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 https://www.crnhq.org/