Roundtables – Creating a Shared Conversation

In February 2019 I assembled a team of 7 members (including myself) from the DCJ DEN’s Guidance and Action Team* to present to the agency’s Board. I was inspired to do this by the Australian Public Service Commission’s (APSC) Ten + Ten model which matched 10 staff with disability and 10 executives. I adapted this model to suit the purpose I had in mind.

There was a mismatch between what the Board believed was happening for staff with disability and what the DEN knew was really going on. We had to address that, and ensure the Board knew what was happening at the ‘coalface.’ To see the changes we all wanted, we had to be on the same page. This became the first Roundtable. 

I chose a mix of disabilities and adverse experiences to bring the message that there were staff with disability experiencing hardship, and sometimes abuse, in the agency. Planning for the event had to carefully done. This was very clear from the APSC guidelines. I was assisted by the remarkable Executive Disability Champion, Anne Skewes – a Deputy Secretary and Board member. We had secured a commitment of 2 hours; and having the attention of the Board for that long was a privilege we had to handle carefully and well. It was the DEN’s first presentation to the Board since its inception in July 2010. It had to a memorable and positive experience for all.

The first vital consideration was allocating speaking time for individual stories to be told. I allocated 5 minutes each, knowing full well that each speaker could talk for much longer than that, and would do so at the slightest opportunity. Their stories were compelling and merited being heard in full. However, we were at 30 minutes on personal stories already – and that’s a long time to expect Board members to restrain themselves from comments or asking questions. This was not about us. Story telling provided insights of course, but it also established each speaker’s entitlement to be representing all staff with disability. The stories were the starter, not the main course.

As it turned out a few went over their allocated time. I expected that.  I had tried to get a commitment that a script would be developed and timed, so that the narrative was organised and coherent. But a combination of nerves, passion and lack of experience defeated my plan – but not too badly. I planned for ideal and got very good. That was expected.

Speaking order was important. Confident speakers were up first, and those less confident at the end – so they had the opportunity to see how others performed and were received.

Anne played a vital role as a Board representative. She led preparatory group phone discussions. This ensured a fair awareness of who would be in the room and what might be expected. This preparation meant the participants, none of whom had previously spoken openly about their disability or their experiences, were as prepared as they could be. We met before the event for coffee and, for some, a late breakfast. This support was important because there were raw emotions that would come to the fore, and participants needed to know the team was with them. Having a ‘friend’ on the Board was also a comfort.

Afterwards, Anne joined us for a debrief, and provided feedback on the Board’s immediate reaction. This was positive and reassuring. It meant we could leave confident we had done the job we had set for ourselves. This was an opportunity to process our emotions and affirm shared participation in the transformative experience.

The event was transformational for everyone. The stories told were deeply moving and sobering. The story tellers were heard and acknowledged. A commitment to action was made the Board, and was followed through. This included running more Roundtables.

In terms of the DEN’s engagement with the agency it was the starting point for a period of rapid change in impact and a steady growth in influence. I appointed one of the participants as the coordinator of Roundtables and they continued to be a feature of the DEN’s activity. They have worked for leadership teams and work teams.

The success of the first event came down to professional planning at every stage – selection of participants and their preparation were key. Allowing a substantial opportunity for discussion meant that everyone had the opportunity to speak. On a theme such as this much could be said and asked, so ensuring that everyone had their needs met was crucial. All of the DEN members felt they were given adequate opportunity to tell their story and engage in discussion. 

From subsequent feedback, the Board acknowledged it was a transformative experience – for individual members and as a group. 

This event was a turning point for the DEN and the Department. The rate of positive change over the subsequent months was remarkable. The changes were a shared commitment from across the Department, working closely with the DEN. My term as DEN Chair ended just over 12 months later. About 7 months later the new DEN Chair accepted an offer to go fulltime. That was a radical experiment, reflecting the Board’s genuine commitment.

Please see the page A Guide to Roundtables for more information on running a Roundtable. 

* DCJ DEN’s Guidance and Action Team – The Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) was formed in mid 2019 from the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS). The DEN referred to here was in FACS in February 2019.

What is a Disability Guidance and Action Team?


The commencement of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) from 2016 led to the NSW Department Family and Community Services (FACS) losing most of its staff who worked in disability related roles. This, in turn, led to a collapse in the membership of the Disability Employee Network (DEN). When I become DEN Chair in November 2016 membership numbers were at a new low. Things had to change.

I launched a membership drive in early 2017. By September 2018, membership numbers had recovered to a sufficient degree, and it was time to start tapping into the passion that was evident. I sent out an email seeking volunteers who could contribute some time to help things along. I had no idea what I was going to do. I just knew I needed more people involved if we were going to make things happen. 

The Need for Something Different

Up to that point I had running things mostly by myself. My focus had been on growing membership numbers. I had inherited a structure and a culture in which the DEN Chair was the focal point. Even in my time as Deputy Chair, I had little involvement – how little I was to quickly discover. Now it was time to change.

The DEN met formally every 3 months. That was a big commitment for the agency because representatives from around the state flew or drove to Sydney and were accommodated overnight, for some that was 2 nights. In between the formal meetings the agency dealt with the Chair only. That was understandable. It was a conventional approach, and it worked conventionally.

The Chair was on several committees as a DEN representative. I was to discover that fact when I became the new member as the new DEN Chair. I had been unaware of the committees. Nothing was said about them at meetings and no reports were made to members. In fact, outside the standard agenda and minutes emails, members got only the odd request to participate in a consultation process.

All this was perfectly normal. The DEN was supported by a genuinely dedicated secretariat in HR. There was no shortage of goodwill or good intent. The problem was that the DEN was a manifestation of the agency’s desire to support staff with disability. It was providing this support very agreeably – on its terms and in its time. That’s how things were done.

There was, however, a huge mismatch between the agency’s pace of change, and the membership’s desire for change. Aside from the loss of members through restructuring, participation in meetings had declined. Sometimes HR representatives outnumbered members. There was discontent and disappointment in the ranks.

Now new members were bringing new emotions – anticipation and impatience. Squandering that energy after working so hard to recover membership numbers would be an act negligent folly. I needed to do something different.

An Inspiration

On an inspiration, the email I sent out invited participation in what I called the Guidance and Action Team (the GAT). I don’t like the word ‘committee’. It has a soporific tone to it. The GAT had an energetic tone. 

I had 15 responses. It was a mixed group. There were staff with sensory disabilities, mobility disabilities, degenerative diseases that conferred an array of disabilities, formally diagnosed psychological disabilities, and one person with autism. There were several with no disability who had joined the DEN as allies. 

I suddenly had 15 energised individuals, some of whom had been through some shocking experiences as staff with disability. Some were angry (for good reason). All were passionate and impatient for change. Most were hurting in some way because of what they had been through. Turning this passionate mob into a focussed, disciplined, and professional group of change agents was not going to be easy.

Formation and Transformation

It took 12 rocky months. I chose a light touch. I did not want the GAT to be dependent on me. It had to find its own sustainable character. I did, however, set some non-negotiable rules – we were relentlessly civil and positive. We did not complain – but we were frank about the issues. We identified challenges and offered solutions. We were professional in everything we did.

Over that time, I had to apologise twice for the GAT’s conduct. This was early on when passions were still raw, and the good habits hadn’t settled. It wasn’t the whole crew. The majority were well disciplined and always civil. But it was a team, not an assemblage of individuals. 

I also worked hard to ensure that who and what the GAT was was understood by the agency. I needed tolerance, and appreciation that these people had been through some bad times. Authenticity does not come free, and neither does it come perfectly formed. It had to evolve – and it had to have the freedom to make mistakes; and own its imperfections.

In mid 2019 I was able to secure funding for a 2 day professionally facilitated planning session. This was a crystalizing experience. By the first anniversary of the GAT’s formation, we had a formidable crew assembled.

The GAT’s membership was split 50:50 between Sydney metro and regional NSW representation. The DEN met formally quarterly, and I arranged for the GAT to meet the day before. Those meetings were between 6 and 7 hours. This meant ensuring that all GAT members who had to travel were able to do so. With the assistance of our Executive DEN Champion, I was able to secure assurance that their regions would support their attendance.

Those all-day meetings included presentations by internal and external speakers – information gathering and consultation. The GAT was becoming acknowledged as a credible impetus for change.

A key event in the evolution of the GAT was a presentation by 6 members to the FACS Board in February 2019. This was the first time that the DEN had been before the Board since its establishment in July 2010. The second presentation was in November the same year. These presentations cemented in the Board’s awareness the presence of a strong team working to drive inclusion. It also helped the GAT believe that the Board was genuine in its support for the DEN. You just don’t get to present to the Board twice in a year unless that is true.

The GAT’s formative stages developed a powerful bond among its members that remains to this day.

What is a GAT?

Probably the best way to describe the GAT is that it is a consultation and advisory group whose members are committed to ongoing engagement with DEN related matters. 

This engagement is formal and informal. There are regular email conversations between individual members as well as the whole group. It seemed to me that there was always at least one group conversation going on.

In this sense it is a resource the Chair can use as a pool of different perspectives and support to stay on message.

The GAT keeps the Chair honest. Previously only the Chair interacted with the agency-provided secretariat. This created a small ‘executive bubble’. The GAT creates a bigger bubble and blurs the line between executive and representative functions.

There was no need to wait until the quarterly meetings to generate conversation between diverse staff members with disability. This was now daily, and it could be instantly generated. The GAT had become a dynamic feedback loop.

How Big Should a GAT be?

It really depends on how a GAT is managed by the Chair and how the members have come together and formed as a group. These two factors will determine the size. A cohesive group can handle being 15 strong – or larger. It can still have a diversity of views without fragmenting and losing cohesion. The cohesion must be preserved – and that can be a tricky thing to manage.

Because a GAT isn’t a management committee in the conventional sense, it grows by consensus. In that sense any DEN member who has a passion to be engaged could ask to join the GAT on the strength of their interest.

The GAT as a Source of Leadership 

A prime advantage of the GAT is that it provides to a pool of people an opportunity to explore their potential as a future leader. The past practice of a small executive bubble virtually quarantined leadership functions from membership. This meant that new Chairs had little to no prior experience of leadership issues.

In my view a DEN Chair must have management/leadership experience and be sufficiently senior to have some credibility within the agency. In the NSW public service that means grade 9/10 at least.

