start working on your inclusion and your inclusive culture, but at the same time, try and attract more disabled candidates within the organisation because each will accelerate the other.’

I absolutely agree with Jane. A lot of my clients, after I do an anonymous survey with their staff, are surprised at the number of disabled people that they’ve got in their own business. I remember one client said to me before the survey that they estimated that they employed about 1% disabled people in the business, and it turned out that 16% of their workforce were declaring a disability or long-term health condition and that is comparable to the number of working-age adults in the UK who have a disability and they were shocked.

When we looked at the employee Net Promoter Score, which is a question that asks if you recommend this as an inclusive place to work, the disabled staff in the business were actually promoters. Without realising they had turned out to be a pretty inclusive place for disabled staff to work.

So that conversation quickly evolved from, “How can we get more disabled people?” to, “How can we be more inclusive to disabled people?” to “How can we harness who we’ve already got and create a more empowering work environment so people stick around and progress in the organisation?” With the data, the quality and focus of the conversation shifted.

Jane added, ‘It’s amazing, isn’t it? I know several organisations that get completely different figures from their HR systems where they’ve asked people for diversity data, and then they’d do an anonymous survey. The two sets of figures just don’t bear any relation to each other. That gives you an indication about the culture too.

If employees are prepared to disclose anonymously, but not on their HR record, what’s stopping them from being open? Why do they feel that they can’t talk to people about their disability in the workplace? And that’s an indication of the culture, isn’t it? And if you’ve got the same number in both, then that’s where you want to be really, isn’t it?

Attraction

This section in Jane’s book is about organisations attracting disabled candidates. Evenbreak commissioned some research by academics at UCL. The researchers interviewed, and surveyed disabled people looking for work and asked, “What are the biggest barriers that you find when you’re looking for work?”

The findings were significant because over 700 people responded. By far the biggest barrier that disabled candidates said they faced was not knowing which employers would take them seriously.

Jane said the respondents were saying that every organisation says they are an equal opportunities employer, but our experience tells us that most aren’t, particularly when it comes to disability.

She continued, ‘Respondents felt that if they didn’t have absolute evidence that an organisation is disability-friendly and is genuinely looking for disabled people’s talent, they wouldn’t bother to apply. People’s lived experience is that they’ve had so many rejections before, so why would they continue to come up against that? What I learned from that was, it’s not just about organisations being inclusive, it’s about them demonstrating that to candidates. They could be the most inclusive organisation on the planet, but if the candidates don’t know that they’re not going to apply since they said they assume otherwise.

It’s about demonstrating the organisation’s credentials as a disability-friendly employer. That might mean badges like Disability Confident. It might mean showing success stories on the meet the team page. It may be on their website where they show disabled people in the organisation who are thriving.

I would say this, but it is about where you advertise. Our candidates say that if an organisation has paid to advertise their vacancies on a job board that’s just for disabled people, that demonstrates that they’re serious about this. It means they’re not just putting a, “We are an equal opportunities employer” byline, which doesn’t mean or cost anything. They’re spending money to proactively attract talented disabled candidates. Not only does this give candidates the confidence to apply to those organisations, but they are also going to be more open about any access needs they might have. Candidates will perceive, rightly, that this organisation won’t be put off by a request for an adjustment. We need to make sure that disabled talent out there recognises the employer that’s looking at their talent positively, rather than finding excuses not to employ them.’

What Jane said resonated with me. When I was in the job market before I set up my consultancy I would look at the Evenbreak job board. Seeing an employer on the website did give me more confidence.

Assessment

The third key area in Jane’s book is where she writes about assessment. One phrase that caught my eye is whether to CV or not to CV! I asked Jane to explain what that is all about?

‘I don’t think that the traditional recruitment assessment methods, often revolving around CVs for shortlisting with interviews for making the final decision, are the best predictors of future performance for any candidate, let alone disabled candidates.

Some organisations will say, “Yeah, but we have blind CVs.” And for me, it’s not just about the person’s name. We know that there’s a lot of research that says a Western sounding name, as opposed to an Eastern-sounding or African-sounding name, is more likely to be short-listed. Or a male-sounding name will do better than a female-sounding name. Even if you take away those personal details, the bits that people are looking at in a CV are things like work history and qualifications.

For someone who is disabled, we know because of the disability employment gap, you’re twice as likely to be unemployed. A disabled person, you have faced barriers that non-disabled candidates aren’t facing. You’re less likely to have got the work history that demonstrates your brilliance. It’s not because you don’t have that brilliance, but because you haven’t had the opportunities to show it.

Even with education, there are lots of organisations who used to insist on degrees for pretty much every job, whatever it was. For certain jobs then the degree had to be a First, it had to be from a red brick university, or it had to be from Oxbridge, or whatever. I think that’s getting better these days, but if you can think of maybe a candidate who has struggled through university, maybe to get into university in the first place, so it might be a former polytechnic. Then they’ve been battling to get resources because of their dyslexia or their mental health condition, or whatever it might be. So that Second or Third in their degree might be far better than a first from Oxford for someone who’s never had to face any barriers.

All a CV tells you is about previous privilege, not future potential. CVs don’t demonstrate the brilliance of a candidate and if you haven’t even met them because you’re shortlisting, you can make all sorts of assumptions that aren’t based on anything to do with reality. That’s why I think CVs are outdated.’

