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.

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