A GAT has the capacity to identify and attract potential leaders; and engage them in more complex DEN matters as soon as they indicate an interest. Effective leadership is critical for a DEN’s success and succession planning is critical. As a DEN becomes more effective it will attract staff with management and leadership experience and skills.

The current DCJ DEN has 3 Deputy Chairs filling specialist roles. The GAT creates a talent pool for these roles as well as being a resource if a new specialist role is created.

The Relationship Between the GAT and DEN Membership

When the DEN was formed in mid 2010, most members attended the formal quarterly meetings. Meeting attendance dropped or rose as an indicator of the DEN’s perceived value. As I expanded membership, opportunities to attend meetings via videoconferencing were increasing, and while participation in meetings increased markedly, the majority of members did not attend. Membership signalled an affiliation with a cause, rather than a sign of commitment to engagement.

The GAT was formed through a call for volunteers from the DEN’s membership. Every member who asked to join the GAT was invited to do so. This created a core of engaged members that had no artificial boundaries to exclude members from participating if they wanted to. In this way the GAT tapped into members who wanted to engage.

I had expanded the DEN membership to include Allies. GAT membership was open to Allies as well. Allies, as a membership class, were important because it provided cover for staff who did not feel safe about ‘disclosing’ their disability. Aside from that, Allies may be relatives of, or carers for, a person with disability. They had insights and experiences of value. They were just as passionate about driving positive change.

The GAT became a way staff with disability and Allies could come together as an activist community.


The GAT opened up untapped potential and maintained an energy level missing in a conventional structure. It gave opportunity for ongoing engagement for everyone who wanted to be involved – and created a community to share ideas and experiences as a regular thing.

I describe the GAT as the energetic tip of an iceberg. It’s the visible representation of the universal desire for positive change. It’s always on because the desire for change is constant.

The GAT changed how the DEN worked. In fact, it made it work properly.

UPDATE 1.11.21

Today I got an email newsletter from the DCJ DEN. The GAT has expanded to 28 members, including 2 Executive Directors (one of whom is the Executive DEN Champion). This is exciting. It means that the GAT continues to evolve and reinvent itself. I will catch up with the crew and come back with a report on current thinking.

The Illusion that Disclosure is a Good Thing


The idea that staff with disability should ‘disclose’ their disability is deeply problematic. This, of course, applies to those with ‘invisible disabilities’. If you are blind or in a wheelchair, or get around on crutches,  the issue of ‘disclosure’ is pointless. This difference matters. In fact, it is very important.

There are 3 reasons to let it be known that you have a disability:

  1. You do need a formal workplace adjustment, so in specifying the needed adjustment some information about your disability is necessary.
  2. You need understanding and accommodation in your workplace to help your workmates understand your behaviour and adjust to ensure you are included. For example, I can’t stand around in a group with a drink and some food, so I sit down to eat and drink, usually by myself. That doesn’t mean I am being anti-social, but I discovered that was the assumption made.
  3. Your employer wants to know how many people with disability work in the organisation to make a judgement about how inclusive it is. This information is usually safely anonymous, but there is often anxiety over this.

Why is Disclosure a Problem?

The Big Question is why people do not ‘disclose’. It comes down to one thing. They fear discrimination – and rightly so. It can be career destroying.

People with visible disabilities have no choice in the matter – and least in terms of the fact of a disability. If they seek a workplace adjustment the reason for the adjustment is usually pretty apparent – although the rationale may not be so evident.

If staff with evident disability experience discrimination and exclusion the message is clear to the person whose disability is (mercifully) invisible. Often the least worst option it to suck it up and bear the discomfort or pain. Loss of respect and credibility is far worse. This is why executives (of whom there are many) with invisible disabilities stay quiet. Pain and discomfort are a small price to pay for career success. The trouble is that this is self-interest that perpetuates the very cultural environment they fear. If they do not trust the organisation’s culture, why should subordinate staff?

I have a very visible disability. I rely on Canadian crutches and my fingers are mostly curled, aside from my index fingers and thumbs – neither of which work well in any case. Visible disability builds a different kind of strength of character to that developed when you have to deal with insensitivity and discrimination in silence. People with invisible disability have to make a calculation on whether to ‘disclose’. They have a choice to make that it not available to people with obvious disability.

The Necessity of a Choice

So, the real issue is why this choice is necessary. At various times organisations mount campaigns to encourage ‘disclosure’. This is so they can find out how many staff with disability are employed. The intent is good, but they routinely fail because the benefits are all on the organisation’s side. Nobody asks the “What’s in it for me?” question on behalf of the staff whose ‘disclosure’ is sought. Neither is the question “How do we make it safe and advantageous to staff with non-apparent disability to tell us they have a disability?” asked.

Part of the problem is that the focus is on disability, and not the need for a workplace adjustment or accommodation. Workplace adjustments and accommodations are sought by staff for a wide variety of reasons. It maybe that disability had stimulated thinking about a wider array of needs in a more serious way. In any case a more flexible and accommodating approach to staff needs is now understood to be a crucial part of a contemporary inclusive workplace. We are diverse people with diverse needs.

Workplaces must be responsive to that diversity – and not on the basis of justifying a need by demanding disclosure of evidence. A parent seeking to work from home because of a sick child is not required to produce evidence of being a parent. It is assumed that a claim to be a parent is sufficient. Besides, being a parent is not a source of shame, or cause for discrimination. 

A staff member with disability expects (and is entitled to) the same level of respect and trust.

Things Have Changed

As technology evolves and with both Apple and Microsoft driving tech inclusiveness, most current hardware and software accommodate an array of accessibility needs. The need for disability specific tech is reducing to significant and particular needs – like JAWS for blind staff. 

Work health safety needs are increasingly recognised. The accessibility of buildings is acknowledged as a standard requirement, as is ensuring that fit outs and furnishings are accessible and appropriate. As these mostly physical solutions become part of the normal, the areas for workplace adjustments and accommodations focus on systems and working arrangements. This is a far more problematic area.

This is where we need to understand that misrepresentation of need to gain a personally advantageous accommodation or adjustment is a real risk. But it is very uncommon.

In a healthy and compassionate workplace staff will be protective of entitlements and privileges. Whether a workplace is of that character is down to an organisation’s leadership. 

In a healthy and compassionate workplace, a need for a workplace adjustment or accommodation must be assumed to be coming from a place of genuine need – unless there are legitimate reasons for thinking otherwise.

The biggest barrier to disclosing a need is the actual or anticipated attitude and conduct of managers – the people who have the power to say yes or no – and to make a staff member bitterly regret saying anything.

Let’s Rethink What We Mean By Disability

As the definition of disability is progressively refined, the situational aspect is recognised more and more as a critical factor. Disablement can be contextual and temporally defined. If the context is global and the temporal scope is permanent that still has to do with a spectrum, rather than an absolute – at an extreme end, but still on a spectrum.

Few people in a workplace are at the extreme end of the disablement spectrum. This is why I prefer the term ‘person with disability’ over ‘disabled person’.  Disability is part of a person’s attributes. It does not define them.

It is important to appreciate that disability is becoming an increasingly problematic term. The distinction between inability, lack of ability and disability must be blurred. What is the difference between a person who can’t dance because of a physical mobility disability or an introvert or a person with a social phobia about dancing? It is that for one it is accepted that they ‘can’t’ dance, and for the other it is assumed that they ‘won’t’.

How do we distinguish between ‘won’t’ and can’t’? Won’t means ‘has the ability but…’ But a won’t can be down to a psychological disability. Wont’s can be can’ts. Whether permanent or not is another question.

The idea that disability is permanent inability has legitimacy. But the social model of disability places an emphasis upon circumstance and environment. People who have no disability may nevertheless be disabled, and need a workplace adjustment or accommodation for a short or long time – just not permanently. 

If we focus on need, rather than the cause, it still may be necessary to know the specifics of the cause of the need sometimes. The critical consideration is allowing the dignity of being trusted to express a need without being subject to a demand for proof. A workplace culture that provides that dignity will also be less likely to generate fear of ‘disclosure’.

Psychological disability is a major problem area because ignorance of the reality leads to misapplication of psychiatric terminology and precipitation of needless fear about a person’s capacity to perform in a role. I write about this in more detail in another post. Here I want to emphasis the huge problem of ‘disclosure’ faced by staff with a psychological disability because of the stigma associated with ‘mental illness.’

Is the Target the Right One?

In NSW the Premier has set a priority to have public sector agencies report that 5.6% of their workforce are people with disability by 2025. This is to reflect the composition of the NSW community and to ensure the public sector workforce’s diversity matches the state community’s diversity. This isn’t idealism. It aims to assure that the perspectives of the public sector workforce match and represent the community it serves.   

But hitting this target is not about getting staff with disability to ‘disclose’. Rather, it is about removing the barriers to open expression of needs. Staff with disability are disabled in their desire to safely articulate their needs for adjustments and accommodations precisely because their employers have failed to make the workplace environment inclusive.

It could be that the 5.6% level has already been achieved, but it’s a secret because it’s not safe to say so.


The problem isn’t staff with disability declining to ‘disclose’. It’s the perpetuation a focus on disability rather than need, and a failure to grasp that it is the workplace culture, and the agency’s leadership, that is the problem. The staff member with disability is not the problem. If we don’t or won’t get this, the real problem is not going away, and the target will not be hit.

Secrets & Big News by PurpleSpace’s Kate Nash is a must read to understand the ‘disclosure’ problem. If your employer is a member of PurpleSpace a copy can be obtained through the membership part of the PurpleSpace website. Otherwise, if you contact me, I can send you the summary of Secrets & Big News’ research findings.

You can buy the full version of Secrets & Big News on Amazon and online booksellers like The Book Depository, but they are very expensive at over AUD $70.

Finally, I have written ‘disclosure’ this way because it is the term most commonly used, and it reveals a negative spirit. It’s like asking “What is wrong with you?” rather than “What can we do to help you do your best work?”

Well intentioned policies to ensure representation of community diversity in a workplace must focus on disability because that’s the metric used. But that must be separate and distinct from inclusion strategies – and never the twain should meet.

Disability is the Norm: A Reflection on a Troublesome Word


Even before I contracted GBS I couldn’t dance. I tried, but I just ain’t got no rhythm. I am garbage at singing too. Are these disabilities? Be careful here; and think carefully before you answer.

