The View from Someone Else’s Boots - Does Your Workplace Culture Encourage or Dissuade Proactive Disability Disclosure

A View from Someone Else's Boots

By: Edward Crenshaw, CEO DESTIN Enterprises, LLC.

Generally speaking, an organization's workplace culture is very distinctive and is often as unique as an individual thumbprint. An employer's workplace environment is most often defined by its commitment to diversity, flexibility policies, hiring practices, employee support programs and various other cultural nuances. Quality leadership, respectful interactions, adherence to EEO compliance measures, multi-cultural representation and inclusivity can also have a significant and tangible impact on an organizations overall workplace culture. It is often the methodologies in which these various issues are managed, maintained and enforced that can easily make the difference in employee attitudes, performance, social stigmas, compliance violations and attrition rates. These factors also play a valuable role in a person with a disability feeling 'comfortable' enough to disclose their disability status to employers.

Fear of officially disclosing one's disability status to a prospective or current employer is a prevalent and very stressful choice/challenge facing many transitioning veterans and people with disabilities. Because every employer workplace culture is indeed different, the subjectivity of someone's disability status possibly being greeted with various misconceptions, negativity, limitations and fear can easily cause apprehension for the employee and also possibly cloud the perspectives and judgment of co-workers, managers and hiring personnel. This issue is particularly prevalent when the hidden disability is related to mental-health conditions such as: depression, bi-polar disorders, anxiety-related challenges, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), etc. Poor disability aptitude by co-workers (perhaps based on ignorance or poor media influence) can perpetuate ideas that can easily fluctuate from employer liability, litigation and lack of productivity, to expensive accommodation cost and even the potential harm of co-workers or some other form of disruption within the workplace. On the other end of the continuum, neither would a person with a disability be totally appreciative of receiving special 'unearned' hiring or placement consideration and/or treatment regarding their status - unavailable to other employees without disabilities.

Many organizations now have very aggressive hiring goals towards returning veterans and people with disabilities. This focus is especially relevant during an era where people with disabilities are the largest minority group, represent the highest segment of the unemployed in the US and the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are returning from combat.

There are numerous disability hiring incentives such as: employer tax credits, Department of Labor related disability hiring initiatives, recently introduced legislation that mandates 7% disability hiring goals for federal contractors, Schedule A measures for federal agencies, along with other disability/veteran hiring programs offered by non-profit groups like Joining Forces, Think Beyond the Label and other veterans and disability advocacy organizations. While these disability hiring programs are positive and well-meaning, they should not be 100% centered on achieving the numbers alone. While organizations must document the number of disability applicants for jobs, they must also convince disability employees to disclose their disability status. This latter issue is generating mixed results.

To better understand what your organization can do to increase disability disclosure among people with hidden and physical disabilities, we recommend the following:

A. Maintain a positive media presence regarding people with disabilities
It is critically important for an organization to maintain good public relations with the disability and military veteran community. This includes supporting disability and veteran organizations, reducing negative media reports of disability or veteran-related class action lawsuits, USERRA and EEO compliance violations. It is important to maintain positive images of people with disabilities in all forms of advertising and social media including: annual reports, websites and other marketing materials. These actions help to enforce a "disability friendly," diverse and inclusive image of your organization that translates into people wanting to be employed with your firm, as well as disclose their individual disability-related challenge.

B. Actively promote (employee resource groups) ERGs, achieved and accomplished disability related diversity goals and highlight leadership representatives with various disabilities
When your organization actively places a high value for people with disabilities being supported and represented in all facets of employment, people with disabilities feel less threatened by the possibility of stigma, fear and misconceptions regarding disability potential. These proactive measures can add up to high disability/veteran disclosure ratios and raises the possibility of fair achievement potential with all candidates and employees.

C. Provide specific disability diversity training to all employees
It is important to create an atmosphere where all people feel valued and respected. Because no two organizations are exactly alike or share the same challenges, be sure to avoid 'off-the-shelf' generic training programs and opt for a more measured and customized approach. Avoid viewing diversity training as a 'check box' and offer continual learning programs that are directly tied to promotional opportunities and other incentives.

Create "no-tolerance" policies for actions that represent disrespectful treatment, inflexibility, poor etiquette and other issues that may lead to promoting fear or unfair treatment. Also create suggestion boxes throughout the organization and open door policies for people to communicate disability and diversity related grievances. Be responsive to these suggestions in a professional and timely manner.

D. Encourage proactive disclosure during the interview and on-boarding process
It is important to inform employees of their rights of opting to not disclose their disability status; however, you can also encourage each employee to optionally and willfully do so. Even more important, be sure to inform them of how that information will be valued and appropriately handled. Once a candidate or employee understands that the disclosure will in no way negatively impact their employment or social status they will be more comfortable and affable to formally express their individual challenges. Be sure to discuss the organizations internal support programs, along your willingness and efficiency in providing accommodations for all reasonable request, as well as other disability measures implemented for diverse customers and suppliers such as wide restroom doors, Braille light switch covers and sign language interpreters.

These actions by employers may measurably increase disclosure and can make the difference with employee candidates and active employees.

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Ed Crenshaw is a US Navy veteran, diversity practitioner, disability subject matter expert and creator of the innovative “Preparing Employers to Reintegrate Combat Exposed Veterans with Disabilities” (P.E.R.C.E.V.D.) diversity training program. He is also the author of the books, “The P.E.R.C.E.V.D. Principles” and “The Employers Guide to Understanding Hidden Conditions Related to Suicide.” As a well-renown professional speaker, Ed is a passionate champion and respected advocate for people with disabilities.