I have been playing with this idea for about a month, after finding out that movement toward the 2019 NSW Premier’s Priority target for employment of people with disability (5.6% by 2025) has been scarcely discernible. There was a +0.1% growth only because of a dip from 2.5% in 2019 to 2.4% in 2020 and back to 2.5% in 2021. That’s zero growth, really.
I was reminded of Martin Luther King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I want to substitute ‘Inclusion’ for ‘justice’ – they are the same thing in many respects. And then I wanted to see if we could reimagine the arc as much shorter than King imagined. Change still takes time, but I keep coming back to the Neuroleadership Institute’s assertion that change can happen in months, not years. Whether this change includes Disability Inclusion I am not sure. But the Institute does demonstrate that rapid behavioural change at an organisational level can be achieved if the task is approached in an intentional and strategic manner. So, maybe.
I see the ARC as the first steps in breaking down the challenge of increasing the proportion of people with disability employed in the NSW public sector.
- Attraction – Attracting people with disability to apply for roles, recruiting them and then having them record their disability on internal diversity records (you must bring them the whole way for an act of attraction to be successful).
- Retention – Retaining staff with disability who might otherwise quit because of inaccessible systems and physical work circumstances, or because of bullying and discrimination.
- Counting – Encouraging staff with disability to report their disability on internal diversity data records, and then using that data to make statements about how successful an organisation is in its efforts to be inclusive and safe for people with disability.
Each has a set of complexities associated with it. Each has an outcome for effort equation. And each has a strategic priority value. This wasn’t thought through in 2019 at all.
There was an immediate leap to recruitment as the primary focus. In 2019 the sector workforce stood at 407,999 and disability employment rate at 2.5% – 3.1% off target. That meant recruiting around 50 people with disability a week for the next 5 years. How doable was that?
Moving on Attraction was no doubt important. But the higher priority was to establish a baseline of actual numbers. In an effort versus reward calculation a focus on Counting would have provided the best value for effort. An effective campaign to encourage current staff to report their disability to the internal diversity recording mechanism would have increased the reportable number of staff with disability employed within the sector at a far higher rate, and for less effort, than any other action.
It was entirely possible that some agencies already exceeded the 5.6% target in fact, but not in terms of official records. The most important question to ask was “Are we there already?” Then it would be possible to know how much off the target an agency was, and hence, then, to think about how best to go about hitting the target.
Retention plays a vital role in ensuring that a workplace is accessible, inclusive, and psychologically safe. Resignation from public sector roles by people with disability because of bullying and discrimination is a leak that can and should be stopped. This is not just because it needlessly reduces the number of staff with disability employed, but because it is a clear issue of justice and fairness.
The response to the Premier’s Priority in 2019 was not strategic in any way. It produced the ineffectual Age of Inclusion campaign, and little else is apparent. There were some much needed improvements to recruitment practices in some agencies. But they were needed in any case.
In short, there has not been a sector-wide coordinated or strategic approach to hitting the 5.6% target.
The ARC must be seen like rainbow, but with 3 colours only, and with each colour having a spectrum of subtle tones. Nothing is simple and clear cut. No colour works alone. Let’s look at each a bit closer.
Letting people with disabilities know they are welcome in the public sector is important. Getting them to apply with confidence is the first step. Making the application process accessible is the next step, but one that is not always done well. This is despite some obvious accommodations being made.
An example is that while applicants are asked if they have a need for an adjustment during the recruitment process, they can only ask for what they know or anticipate. Overly complex questions and a very short question preview time prior to interview can be a surprise to a candidate with a cognitive or psychological disability and derail their performance at interview. It’s too late to ask for an adjustment at that stage.
Decision-making bias is a major concern. Unless recruitment panels are well-schooled in decision-making hygiene methods a candidate with a disability can be eliminated from consideration because of unconscious bias. Training in unconscious bias does not appear to work and can create an illusion that it is effective simply because an individual is aware of the idea. Being aware of bias isn’t the same as countering it.
Recruitment by untrained panel members is commonplace, and it is rare to find a skilled inclusion specialist being included on recruitment panels. This means that genuinely effective inclusive recruitment may be a hard goal to achieve without an ongoing investment interview skills development.