We think of disability as applying to physical and sensory impairment mostly. This is because this is what we see. We use the term disability with meaning determined by what we are exposed to. This why promotions of disability awareness and covers of Disability Inclusion Action Plans show people in wheelchairs, with prosthetic limbs, or with guide dogs. We value unimpeded mobility and dexterity. Because of this, images of people whose abilities are impeded are representative of disability. 

A Spectrum of Meanings

Images of people looking normal, but who might be deaf, have a degenerative disease or a psychological injury do nothing for us, because there is no sign of difference or disadvantage.

Here’s what the Australian Network on Disability (AND) says:

There are many different kinds of disability and they can result from accidents, illness or genetic disorders. A disability may affect mobility, ability to learn things, or ability to communicate easily, and some people may have more than one. A disability may be visible or hidden, may be permanent or temporary and may have minimal or substantial impact on a person’s abilities.

Although some people are born with disability, many people acquire disability. For example, a person may acquire a disability through a workplace incident or car accident, or may develop a disability as they age. There is a strong relationship between age and disability; as people grow older, there is a greater tendency to develop conditions which cause disability….

There is nothing wrong with this. It focuses on disability in an important context.

Let me cut and paste portions of the above:

There are many different kinds of disability that may affect [a person’s] ability to communicate easily. [M]any people may acquire a disability through a traumatic life experience. That disability may have minimal or substantial impact on a person’s abilities.

Fear of public speaking was once rated higher than a fear of death. Embarrassing experiences as a child can be actually traumatic, and lead to subsequent modifications of behaviour. As a child in grade 5 primary school, I resisted pressure to sing in the school choir. I didn’t want to, and it required time after school. I had other plans. The music teacher insisted I ‘audition’, and I refused on the logical grounds that as I had no intention of joining the choir, there was no point in auditioning.

The situation ended with the music teacher screaming at me to sing, and me flatly refusing. I would not budge. I was not going to join the choir and I would not audition. The price I paid for that determination was a traumatic reaction every time anybody urged me to sing. I freeze.

So, did I end up with a disability? For me the prospect of singing in public invoked the same fear that public speaking invoked in others.

I argue that disability is so normal we incorporate it into our culture. It’s part of our normal. The above AND definition says: “A disability may be visible or hidden, may be permanent or temporary and may have minimal or substantial impact on a person’s abilities.”

I want to clarify that a disability’s impact may not adversely impact the most socially valued abilities; but may substantially impact less valued abilities. This is the vital difference. Singing in public in workplaces is usually confined to birthday celebrations. Beyond the workplace, and outside Karaoke, the national anthem is about the only other public risk. For me my reaction to singing in public is low risk, even though the impact is profound.

We define people by valued social roles, and we define disability in the same way. When we meet somebody for the first time, usually the first thing we ask them is “What do you do?”. We could ask “What do you love?” But we don’t. We are conditioned to find out if they perform a socially valued role.

When Lack of Ability Becomes Disability

The question about disability becomes one of asking what ability, by its lack or impairment, would fit into a notion of disability? 

Some people have poor hand eye coordination. Others are tone deaf. We could make a list of lacking or impaired abilities had from birth or acquired later. We would then create a ranking by context – vocational, social, or relational.

Normally what might be technically classed as a disability is dismissed as just a personal attribute or quirk. It is not classed as a disability in our normal discourse on the subject because it is normal – just part of the spectrum of being human.

The Scottish dancer and choreographer, Claire Cunningham, who uses Canadian crutches for personal mobility and dance, said that disability is part of the spectrum of being human.

But she meant the obvious disability, nor the normal kind. The reality is that some disabilities rear above the normal range because the normal world cannot accommodate them. In some cases, disability can be so profound that an individual cannot survive without consistent and loving care from many people. Other times a person may live with a profound disability that has no impact upon their performance of socially valued roles.

We tend to focus on disability in specific contexts – work and community access being two common ones. This can lead to us being blinkered, and not seeing far beyond the focal context.

Is Normal Inclusive?

We all know many people with disabilities. They are part of our normal. In effect, being ‘normal’ can simply mean you don’t have disability that impinges excessively on your day-to-day functioning. 

Consider this. Long before disability became the social issue it now is, stairs had handrails. They were there to make the normal safer. If you couldn’t make it up the stairs with the aid of the hand rails, that was your bad luck. You were outside the normal range.

When we learn to see that disability has always been a spectrum, we can begin to think about how wide we want the band of normal to be. The normal of stair handrails excludes people in wheelchairs. It’s just not wide enough. But now we have ramps, and in that context the normal spectrum is wide enough.


We design the human world. So, we have a choice about how wide the normal band will be. If we make it wide enough to include everyone, we will have to rethink physical, cultural and system parameters and what operates within them. 

We decide what is normal. We set the boundaries as barriers or as enfolding arms.

True inclusivity is the universal normal.

Advocacy for Staff with Disability


When I became Chair of Family and Community Services (FACS) Disability Employee Network (DEN) in November 2016 the DEN’s Terms of Reference explicitly excluded advocacy on behalf of members.  I knew why. I had been a union workplace delegate in a former life and knew how inept advocacy could be an utter train wreck. 

My immediate solution was to not advocate for the person, but to use individual cases as instances of system or process failure – and then I worked with the Manager Inclusion and Diversity and executives to address the failure in a prompt and just way.  That worked. 

An Essential Skill

Advocacy is vital for a DEN. Without the power to directly act to address system failures, injustice and abuse a DEN becomes a toothless tiger, and members will despair. What is the point of a representative body that does not stand up for members in a crisis?

A specific exclusion of advocacy also makes a clear statement that an organisation is not interested in change, other than on its own terms.  The fear of inept advocacy is legitimate, but the solution is to work with the DEN to make it skilled and effective. That’s a win win. 

Advocacy is hard to do well. It’s a mixture of conflict resolution and salesmanship (persuasion) skills and it demands a decent idea of organisational politics and systems.  The other key consideration is credibility. A DEN must create a profile in an organisation that gives it credibility and status. For this to happen a DEN must work hard to establish an alliance with executive management – and for that to be known widely. 

Such an alliance is neither a sellout nor a capture. Meeting the needs of staff with disability is in everybody’s interest, so working together is essential. The advocate brings truth and respectful urgency to the table to work with responsibility and power. These are the critical ingredients for positive change.

I was fortunate in my time as DEN Chair to have been able to work with an outstanding Secretary in Michael Coutts-Trotter. Michael made his support for the DEN clear, and he continued to be open to staff with disability (in fact all staff) who had the confidence and trust to approach him. It was up to staff to take him at face value. I did, and I got the support for the DEN I was seeking. The Board’s support for staff with disability was regularly affirmed. It is worth daring to take senior leadership at its word. If you are not saying what you need, it will be assumed you don’t need it.

So much depends upon the executive leadership culture. If that isn’t working for all staff in a good way, it can be an uphill struggle to get traction and support. However, there will always be an ally in senior management. This may be the Disability Champion, or somebody who should be one– that or an ally.

It is important that a DEN has good advice on developing an advocacy approach. Canny strategic counsel is essential. I had two committed Executive DEN Champions in Anne Skewes and Paul O’Reilly who provided critical guidance.  Just as critical is ensuring the right people are performing advocacy. They need skill and credibility. 

Inept advocacy is probably worse than none at all, because it has a corrosive affect on credibility. It is also deeply disappointing to members. 

A DEN is not a union; and should never be mistaken for one. A DEN must be far more sophisticated and professional.

I am wary of offering pointers on advocacy, lest a few hints be taken as sufficient guidance. I would prefer to see specific training provided. But there are a few clear messages that will help frame an understanding of the importance of developing the skills needed to do advocacy well:

  • Advocacy is not adversarial. It is not about assigning blame or defeating opposition. 
  • Most organisations have policies and procedures in support of staff with disability, and problems arise when they are unknown, not followed, or inadequate. Advocating for awareness, compliance or improvement is win win. Organisations generally intend to comply, and senior leaders are often unaware of the extent of ignorance and non-compliance. Unless they are told the policies are no good, or not being complied with, they will not know.
  • Advocacy is collaborative and co-creative. The DEN is working with the organisation to build a better workplace culture that ensures staff with disability can be confident their needs will be met.
  • Effective advocacy takes a solution to the table, not just a problem. The solution is proposed to a shared concern. Agreeing it is a shared concern is vital.
  • Advocacy is not standalone. It is a vital element in a suite of strategies. Storytelling and effective PR must also be active. The DEN must have credible standing – as a partner in creating a better workplace culture.
  • It is important to remember that cause of a need for advocacy may be a person with disability who is unaware of the impact of their decisions or conduct. For instance, psychological health factors maybe be behind a manager’s problematic response to a request for a workplace adjustment. Hence taking an adversarial or punitive approach in advocacy may harm a person the DEN is supposed to be helping. It is critical that a DEN understands it is to support all staff with disability, not just members. A failure to do that is destructive of the interests of its members.
  • Advocacy is an act of goodwill. It must assume that the issue is not caused intentionally – by an individual or the organisation. But advocacy must also be politely firm that accountability is required, that harm done must be acknowledged, and the matter justly resolved – and in a timely manner.
  • A well-led organisation will respond in a mature, competent, and compassionate way.


Advocacy is a skilled practice. It is worth learning to do it well, if only because doing it badly can be terribly damaging to everyone. It is a skill that will serve you well in so many situations.  

A DEN that is not skilled in advocacy is missing a vital part of its ability to function.

Here is a good place to start to learn the skills needed

Psychological health – changing the conversation about mental illness


Early in 2020 a DEN member who had, at my instigation, told her story of Clinical Depression in a Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) staff newsletter over a year previously observed that nothing had changed. She was right.

In 2018 I had been approached as DEN Chair to ‘do something’ about mental health. But I held off, knowing it would be a challenging proposition. The DEN was re-establishing itself and it wasn’t the right time – until early 2020.  This was before COVID became such a dominant force in our lives. In a way the timing could not have been better. 

I set up an initiative I called Change the Conversation.  The big issue with ‘mental illness’ was the stigma associated with it – and this was down to language. In particular, the use of the word ‘mental’. I had long had an aversion to the use of the language of psychiatry to describe normal human conditions that had become magnified and persistent. I had worked in psychiatric hospital in the early 1970s, so I had a sense of profound levels of psychological dysfunction compared to the less intense and extreme disorders experienced by the employees I encountered. 