I was so glad Jane shared her thoughts about CVs. When I was working for one organisation, I was a fly on the wall, ear-wigging on a conversation that two hiring managers were having whilst reviewing CVs for job interviews for people they hadn’t met. One manager turned to the other and said, “I just don’t think this person will be a culture fit for the team.” I almost fell out of my wheelchair. How on earth can they say somebody is or isn’t a culture fit for the team, just by looking at their CV?

When I was working in technology at the BBC, I piloted some blind auditioning software, and instead of looking at people’s CVs, we allowed anybody and everybody interested in a software developer job to take an online challenge that tested their skills to create a bit of code for iPlayer.

We looked back through the people that got short-listed compared to the conventional way of short-listing with CVs. There were two examples of disability. There was one person, who had a severe speech impediment, who got an interview. They said that they hardly ever got an interview because whenever they had a phone conversation with a recruiter, they would be nervous and anxious, and the speech impediment got worse. They wouldn’t get through to the next stage.

We also had an autistic person that we also called in for an interview. Again, they said they struggled to get interviews because of struggling with that kind of interview environment. I agree with Jane. CVs aren’t an effective way of recruiting people since they don’t test someone’s ability to do the job, or their potential.

Jane agreed. ‘I feel similarly around interviews. Some people are good at blagging in interviews and others are nervous and not good at interviews. But the ability to do the job doesn’t correlate with either interview performance. We recommend giving a task that’s related to what candidates would be doing in their job.’

Selection

One of the key areas I was interested in hearing more about from Jane was the process of job offering and induction. I think the first steps into an organisation are crucial. I asked Jane, ‘What is it that you write about in the area of selection that covers job offering and induction?’

‘Firstly, the hiring decision has to be made objectively for the right person for the job rather than, “Oh we like them and they looked a bit like my nephew and we like my nephew.” It should be very much done on objective grounds. I’m not sure about culture fit either. Sometimes culture fit can mean, “Oh well, all the lads go out drinking on a Friday night. Will they come with us?” That’s got no relation to whether they’d be able to do the job or not.

Finding the right person for the job is only the beginning because then you want to keep them and develop them and retain them and all the rest of it. The job offer, the induction, or the onboarding, whatever we want to call it, sets the tone for the whole relationship of that employee with that company.

If you get that bit wrong, you’ve got the right person for the job, but you may lose them. For me, it’s about making sure that at the point of the job offer, or as soon as is humanly possible, we say to that new candidate, whether or not they’ve declared a disability, we have a conversation about, “What do we need to do so that you can be really happy and productive here?”

That could be with every new candidate. Someone might say, “Can I work flexible hours because I have to pick the kids up from school?” Or it might be, “I’m caring for my father, so I need time off for hospital appointments.” Or it might be, “I need a bigger screen because my sight isn’t great.”

Whatever it is, it’s starting that relationship by saying, “We’re really glad you’ve joined us, and we want to keep you and make sure that you stay and that you’re going to thrive and be happy here and you can give your best.” That’s the best way of starting any relationship, isn’t it?

If you have employee resource groups, talk about those. If you have a buddy system, talk about it. Make sure that the onboarding process is accessible to the recruits. One of our candidates is blind, and his manager said, “We knew we wanted him because he was the best person for the job. But I’ve never onboarded a blind person before. And normally it would be, well the toilets are over there and you hang your coat up over there, and the cafe’s over there.” Over there means nothing to a blind person.

The manager did the right thing and said to the recruit, “I want to onboard you. What’s the best way of doing this?” The candidate knows of course because they’ve lived with this condition and know what works and what doesn’t work. In the end, this particular candidate used a cane and they recorded his way around the building. “Okay, so I follow the wall on the right, and then the lifts are on the right of that.” Then the manager introduced him to the cafe staff and said, “When you see this person coming for lunch, can you read out the menu because they won’t know it otherwise.” And all of those kinds of things. I think it’s just about making sure that the onboarding and job offer process is as inclusive and accessible as the rest of the recruitment process was to get to that point.’

Given that I was talking with Jane on my ‘Inclusive Growth Show’ before we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Jane my customary question, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘From an employer perspective, we’ve developed a growth stage at Evenbreak. To make that growth inclusive, we included everybody within the organisation in that strategy discussion. We’ve asked, “What are the opportunities? What are we missing? What more could we do? What skills have we got that we’re not using?” So for me, the growth depends on including those views of our team, in our case who are very diverse. We are all disabled but from different ethnic minorities and different sexual orientations and genders and all the rest of it. We also included stakeholders. We went out to our employers and said, “What do you think we should be offering? Are there things that you need that you can’t access?” And we asked our candidates, “What do you need?”

Inclusive growth means growing by inclusive design, doesn’t it? It’s not about having a growth strategy and then retrofitting it for accessibility and inclusion. It has to be inclusive from the start. And if you’re on a growth journey, that’s absolutely the right time to make sure that you build in inclusion accessibility to this growth strategy so that it works for everybody rather than going six months down the line, and then thinking, “Oh, I haven’t thought about that. We’re alienating that group.” It’s making sure that the growth includes views from a whole range of different people with different needs, different perspectives, challenging groupthink. All of those things, I think that’s what it means to me.’

If you want to have a chat with Jane about recruitment she would welcome that. Go to the Evenbreak website and hit the contact us button, which will go through to her. Alternatively, email janeh@evenbreak.co.uk


After my podcast interview with Jane was released and this article published, one of my LinkedIn connections, Idrees Mohammed, created this great infographic to summarise our conversation.

Infographic summarising my interview with Jane including the right mix; they are talented; 20% of the population; reflect on hidden disabilities

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