The NSW public sector workforce is made of a diverse array of roles, some of which have limited capacity to accommodate a range of disabilities. Some agencies may have little motive and few resources to undertake an audit of roles to assess which may suit people with an array of disabilities – and then recruit.
In the absence of such an audit, and a targeted commitment to employing people with disability, using recruitment to grow numbers as a primary strategy will fail. And if there is no assurance that recruiters and selection panels have the skills needed ensure recruitment processes are genuinely inclusive, and bias is kept in check, the level of success will remain low.
For equity reasons an effective Attraction methodology is essential. It may maintain an inflow of staff with disability, but it can’t be the main solution to the challenge of meeting the Premier’s Priority target.
Retaining staff with disability means addressing an array of physical, technological, and cultural issues. Failure to do so will have two main consequences:
- Staff with disability will exit for a variety of reasons concerning limitation of career prospects and discrimination and bullying
- Staff with disability will not comply with requests to complete diversity data survey accurately, or at all.
Retention concerns not only staff who enter the workforce with a disability, but those who acquire a disability while at work. Other than those acquired in the performance of duties, these can include disabilities arising from accident, illness, genetic predisposition, or ageing.
Meeting the physical needs of staff with disability – in terms of accessibility and ergonomics is an WHS requirement; but addressing accessibility issues may not always be possible in older buildings. There are limits that are imposed because of cost. Sensitivity around location is essential.
Addressing technological needs is more than responding to requests for accessible devices; and includes legacy software that maybe too expensive to replace. An example may be a core business application that is not accessible to a screen reader. There will be issues about recruiting a person who uses a screen reader; but is then unable to access key software – which limits roles that can be performed, and hence career progression may be blocked.
An essential element of retention is the workplace culture, and especially the leadership/management culture. If bullying is not effectively checked staff with disability may elect to quit; or be ‘managed out’. While the character and quality of the workplace culture involves everyone, it is the leadership culture that enables or disables its expression in creating inclusive and safe workplaces.
Retention is a complex area that is fundamental to getting to, and maintaining, the minimal level of representation of staff with disability on a sector-wide basis, as well as per agency. All agencies should have the 5.6% target, not just the sector as a whole.
This is the bedrock of the challenge. It is last only because Attraction and Retention must do their bit first. The first action of the sector, on the announcement of the Premier’s Priority target should have been, “Okay, we know the 2.5% is wrong, because that’s what the anonymous PMES tells us. Let’s figure out what the actual percentage of staff with disability is. How do we do that effectively?”
There is a ‘trust gap’ between the reported data and the actual data. Staff do not trust their HR teams to keep their data confidential. And they have never been persuaded there’s a benefit to taking a real risk. Removing the risk and selling the benefit is an essential first act.
It is true that some staff are unaware that their agency wants their diversity data. Others, who figure their disability has no impact on their ability to perform in their role may not think their disability is relevant. Still others elect to not identify as being a person with disability. There’s a lot to do to get the numbers up. Developing trust is the key.
A critical area to be addressed is mental health illness. Staff diagnosed with a mental illness are the most likely to fear revealing their condition. The stigma associated with such a diagnosis is keenly felt. This is a complex area, and the trust gap extends beyond HR to include managers, and sometimes colleagues. Mental illness is not the only invisible disability that is not discussed out of fear of discrimination and bullying, but it is assessed as the most common.
A culture of psychological safety is essential if a worthwhile count of staff with disability is to be made and used as a reliable guide to the constitution of an agency’s workforce.
Good numbers when they are counted, are an indication that Retention is working. When staff feel safe, they are happy to provide their data and happy to reward their agency by helping it show how well it is doing on disability employment – and inclusion more generally.
There are some complexities about defining what a disability is for the purpose of the count. This is necessary because wearing glasses can be a sign of a vision disability. At what point does an impairment become a disability? A more useful definition is needed.
The NSW Premier’s Priority for the employment of people with disability is a numbers game. It is an important game because the numbers translate into human beings and the purpose of the target is to find an expression of a fair representation of disability in the public sector workforce in a way that reflects the community it serves.
But because the numbers are signifiers of people, we must remember that the human reality is deeply complex and subtle. Attraction, Retention and Counting make the ARC that bends towards Inclusion. Without skilled intervention that ARC has a long bend, stretching way beyond 2025. We can make it way tighter and shorter, with knowledge, skill, and commitment.