The majority of ‘mental illnesses’ experienced by Australians are depression and anxiety. These are, I believe, better described as emotional rather than mental disorders. We have debased emotions in our reverence for intellect and mind. But, in fact, they are more powerful and influential than our cultural discourse allows for. An emotional trauma cannot be simply eased by mental or intellectual effort. But it can be repressed.

Mental illness is a term that should be left to disordered mental functioning. The stigma associated with the implication of mental or cognitive malfunctioning must be eliminated from descriptions of psychological states which do not impair mental functioning at all.  For this reason, I wanted to shift the conversation away from ‘mental’ and the language of psychiatry toward emotional health and psychological injury. 

Why the Stigma?

Generally speaking, we are not only ignorant about mental illness, we are conditioned by stories – as news and as fiction – to fear people diagnosed as mentally ill. The language is harsh – mad, or insane. As a consequence, everything lumped under that label becomes tainted by the same prejudice. Disordered thought will lead to disordered behaviour.

As well as working in psychiatric hospitals I spent quite a few years involved with what were commonly called Licensed Boarding Houses in NSW. The residents of these facilities initially came from psychiatric hospitals emptied inconsequence of the 1983 Richmond Report. For the most part they were people with intellectual disabilities or mental illness whose conduct was stable enough that they could live with support in the community.

There were times in a psychiatric hospital when I had to deal with conduct that was confronting and threatening, but I did not work on the locked wards where the most dangerous inmates were housed. I worked with Licensed Boarding Houses to resolve issues that arose when a resident’s conduct deteriorated, and they could no longer safely access their community; or stay living in the facility.

There are times when a person diagnosed with a mental illness justly merits concern and caution. But not always. Knowing the difference is important. It is rare that a staff member in a public sector agency will exhibit behaviour of such concern.

That said, manifestations of poorly managed emotional distress may be more common – and exacerbated by mishandling by colleagues and, more particularly, mangers. If such incidents are seen to be a manifestation of ‘mental illness’ a combination of prejudice and ignorance will trigger the stigma.

Staff who have been diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety have told me that they are less likely to ‘admit’ their diagnosis because they are concerned that rather than being treated with compassion and empathy, they will be identified as being mentally ill. Most have stories about regretting trusting a manager who behaved in an insensitive and discriminatory manner in response. 

The stigma is founded on ignorance and prejudice. Managers are crucially placed to ensure their teams are neither ignorant nor unkind, and that the work environment they oversee is safe for staff who have a psychological injury.

The Importance of Language

I believe there are compelling reasons for making a clear distinction between ‘mental’ and ‘emotional’ states of health. I am also aware that this is contested by some, and I am not going to debate that matter here.

I want to focus on the impact of language and propose a pathway out of the discrimination, prejudice and insensitivity that comes from our cultural use of ‘mental illness’.

I prefer the term psychological injury or disability. An injury can be temporary, or it can be triggered and return briefly.  Disability is permanent, but not always ‘disabling’.

In physical terms we can understand that a disability may be the result of a feature of the physical environment. For example: a person in a wheelchair can’t get into a building because there are only stairs and no ramp. Making a ramp is about accessibility.

What is the psychological equivalent? What makes a psychological environment accessible or inaccessible? Here we shift to talking about inclusion or exclusion.

The answer lies in individual and collective behaviour – friendship, empathy, compassion, openness, caring, supportive – you get the picture. Let’s add knowledge and understanding as well.

In a person-focused environment (culture) in which the needs of staff members are addressed with flexibility and empathy a person experiencing an adverse emotional state is less likely to need to ‘disclose’ a formal diagnosis.

Several things must happen before this kind of environment can be routinely expected. There must be informed, and responsive, leadership and we must become comfortably adept in talking about our inner states without resorting to the language of psychiatry or psychology.

Informed and Responsive Leadership

Staff with a psychological injury or disability are most concerned about talking to their managers about the need for a workplace adjustment or a short-term accommodation.

Unfortunately, we do not select for, or teach, emotional intelligence or self-awareness. It is true that psychometric testing these days can filter out candidates with significant psychological problems, so fewer narcissists or sociopaths are likely to be employed. However current managers and executives are not scrutinized to any effective degree. As a result, the concerns of this essay remain as a daily issue for many.

The two interlinked attributes – emotional intelligence and self-awareness – cannot be taught through the normal learning and development methods. At best they can highlight the need for them, provide introductory material and point people in the right direction. After that it is very much a case of personal development driven by a motivated individual. It can be hard work, and confronting.

Emotional Intelligence

It is defined as: the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict. ( There is an abundance of information online.

Virtually all management training these days places an emphasis upon having a working understanding of psychology and developing a fair degree of self-awareness. 

Emotional Intelligence is acknowledged as an essential attribute for effective leadership. But developing it requires self-awareness.


Being self-aware is a mark of being psychologically mature. However, it is not something that can be taught as a purely intellectual exercise or covered in a series of courses. 

The ideal of life-long learning has been dropped from many learning and development discourses for want of interest. Enhancing both emotional intelligence and self-awareness is a long journey that requires steady effort and commitment. The rewards make the journey worthwhile.

Recovering Sovereignty Over Our Own Inner States

As I was researching for Change the Conversation, I came across The Global Leadership Foundation, an Australian business dedicated to the goal of developing emotionally healthy leaders and emotionally healthy organisations. That, in a nutshell, was what I wanted.

Emotionally healthy leaders would not perpetuate the stigma, and an emotionally healthy organization would embrace the reality that we all will experience emotional trauma – whether brief or sustained – at some time in our lives. There should be no need to ‘disclose’ a clinical diagnosis. There should be no need to struggle to get what is critical to personal wellbeing.

What The Global Leadership Foundation instantly helped me to see was that there was a way of talking about our inner states that used no clinical language – we didn’t need to psychologize, just humanize.

I had the good fortune to work with Malcolm Lazenby from the Foundation to develop a series of pilot workshops I called Getting Above the Line (and in typical bureaucratic fashion it was shortened to GATL). There were 3 series of workshops (GATL 1,2 & 3). Each series ran around 90 minutes once a week for a month (or longer). The object was to stimulate awareness of our emotional states and learn how to stay ‘above the line’ (where there was awareness and control).

The workshop pilots were held over MS Teams with a small group of DEN volunteers. They proved useful in our work context and in our private lives. I did get a proposal from Malcolm to run a program based on the pilots at a very good price, but the COVID induced budget brake put that idea on hold. Get in touch with me if you want details of the workshops.

What became very clear, after the workshops, was just how well we could talk about our inner states using clear but simple language. We were able and willing to share feelings we normally kept protected.

The good news is that the Foundation’s content has been incorporated into DCJ’s learning and development programs for managers. It is a great first step.

The Reality About Our Psychological Wellbeing in the Workplace and Elsewhere

The risk of psychological injury – especially depression and anxiety – seems to be growing. There are indications that work-related psychological injury is increasing. Certainly, in NSW this appears to be the case in the public sector. This may be a result of the do more with less philosophy as workforces shrink and work demand does not.

COVID 19 has added a range of stressors – lockdowns and restrictions on human interactions; working from home and juggling work and parenting demands; the maelstrom of misinformation on social media. Depending on one’s outlook there may be a storehouse of woes awaiting delivery. These are not easy times.

Addressing the needs of staff with clinically diagnosed conditions is vital. They must be able to seek assistance or accommodation without being subjected to insensitive and unempathic responses from leaders. And addressing this will also solve a lot more problems.

The stigma associated with the mental illness label is the tip of an iceberg of devalued emotions. We have neither the language nor the habits of mind and heart to be as openly caring as is our healthy nature will allow; and does desire.

There are good signs, however. In my former department, over 2020 and well into 2021 the themes of emotional wellbeing and psychological health were talked about more often and more openly.


Making a personal effort to develop emotional intelligence and self-awareness might to be unattractive to many, but it is inescapably true that this is vital work we must do for ourselves, and for those for whom we have responsibility. It is the way of the future, and has been so for the past few decades.

The least we can do is leave the language of psychiatry and psychology to psychiatrists and psychologists and rediscover the language of natural empathy and concern. 

The Global Leadership Foundation has a useful (and brief) publication that can be bought as an ebook (and as hardcopy). You can find it at:

It would be a good thing if personal journey could start with this one small step.

Leadership and Disability

PLEASE NOTE: This is a long piece – 15 pages


The welfare of staff with disability rests in large degree on the immediate line manager, and their supervising executive. These are the people who have the power to facilitate workplace adjustments or address acts of discrimination or exclusion. They are also the people who have the responsibility and power to influence organisational procedures and policies, where they fail to address the needs of staff with disability.

There are multiple state and federal acts that impose upon an agency and its leaders the duty to act to ensure that staff with disability are not subjected to discrimination or abuse. Aside from them there are fundamental obligations arising from the simple proposition of compassion and respect for human dignity.

So why do staff with disability continue to report they are subject to behaviour by their immediate line managers that can only be called cruel and injurious? This is not widespread; but that’s not the point. That it is happening at all is the point. It means that some managers think their conduct is okay and their managers do not have a problem with it. When this happens, the manager and their manager often develop a narrative that centres blame on the staff member with disability.

I know about this because I spent 3 years and 4 months as Chair of a Disability Employee Network in a substantial NSW public sector agency. I advocated on behalf of members who were the victims of repeated acts of bullying that expressed as either overtly cruel acts or subtle continuing efforts to corrode their confidence and maybe force resignation. I have retained connections with those people, and we have ongoing conversations about what they experience. Some of it is great news. Not always, however.

The Need to Acknowledge What is Going On

The challenge I put to an agency is for it to acknowledge what level of abuse of power and dereliction of duty it demonstrably tolerates. While it may sincerely espouse a zero tolerance, the agency should ask itself “What do we actually tolerate?” and “How urgently do we need to eliminate abuse of power and dereliction of duty?”

I have no interest in assigning blame here. But I am committed to accountability in these ways:

  • Ensuring those responsible for causing harm are aware of the consequences of their action (or inaction), and that they are assisted to develop the insight and skills to perform their roles in an appropriate manner. This means no more than ensuring that mangers meet the capabilities of the role, and the agency’s conduct standards.
  • Understanding that there are some people in management/leadership roles who lack the emotional intelligence to meet the capabilities of the manger role. They may possess outstanding operational attributes, but they are not, and cannot become, people leaders. They should respectfully re-assigned to roles that do not require critical ‘people skills’.
  • Supporting an agency’s senior leadership to understand it must have a psychologically informed and mature ability to evaluate executive leaders’ capacity to support subordinate leaders in implementing a zero tolerance of abuse culture. 
  • The creation of a capacity within the agency to hear a staff member with disability who is unable to get the response and support they are entitled to. That capacity must include: 
    • a means of addressing the staff member’s needs promptly;
    • a way of ensuring that the managers who have failed to act appropriately are made aware of their failure and are provided with the means and imperative to address the reasons for that failure. This could involve setting up an ongoing mentoring relationship and periodic monitoring.

This document distils over ten essays on this theme into one comprehensive discussion. Its focus is on the NSW public sector; because this is what I know intimately. The principles will be applicable to any agency.

Internationally it is acknowledged that the issues and conduct described here are significantly more prevalent in public agencies than private sector organisations.

Management v leadership

Not all managers are good leaders and not all leaders are good managers. They are two distinct skill sets that might be usefully described as:

  • Management = operational and organisational competencies
  • Leadership = personal and interpersonal competencies that inspire others to meet goals and standards together.

The ideal is a balance of high competence in both. We use the terms interchangeably, sometimes to simply clarify role statuses – for example a team leader may be organisationally subordinate to a manager.

We do not place a premium on leadership. We are still in transition from time when command and control was the only way to do things. Evolving social and cultural values make leadership skills more and more important. In fact, workplaces with high leadership competence are more productive, stable and happier – and this is the trend.

While workplace cultures are evolving, some aspects will be more resistant to change, and may require more focused effort to stimulate movement. Getting the management/leadership balance right is one such area.

I am going to focus on the terms manager and management here because these are the terms that are formally used. Ideas about leadership are, therefore, implicit. Hence a ‘failure of management’ should be read to include a ‘failure of leadership’. The term ‘manager’ includes the role of ‘team leader’ and ‘line manager’.

The damage done

Staff with disability consistently report enduring consequences arising from their experience of being subjected to bullying. I use the term ‘bullying’ here to denote the misuse of power and actions detrimental to the welfare of the staff member persisting over time. Bullying is always an abuse of power and an abdication of responsibility. Bullying can be lateral, downward, and, now and then, upward. Here the focus is on ‘downward bullying’ – manager/executive to subordinate staff member.

A common scenario is that a workplace adjustment is sought, but the request is ignored or refused. An attempt to follow up leads to a deterioration in the relationship between the staff member with disability and their line manager. From this point several things can happen:

  • Deflection: The staff member is blamed for causing ‘a problem’ and their performance is placed under critical assessment. Workplace adjustments are sought to assist achievement or maintenance of acceptable levels of performance (at least). By expressing a need the staff member with disability has revealed a vulnerability related to their performance, and them personally. This becomes the focus, rather than the sought for adjustment.
  • Removal: They may be subjected to an insidious campaign to encourage them to leave their role – change jobs or resign. The term ‘managing out’ covers not only entirely proper processes for severing employment relations with a staff member, but intentional strategies to dive a staff member to resignation – as a euphemism.
  • Medical Retirement: Further removal efforts to have them medically retired may be initiated. Medical retirement can be the go-to solution, rather than exploring adjustments and accommodation. Medical retirement may be the most appropriate recourse, but in some workplaces, it is a feared weapon of control.

These adverse reactions accompanied by overt assurances that the management team is concerned for the staff member’s welfare and is being supported. This is called ‘gaslighting’ elsewhere and it is the most insidious form of bullying.

Commonly reported impacts on staff with disability are:

  • Ongoing physical or psychological pain and stress because their adjustment need has not been addressed – leading to reduced performance – and then, sometimes, a performance review. There is an added burden of anxiety and powerlessness.
  • Feeling they are not valued or respected – or treated with dignity or respect. This is despite repeated assertions that they are valued and supported (gaslighting?).
  • Depression and anxiety. This is especially the case where the issue persists over months, and in some cases years.
  • Emotional exhaustion accompanied by a sense of powerlessness and futility. Repeated efforts and repeated rebuffs take their toll.
  • Workers Compensation leave for psychological injury caused by the bullying – not infrequently having to return to the same abusive environment. It is not uncommon for the return-to-work process to be unsympathetic to the nature of the injury – and for the process to be stressful or retraumatising from the outset.
  • Traumatic memories and reactions associated with a workplace setting or senior staff seen as ‘perpetrators’ of abuse. In some cases it can be hard to return to team members who did nothing and were unsupportive too.
  • Having a reputation for being a ‘troublemaker’. This is a common fear because it is seen to contaminate a staff member’s reputation and impact their promotion and developmental opportunities. It is not unusual for the staff member be increasingly reputed to be incompetent, despite no objective evidence. It is a reputational slur that progressively causes injury.
  • Fear of being ‘managed out’ – and often a belief that it is happening. Reports of persistent but subtle abuse are common. They can include acts that are otherwise incomprehensibly inept or irrational – suggestive of negligence or malice. ‘Managing out’ is a tried and tested method.
  • Resignation in despair and desperation. Quitting finally becomes the best self-protective action.

The Problem with Management

Management methods have been evolving for decades as new insights into human behaviour and new values have developed. Anybody familiar with contemporary writing on management practice will have seen a decided change toward a requirement for higher levels of emotional intelligence – certainly over the past few decades. Demands for operational competence haven’t diminished, but they have been challenged for dominance by an increasing expectation of good levels of emotional intelligence.

There are two reasons for this. Better management of teams delivers better results. This means being psychologically adept in an emotionally healthy way is becoming a primary skill. The second consideration is that effective management of teams also reduces adverse conduct, absences and instances of people quitting in discontent. It is better all round to deliver effective responsive management of teams.

These reasons are big in the private sector; where they impact the bottom line. In a knowledge economy keeping people with knowledge (and knowledge of your business) make sense. Staff want to work in environments that are not toxic, and skilled staff will seek out those environments.

Public sector agencies tend not to have the same level of concern for their bottom line. This may be because it simply isn’t as measurable to the same critical degree. And neither is the idea of a ‘bottom line’ accepted by most public servants. A much softer notion of service is preferred. So even the best efforts to engender a greater level of concern for staff welfare will not have uniform impact – if values and imperatives are not shared. 

There is a profound difference between a pragmatic concern for staff welfare, and a genuine human concern – and when the two go together the product is usually honest expressions of mutual accountability.

The public sector agencies are also blighted by a reality – concerns about treatment of staff seem to be more concentrated in areas where there is direct engagement with the community – and more so where that interaction is problematic in any manner. Here advancement to manager grade has tended to lack a strong sense of professionalism and has a greater focus on operational priorities.

My theory is that the tougher the relationship between staff and community members the more this is managed among staff through negative internal dialogue – and this colours the workplace culture in a destructive way. That theory is based on over a decade in front line roles. Staff must process their experience of members of the public thought to be behaving badly, and that can lead developing negative stereotypes that do not excite a compassionate response.

‘Othering’ can be an effective strategy for managing personal reactions to ‘bad behaviour’ – and this can become a group culture as well. It is far easier to exclude than to include when confronted with radical difference. This is especially so when that difference causes offence or fear.

The term ‘othering’ is defined acting in a way that views or treats individuals or group as intrinsically different from, and alien to, oneself. It is used in war to ‘dehumanise’ the enemy and eradicate any sense of empathy. It is a natural human impulse under certain conditions – but those conditions cannot ever properly concern a professional role in relation to staff or community members.

The internal workplace dialogue reflects relationships internally and externally. Staff who mutually process negative experiences because of their engagement with members of the public are not inclined to have a different standard for engaging with in colleagues who may express radical difference. Couple this with a lack of professional management and you have a self-perpetuating and self-justifying culture driven by negative and un-empathic assessments of others – inside and outside the group. This is fertile ground for abuse to become acceptable.

The Us/Them Problem

Executives and managers can see themselves as a class apart from their ‘workers’. Executives and managers must discuss the performances of their team members, but both have an imperative to form a good relationship – and a way to form that is to see team members as ‘the other’. Sometimes this can be overt, and other times it can be subtle. It is always a risk. A manager with ambition may want to be seen as ‘management material’, and that may mean creating a distinction between them and their team, favouring a relationship with their manager. An easy way of doing that is to focus on negative perceptions of a team member or two.

I have held manager/team leader roles, and I have tended to side with my staff, because of my activist tendencies. The invitation to objectify (or other) a team member has been made often. By asking what can be done to support the team member the focus is put on managers’ performance – rather than on a dialogue of self-justification for why the team member is not okay. Blaming others can make you feel good and justified. 

The us/them problem is a natural thing. In a healthy culture it isn’t a problem to any large degree (but there is always some risk). In a toxic culture it can be very damaging to staff wellbeing and morale. It is so much more to a person who is othered by virtue of disability or some other attribute.

This division is implicit in even formal and approved language. Non-manager grades are commonly referred to as ‘staff’ or ‘workers’, with the implication that managers and executives are neither staff nor workers. This distinction may not be real for the majority of cases, but it is a crack to be opened.

A hierarchy based on power and status is not the same thing as one based on responsibility or skill. It’s a difficult thing to rethink this in this age of egalitarian living – there is no explicit social distinction between roles and grades. The language we use has not caught up.

Management is a Tough Problem

Management is hard. It is hard when people who are otherwise your equals are situationally and temporarily your organisational inferiors. It is hard when those people are also very different, largely unknown, and who may be smarter or more accomplished than you. They maybe also be people against whom you would discriminate outside of work.

Management is hard because operational demands do not stop, and your team expresses a variety of human needs. If you have KPIs to meet, and meeting them conflicts with addressing a human need – is being compassionate a KPI?

Management is hard if you have achieved a promotion because you have operational skills – and suddenly you are expected to be sensitive and caring toward the same people you could ignore only a few days ago.  And you have had no training and no support to be ‘nicer’. In your personal life your own struggle to keep an emotional even keel has made you tough, a bit angry and wary of opening up. Now you have to rise above that – or not.

Management is hard because burden of the ‘do more with less’ mantra falls on your shoulders, and you don’t have time to keep up with new policies and expectations, let alone get some professional development done. Supervision is about operational imperatives and not an opportunity for mentoring.

Management is becoming harder and harder. It is more demanding. Greater self-awareness has not only been added; it has become a dominant requirement. And where is the help?

We must change how we manage and how we make managers. Indeed, how we think about management.

Deeply Problematic Managers are Rare

The worst instances of abuse are perpetrated, or enabled, by a minority of managers and executives. This is the good news. 

The bad news is that this minority is adept at not being held to account because they know how to conceal their conduct from those who might act to address that conduct.

The us/them thinking is used to craft narratives that make a team member the ‘problem’ – but that does not lead to a transparent and well-intentioned effort to address the alleged ‘problems’. Rather, the situation is allowed (and sometimes assisted) to deteriorate to the extent that the staff member starts to behave in a way that is problematic – out of frustration and despair (victims of abuse understand this -victim blaming is common). Once branded as a problem, or ‘difficult’, their removal is then seen as a virtuous act.

Development of professional management skills is still a challenge for an agency, and this is especially so in front line services. This means that the ‘wrong kind’ of manager can still be found.

In roles with a high focus on operational competence (as with front line roles) it is the lack of more subtle and empathic interpersonal skills that is the source of problems. In roles where a higher value is placed on team management, unempathic personalities can mask their lack of empathy because they give desired and rehearsed responses. Effective psychometric testing can address this issue.

There are ample reflections on psychopaths and narcissists in the workplace. But mostly, we expect not to encounter them – and for good reason. They are few. But they can also to be people skilled at concealing their real nature. A person highly motivated to conceal will generally succeed in company with people not motivated to look more closely.

Individuals who have experienced trauma are another class of potential, but unintentional, abusers. Management can be seen as a goal to confer safety, acceptance, opportunity to redress power imbalances or bring relief to repressed pain and anger. The result is a person with not only little capacity for self-reflection, but a motive to avoid situations where self-reflection maybe be required.

There is a remarkable consistency in reporting that managers who are perceived by staff to be unself-reflective and unempathic will reliably contrive to be absent from events which promote self-reflection and empathy. Such avoidant behaviour surely reflects a psychological state that is at odds with the demands of contemporary management practice.

There are, therefore, people who become leaders who are not psychologically suited to the role in relation to their impact on team members. They may possess high operational skills, but their impact on team morale can be deleterious – and catastrophic upon people seen as weak, vulnerable or unacceptably different. Staff with disability can fall into this category of victims.

The situation is made worse when several managers/executives with shared inclinations come together. It happens rarely, but it does happen.

Such managers may or may not be prepared to address their developmental needs with enthusiasm. They may comply with requirements if they have no choice, but that does not mean that any changes will stick and be reflected in performance. The result may be that the abuse becomes more camouflaged. 

How that challenge is addressed by an agency will reflect its appetite for tolerating abusive conduct.

A Failure to Fully Understand How Much Times Have Changed

In 2019 the NSW Public Service Commission launched its Age of Inclusion campaign. To be frank, while it was well-intentioned, it was not well-designed and not well-executed.

The campaign included a Manifesto, which included the following aspirational sentiment:

Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy

Teams have the flexibility to work differently,

equipped with more training and tools than ever before

And we all show greater understanding for disability in everything we do

For this is a culture proud to ask: “what works for you?”

My immediate response was “Sure, but how are you going to get there?” The need to get there is undoubted. But the manifesto is not a magic spell – just saying it does not make it happen. Laying out a goal without a commitment to the steps to achieve it is easy to do. It lacks sincerity. 

I argue that 18 of the 20 capabilities in the NSW PSC Capability Framework 2:2020 (hyperlink at Appendix A at end of article) require the exercising of Emotional Intelligence, and yet we are not selecting for it, and we are not training in it to anywhere near the extent we must. Also, there is little evidence that once appointed to a manger role, a successful candidate is held accountable for continuing to meet the capabilities. This situation is made more problematic by the fact that very few people are into self-directed professional development – and if they were, there is no place to go to find resources best suited to meet their needs. There are courses that must be paid for, but paying for one’s own ongoing professional development is not popular. There’s no guidance to the extraordinary amount of free resources now available.

In an age of constant and rapid change, the idea that public sector managers and leaders are not supported to engage in self-directed professional development – or are required to do so – seems at odds with the goal to create a world class public service.

This puts the burden of fixing the problem on people not resourced to address it. At least this would be the case if the ‘problem’ was recognised. There are insufficient people with the skills and knowledge needed, and they have insufficient time. Further, there seems to be no coherent strategy to use the available (including fee) resources to best impact.

This is because the ‘problem’ has not been identified and the solution set as a priority. This is why abuse of staff is tolerated within an agency’s culture. The act of toleration is not intentional. It is an avoidable consequence of how things are.

Short, and Long, Term Solutions

There is a lot that can be done to get the ball rolling. Prevention is part of a long-term solution. Remediation is a short-term fix. It requires compassion, clarity and courage.

Short Term Fixes

My favoured response is to create at least one Disability Ombudsman role who:

  • has the authority to receive expressions of concern from a staff member with disability and then assure the matter is impartially resolved and
  • ensure accountability for ‘management shortfalls’ leads to an effective developmental response.

The formal complaints procedure does not recognise that a line manager has a duty to work with a team member with disability to address issues of concern, and a failure to act on that duty is a developmental issue, not a contestation that assigns blame.

The presumption is one of compassion and responsibility. A person in a power position must act to address a concern and communicate effectively. A management role is a responsibility position first and a power position second. It is a role that can resolve or exacerbate a matter causing distress or concern. The obligation of a manager is always to resolve.

A Disability Ombudsman role would monitor progress of any developmental action. Doing nothing is not an option. A symbolic developmental activity to satisfy requirements without generating actual change is not an option.

The issue of fitness to remain in a management role must always be considered; and may involve a psychometric assessment if there is evidence of particularly egregious conduct. Another option is a 360 assessment.

Re-assignment of the ‘victim’ must be considered if there are reasonable grounds to believe the relationship between the team member and the manager is not likely to be repaired – or that the abusive conduct will continue. Where re-assignment does not occur, the situation should be monitored for 12 months – monthly at least.

This approach is non-punitive. A requirement for accountability should not be problematic under any circumstances, and especially when an action has caused an injury. It is an approach that is prompt and firm. It places the onus of responsibility upon the person with the duty and the power to ensure the most appropriate outcome.

The Disability Employee Network (DEN) should also be involved to support the staff member with disability. There may be an opportunity to assist the person to reflect on their conduct; and explore alternative ways of responding to such a situation – a supportive debriefing. This does not imply any responsibility for the issue arising, but how it might be responded to in the most effective way to ensure future psychological safety.

But what if the staff member with disability had behaved badly and had exacerbated the situation? How would that excuse a line manager from prompt, compassionate and respectful response?

Long Term Solutions

Contemporary recruitment methods will reduce the risk of people with an inappropriate psychological make up entering the public sector in NSW.

Improved selection processes can reduce the risk of unsuitable applicants for manager roles being successful. There are two risks, however, that remain inadequately addressed.

The first is the bias exerted by mangers or executives who may not meet the criteria being laid out here, and who lead recruitment exercises. We tend to favour people who are like us. It is easy to assess an apparent weakness positively if the applicant shows signs of being compatible with our way of doing things. Who would hire a direct report who might challenge their conduct if it is thought inappropriate? It would be nice to say we all would. But that’s not true.

The second consideration is how the capabilities for manager roles are determined. Getting the balance of operational and leadership/people skills is important. The Capability Framework is a reason to argue that self-awareness and emotional intelligence are foundational attributes, not optional extras.

Appendix B (at end of the article) lays out an argument that focus capabilities for Manager roles should place a far higher emphasis upon personal attributes than is currently the case. This is still no assurance that deceptive responses will not be accepted. However, more astute recruitment managers with a good panel can use the focus capabilities to good effect.

There may be an argument for a specialist member on panels recruiting managers and executives. There is certainly a good argument for mandatory psychometric testing for all leadership roles – including acting roles that are more than a short-term fill in.

In essence, an agency should develop a recruitment approach for manager roles that has a protective element. A poor choice of manager can have dire consequences for a team and its members – and especially staff with disability.

Concluding Remarks

It is important to appreciate that poor performance by a manager is generally concealed, and rarely addressed unless their own manager takes exception to their conduct. This is something that may surprise some managers and executive reading this. But staff not in manager roles or above have very clear pictures of who is or is not a good manager. 

A few years ago, when I nominated to participate in substantial management training, candidates were required to participate in a 360 review. A team leader who was also a candidate received such a scathing assessment from his direct reports, he pulled out. He was also required to leave his role. It was no secret he was not well-regarded as a team leader. However, he seemed unaware, as were the business unit’s managers. But were they? And if they were, why?

Managers, who are the key figures in the psychological injury to staff with disability, are not seen by staff members who are fully aware of their conduct to be held accountable by senior management. I know of no instance of a manger being held to account – and that is a concern. Either it has not happened, or the fact that it has was kept from the victim and their supporters. The fallout of the abuse is never secret or private, even if the actions are.

If conduct is not held accountable the signal is clear – that it is okay. That is a destructive message for an agency to send. The reality of workplace bullying and its psychological abuse is not lost on team members. They witness the decline in mood of a team member. They may also witness abusive conduct itself. It has a corrosive impact on team culture. There is no point in speaking up; because the signs the conduct is condoned are clear – and who wants to risk their good standing on a lost cause? There is always the risk of being added to the ‘troublemaker list’.

Research on teams argues that engagement and high performance is determined by the team culture – and, in particular, by the quality of the leader. Good leaders generate loyalty and commitment. The harm done by psychological abuse impacts the whole team, not just the target of the abuse. Team leadership may be the most critical element in operational performance and keeping high performing staff. It is something worth investing in.

There is a pertinent saying – people don’t leave bad jobs – they leave bad bosses. Similarly research shows that loyalty is to a team, rather than an organisation. In essence the quality of management/leadership is at the heart of successful work teams – an a successful organisation.

Senior leaders have sincerely expressed concern about what has happened to a staff member with disability in their division or directorate. When an issue has been brought to their attention it has often been resolved quickly and effectively. But this is not always the case. So much depends on how much responsibility is delegated.

Delegation of responsibility is an understandable and appropriate response. You must be able to trust your leadership team. But weaknesses start from the top and are magnified as they go down the chain of responsibility. If a weak Director is not recognised as such by an Executive Director, that weak Director may be pandering to an abusive manager. What flows back up to the responsive senior leader starts off as intentional deception and ends up as inadvertent misinformation.

Somewhere in the chain of responsibility there is a failure that is perpetuated through repetition. The fallout is that people get hurt. Psychological injury is serious. If it is not effectively checked and addressed, it can contaminate an individual’s life for many years and injure their ability to work, and their relationships. Its impact on the agency’s culture is no less toxic.

A work environment which allows psychological injury and trauma to arise violates legal responsibilities and the fundamental expectations of a right to work without exposure to abuse because of one’s disability.

Appendix A

Appendix B

Selection Principles – Capabilities to suit the need

The NSW Public Sector Capability Framework provides a tool to help an agency recruit staff who possess the attributes needed to deliver the outputs, outcomes and culture required. We can use this tool to stretch our expectations of our organisation’s performance.

There are 20 foundational capabilities – 5 Capability Groups [Personal Attributes, Relationships, Results, Business Enablers and People Management] each with 4 sub-sets. Each capability has 4 levels of competence – Foundational, Intermediate, Adept, Advanced & Highly Advanced.

It is interesting to note that of the 5 groups, 3 are distinctly person-centred – Personal Attributes, Relationships and People Management.

The recruitment process provides an opportunity to identify focus capabilities, and their competency level.

A Generalist Manager 11/12 role in Strategy Policy and Commissioning identifies the following focus capability (in addition to another 8).

Personal Attributes

  • Display Resilience and Courage – Adept
  • Act with Integrity – Advanced
  • Manage Self – Adept
  • Value Diversity – Advanced

The Manager role is critical in DCJ – as a leader of work teams. Staff with disability commonly report concerns with team leaders and managers. In so doing the most common concern relates to unempathic and unsupportive conduct.

DCJ can identify focus capabilities. In this instance it has chosen Value Diversity as the focus capability from the range of capabilities under Personal Attributes.

The Value Diversity capability at Advanced level requires:

  • Encourage and include diverse perspectives in the development of policies and strategies 
  • Leverage diverse views and perspectives to develop new approaches to delivery of outcomes 
  • Build and monitor a workplace culture that values fair and inclusive practices and diversity principles 
  • Implement methods and systems to ensure that individuals can participate to their fullest ability 
  • Recognise the value of individual differences to support broader organisational strategies 

The purpose of this brief paper is to stimulate discussion about what capabilities might best serve the needs of staff with disability [and perhaps other diversity groups]. The focus will be solely on the Personal Attributes capabilities.

There are several questions:

  1. Which capability is relevant to addressing the concerns raised by staff with disability? Can a single Personal Attributes capability do the job of identifying the right person for the role?
  2. What competency level would be most desirable?

In this example of a Generalist Manager 11/12 the obvious question is whether Value Diversity at Advanced level is sufficient alone as a focus capability for the role. 

The role of Manager has been evolving for several decades – moving away from an almost exclusive focus on outputs and related processes to greater responsibility for the work-related welfare of direct reports. The Manager role is increasingly acknowledged as requiring higher levels of Emotional Intelligence than previously allowed.

This is strongly evident in the fact that 3 of the 5 capability sets are person-centred.

The NSW PSC’s Age of Inclusion campaign’s manifesto envisions that “Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy.” This is an opportunity to interrogate the Capability Framework to see what capabilities might match this aspiration.

Valuing Diversity is important. But is it sufficient, standing alone? Would including other Personal Attributes capabilities move the recruit and select process in the direction of favouring self-aware and empathic managers?

Below are two capabilities from the Personal Attributes set which could be added as focus capabilities and strengthen a requirement for greater self-awareness and empathy. Key behavioural indicators are in red.

Act with Integrity at an Advanced level:

  • Model the highest standards of ethical behaviour and reinforce them in others. 
  • Represent the organisation in an honest, ethical and professional way and set an example for others to follow.
  • Ensure that others have a working understanding of the legislation and policy framework within which they operate. 
  • Promote a culture of integrity and professionalism within the organisation and in dealings external to government. 
  • Monitor ethical practices, standards and systems and reinforce their use. 
  • Act on reported breaches of rules, policies and guidelines. 

The Manage Self capability is at Adept level in the Generalist Manager 11/12 Role Description. However, the Advanced level behaviours would be a stronger reflection of the aspiration for self-awareness and empathy.

Manage Self at an Adept level:

  • Look for and take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills and develop strengths. 
  • Show commitment to achieving challenging goals.
  • Examine and reflect on own performance. 
  • Seek and respond positively to constructive feedback and guidance. 
  • Demonstrate a high level of personal motivation. 

Manage Self at an Advanced level:

  • Act as a professional role model for colleagues, set high personal goals and take pride in their achievement.
  • Actively seek, reflect and act on feedback on own performance. 
  • Translate negative feedback into an opportunity to improve. 
  • Maintain a high level of personal motivation. 
  • Take the initiative and act in a decisive way. 


A reflection on how the role of Manager is evolving is an opportunity to revisit the type of focus capabilities in Role Descriptions to place a stronger emphasis on Personal Attributes.

No set of capabilities neatly identify the attributes of self-awareness and empathy. By placing a greater emphasis on Personal Attributes by expanding the focus capabilities, it is possible to fine tune organisational expectations of leadership roles.

It’s Not Okay

What would you think, if a manager was physically assaulting a staff member? Would it be okay to do nothing? Of course not.

Would you think, if that staff member had to take leave to recover from their injuries, that the manager should not be held to account for their conduct? Of course not.

Yet this exactly what staff with disability experience when they are refused the attention to their needs that they are entitled to. The assault is not physical, however. It is emotional. But the consequences are no less catastrophic upon the staff member’s wellbeing. In fact, the emotional harm done endures far longer than physical. For people who have been physically assaulted the emotional trauma of the assault remains long after the body has healed.

Post Traumatic Stress is a real consideration

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is experienced long after the conflict zone has been exited. For a long time, PTSD has focused on a threat to physical being only. We now recognise Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), which “relates to the trauma model of mental disorders and is associated with chronic sexual, psychological, and physical abuse or neglect, chronic intimate partner violence, victims of prolonged workplace or school bullying”.


Prolonged workplace bullying can manifest in many ways – including the failure or refusal to provide assistance or an adjustment while insisting that the staff member with disability is being supported.

Disability can be traumatic

Staff with disability who need a workplace adjustment to enable them to do their best work are not asking for favours. They are asking for something they are entitled to have and which their agency is obliged to provide.

Living with a disability can include living with PTSD or C-PTSD because the psychological impacts of significant disability are rarely acknowledged or understood. This is especially so for acquired disability or chronic degenerative conditions.

To be ignored or refused or treated dismissively and without empathy can add, sometimes critically, to the stress burden a person with disability already experiences.

When managers do not act appropriately

Staff with disability report that the most common problem they encounter is unresponsive line management, and when they seek to address that problem, several things commonly happen:

  • The line manager becomes even more unresponsive.
  • Executives back the line manager; or refuse to intervene.
  • The staff member feels blamed for ‘causing’ the problem – and sometimes they feel that they are being punished – especially if they complain.
  • Their workplace adjustment matter remains unresolved.

Catastrophic consequences for staff with disability

Here are some consequences experienced by staff members with disabilities after being subject to abusive conduct by line managers:

  • Ongoing physical pain and stress because their adjustment need has not been addressed – leading to reduced performance – and then a performance review
  • Feeling they are not valued or respected – or treated with dignity or respect
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Workers Compensation leave for psychological injury – not infrequently having to return to the same abusive environment
  • Traumatic memories and reactions associated with a workplace setting or senior staff seen as ‘perpetrators’ of abuse
  • Having a reputation for being a ‘troublemaker’
  • Fear of being ‘managed out’
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Resignation in despair

This is still going on. Why do we think it is okay?

There are no processes to ensure that:

  • A staff member with disability can obtain swift and effective support to ensure their entitlement to a workplace adjustment is respected and acted upon.
  • Line managers and their executive managers who refuse or fail to support a workplace adjustment request are held to account and effectively assisted to change their attitudes and behaviours.

What staff with disability experience is assault

A refusal or failure to exercise proper responsibility and power on behalf of an agency to support the welfare of a staff member is unacceptable.

It is also a form of assault – because it causes harm. Emotional or psychological injury is mostly seen as the aftermath of a real (physical) assault. In fact, it is the immediate and direct consequence of an assault upon a person’s psychological wellbeing (their sense of dignity, sense of self-worth, sense of personal power and their expectation of inclusion as an equal).

Psychological assault is as serious as physical assault. An agency’s obligation to act to stop or prevent it is no different. An agency’s responsibility toward the ‘victim’ is no different. 

An agency’s response to the perpetrators of psychological assault is a measure of the degree to which it tolerates or condones abuse of power by its leaders. If it did not tolerate or condone such conduct it would have a mechanism in place to prevent and address it now.

It is not okay not to act.

Recruitment Versus Retention: Disability employment and the confusion of priorities.


The NSW government has made an admirable commitment through its Premier’s Priorities to increase the proportion of staff with disability across the NSW Public Sector.

The goal is to hit 5.6% by 2025. It has been acknowledged that this is not going to happen at present recruitment rates.

I think the reality is that the actual level of employment of people with disability already exceeds this, and that what is happening now is wrongheaded and misdirected.

There is a focus on recruitment, and not retention. Recruitment is an easier matter to tackle, but it will not be enough. I am not opposed to making recruitment of people with disability more inclusive. That must happen. It’s just not the epicentre of the problem – which is retention.

Retention is a complex issue because it is primarily about cultural change. Unlike reforming talent acquisition processes, cultural change is difficult and requires sustained and focused effort over a long time.

Realities of the retention challenge

I am now a former public servant with an acquired disability who took a voluntary redundancy at retirement age. This was not an intent to retire. I calculated my self-interest, and this was the best option. Disability played a part, of course. Levels of disability increase with age and as we get to retirement age, we are more likely to have a disability. So, retirement will see more people with disability exiting the workforce. Retention of older workers is more complex matter, so I want to remove it from consideration in this context and focus more problematic retention issues that are disability specific.

I was the Chair of an active Disability Employee Network (DEN) for over 3 years, during which time I stepped away from recruitment to focus on retention. My concern was to ‘get our own house in order first’. I was dealing with a steady flow of distressed and frustrated staff with disability who would have quit, were it economically feasible to do so. Their concerns often had to do with how they were treated when they sought workplace adjustments.

I saw things improve very markedly over my term as DEN Chair. But concerns persisted, and instances of staff with disability being subjected to what can only be called abuse continued, albeit at a lower level.

My biggest concern is that managers are unaware of their responsibilities toward staff with disability, and lack the necessary self-awareness and empathy needed to handle matters raised in the most appropriate manner. 

Abusive conduct varies in the severity of impact and ranges from inadvertent to pathological – the latter extreme being mercifully uncommon, but not non-existent.

Staff with disability range from being resilient to vulnerable, and their ability to represent their interests effectively and independently varies. Conduct does not have to be extreme to be abusive. It can be unintentional and seemingly mild and still have a harmful impact.

This is not to suggest that a manger should walk as if on eggshells. Rather that their conduct reflects sufficient self-awareness, empathy and compassion so at least they can be approached with confidence when the need arises.

In the absence of such confidence an assured alternative must exist, along with an organisational will to act. While that will is genuinely expressed at senior leadership level, it is not enacted lower in the chain of responsibility – to a worrying degree.

Line mangers and their managers are the pivot point in retention of staff, regardless of whether they have a disability. They are the pivot point for performance as well. In this respect staff with disability are a bellwether – if an organisation can’t retain staff with disability, it has no idea how much other talent is fleeing poor management as well.

The secret to the retention of staff with disability

Workplaces in general seemed to be filled with goodwill, and a genuine organisational commitment to inclusion and accessibility will deliver desired success. There really isn’t a ‘secret sauce’ needed – openness, empathy and compassion will do wonders on their own. But, an organisation may need to give permission for goodwill to be activated – and be generous in funding adaptations that may be necessary to ensure accessibility (in terms of funds and how those funds are accessed). Such generosity is not about recklessness, but timeliness, efficacy and the spirit in which actions are undertaken.

That leaves the problem areas – where unkind managers can and will cause grief, injury, and eventual departure. An honest audit of an organisation’s business areas to evaluate manager attitudes and impact on staff must be a key part of getting one’s house in order.

Fixing problem areas will take time. If staff with disability work in those areas, it is important to know whether there are discrimination and work health and safety issues festering out of sight of senior responsible leaders.

The real challenge

In the NSW the PMES results show a consistently high level of Prefer Not To Say (PNTS) responses on the question of whether the participant has a disability. This may include people who are unsure whether they have a disability, as well as others who do not feel safe, even in the survey, to say they do. Across the sector, PNTS rates ranged from 20% to over 60% higher than rates disability in 2020.

Whether motivated by uncertainty or fear, the problem with being open comes down to a willingness to trust one’s supervisor/team leader/manager with personal information that might expose a vulnerability.

A vulnerability is always a risk factor if the response is unknown. If the response is expected to be adverse, a vulnerability will be concealed until talking about it becomes the least worst option. By then usually the preventable harm has been done.

Some managers will express surprise that a staff member lacks the confidence in them to raise a sensitive personal matter. That surprise may be genuine, but it reflects a problematic lack of self-awareness. 

For an organisation the challenge must be to achieve two critical objectives in ensuring managers are not the source of inadvertent or intentional harm:

  • There is uniform awareness of legislation and policies concerning staff with disability – and there is a related effective mechanism to ensure accountability and correction in the event of a failure to comply with either.
  • Managers possess sufficient self-awareness (and empathy) to allow a staff member to approach them on a matter related to disability. Failing that, staff members have an assured point of contact that the manager is aware of.

In conclusion

Retention depends upon two factors – an inclusive and accessible workplace experience, and managers who are sensitive to, and supportive of, the needs of staff with disability. The first is a relatively easy fix. The second is not – and it is more often glossed over because of success with the first.

The secret to enduring retention of staff with disability is having managers who possess the spirit and skills to respond to disability issues in an empathic and compassionate way.

There is abundant research on teams indicating that leadership is the vital element in retaining staff and hitting peak performance. Diverse teams are acknowledged as being more productive. The array of leadership skills must include self-awareness and compassion – two things that are neither sufficiently acknowledged nor selected for.

The attributes of managers impact all staff. Indeed, this is central to an organisation’s culture – and its reputation. The sensitivities exhibited at the recruitment phase of a relationship with an organisation are meaningless unless they are mirrored in decision-making and leadership roles throughout the organisation.

What is true for all staff is true for people with disability. Getting one’s house in order for disability benefits everybody. The best will come and will stay.

Many Disability Champions are Necessary

Normally an organisation has one Disability Champion – usually a senior executive. That’s okay if you are content that change will take place at a leisurely pace. But why would that be so?

In 2018 I attended the Australian Network on Disability (AND) National Conference in Sydney. The keynote speaker was Kate Nash, CEO of PurpleSpace, a UK based organisation dedicated to the establishment and support of Disability Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). At that time, I had been Chair of a Disability Employee Network (DEN) for 18 months.

Kate’s message shocked me. I had been a member of the DEN for over 6 years, and I had become accustomed to a slow process of change – not quite glacially slow, but not too far off that. 

Kate helped me see that making changes to ensure that staff with disability were included and afforded equal access to what they needed to give their best work should have a sense of urgency about it. An injustice should be remedied promptly, surely. It was okay to be impatient and to want to push an organisation into action. 

The legislation and policies that require and support disability inclusion and equal access don’t have a clause that adds “when you can get around to it.” And yet we would be forgiven for believing otherwise at times.

I am not naïve. I know that organisations have time and resource constraints – and changes do take time. But addressing the inequities experienced by staff with disability won’t happen unless there are people acting on an imperative that responds to legal and moral implications. Further, addressing such an imperative is either part of core business, or an optional extra. It can’t switch between either. And its certainly not an optional extra.

Early on I argued that responding to the needs of staff with disability should be a sub-category of work health and safety. That was not a popular notion. My logic was straightforward and simple. Staff with disability frequently experienced physical and psychological injury when refused workplace adjustments – or when requests were slow-walked through a needlessly elaborate process. Exclusion and discrimination cause harm – and remediating action should be prompt.

After Kate Nash’s wake-up call I got moving. I was blessed with the support of a truly exceptional Disability Champion, and she made me understand how potent a serious Disability Champion could be. 

In a presentation to my Board in February 2019 I observed that all executives had at least an implicit responsibility to ensure staff with disability were included and the means to do their work were accessible. The Board agreed. 

But why put the burden of ensuring this happened upon the shoulders of just one of their own? If one Disability Champion was a good idea why not enlist those senior leaders who acknowledged their implicit duty and are happy to make it explicit? I set what I thought was the bold objective of recruiting 30 additional Disability Champions in the ten months to the end of 2019. By 31 December 2019 I had doubled that number.

To be honest, not everyone who signed up walked the walk. But most did. A subsequent outstanding Executive DEN Champion helped immensely by developing an internal Disability Champions’ Network. But this faltered when he moved on. The potential had been demonstrated and the benefit had been proven. Running a Champions’ Network is not for everyone. But nothing should be stopping a community of Disability Champions from sharing the workload.

I stepped down from the DEN Chair role in March 2020, scarcely more than 12 months from that initial Board presentation. That presentation was a trigger point for a series of events that led to cascading change in attitudes – led by senior leaders. 

I have no doubt that the recruitment of multiple Disability Champions was a key factor. Senior leaders became more visible supporters. They began to attend the quarterly formal DEN meetings – because they were sent invites as Disability Champions. They were exposed to the discourse the DEN was developing.

This was a good beginning.

I am no longer employed in that organisation. I have had time to look back. I am content with what I achieved – but I barely tapped the potential to generate powerful change through an active network of Disability Champions.

As the DEN Chair I had a duty to convey the impatience of members for change that was their right to demand, and the organisation’s duty to deliver. I didn’t believe I was honouring my obligation if I was not being a ‘pain in the neck’ to the senior leadership. But I was always positive and civil. The leadership knew the problem – even with the best will, change is stubbornly slow moving.

We needed to create more points of action. Sixty Disability Champions can generate more change than one. That’s not a surprise. The amount of effort required to feed incentive to 60 or 120 or 240 Disability Champions is not that much. But it must be organised and focused – and in these days when time and resources are at a premium it can be hard to pull that energy together. It takes just a handful of Disability Champions to decide to make it happen.

The return on investment is subtle, but it is spectacular. It is not a thing in isolation, but a co-creative partnership with the DEN – and the many staff with good will across the organisation.

When I got seriously into promoting the DEN, I started to discover something I had never thought about, but which I knew intimately. I returned to work in late September 2019 after 18 months absence (10 in hospital and 8 at home doing physio) and walked into an embrace of boundless good will. I had some hard experiences with a few managers, but nobody else. This is a resource that underpins the fundamental decency of almost every organisation.

In healthy workplaces, staff look to leaders for clues about how to behave – often seeking no more than permission, or confirmation it is okay, to act with compassion and empathy. That’s most workplaces these days.

It will become apparent where the problem workplaces are – and here Disability Champions may need to address attitudes and values out of harmony with organisation’s values. But where there are problems for staff with disability you can be assured everyone is impacted to some degree.

Multiple Disability Champions who walk the walk are powerful engines for change. I’d like them all to be impatient, to know that its not okay that matters of justice, health and equity should be resolved more slowly than is reasonable. Some responses must be immediate. Disability Champions can make that happen. Other responses must take time – so long as things are happening, and the action request/demand not parked in a buried to do list. Disability Champions can get things moving and keep them moving.

A serious commitment to change cannot fall on the shoulders of a single Disability Champion. The burden of responsibility is too great. So too is the effort required to honour any commitment given by the organisation.

A Disability Champion is a personal affirmation of compassion and empathy. The legal and moral obligations are present regardless. It is the personal commitment of a leader in acknowledging the personal experience of a staff member with disability that makes the difference.