Giving Disabled Workers a Chance to Succeed

Cisco LifeChanger leverages technology to give workers with disabilities a career path.
By: | September 6, 2018 • 9 min read

With a college degree in computer applications, Shek Mohammad Ali has worked for a number of nongovernmental organizations in Karnataka, India.

“My first job made my dream come true,” he says, explaining that, while serving as a technical instructor for people with disabilities, he was exposed to a professional environment and created effective teaching strategies to help participants develop computer and linguistic skills.

Ali has been blind since birth. In 2014, he began contracting as a service request administrator for global tech giant Cisco in Bangalore, India. Two years ago, he heard about a new program called Cisco LifeChanger, in which the company actively recruits skilled employees with disabilities through agencies, nonprofits and universities for all open company positions. Ali was “thrilled” at the prospect of landing a meaningful full-time job at Cisco that would challenge his abilities, grow his skills and expand his potential in a global work environment.

Ali enrolled in the pilot program in India in 2016. The following year, he was promoted to IT analyst, an experience he said “was the greatest milestone in my life,” and has since worked in the company’s Global IT Services eStore.

Since Cisco LifeChanger launched in 2015, the company has leveraged the power of technology to hire roughly 100 individuals with disabilities around the world, many of whom had experienced mobility challenges, hiring biases and other barriers to employment. So far, the program seems to be a big hit, especially since this talent population has demonstrated 2.2 times higher productivity than co-workers without disabilities and is helping the company build a talent pipeline across the full diversity spectrum.

According to the World Bank Group, approximately 1 billion people—or 15 percent of the world’s population—experience some form of disability. In the U.S., the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for Americans with a disability was 9.2 percent in 2017, more than twice that of those without a disability. Last year, 32 percent of workers with a disability were employed part-time, compared with 17 percent of those with no disability.

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The Cisco LifeChanger program, which was the brainchild of a vice president of sales at Cisco whose child was diagnosed with Down syndrome, uses the company’s voice, video and collaboration technologies to accelerate the hiring of people with disabilities. By doing so, it embeds disability inclusion into the organization’s culture and targets an untapped labor market to fill its talent pipeline at a time when skilled workers are in demand.

“These individuals are educated, motivated and want to participate [in the world of work],” says Shari Slate, vice president and chief inclusion officer at Cisco in Santa Clara, Calif. “This is an opportunity to connect them into a career.”

Hard-Core Lessons

The program was piloted in different regions around the world, including the company’s Technical Assistance Center in Bangalore, for one year. Roughly 30 positions were tested, says Slate, pointing to jobs that included employee services and others in its Advanced Services division. Slate says the idea was to offer positions with career paths and make the program an integral part of the company’s global practices and policies.

This strategy required close partnering between talent-acquisition and company business leaders to identify positions that would be a fit for the program. Although many candidates had the right mix of character traits for these jobs, some lacked key technical abilities; to confront that challenge, they participated in the six-month Cisco LifeChanger Talent Incubation Program, which involved technical skills building and certification as Cisco Certified Network Associates. Many of the participants had never worked in a corporate setting, so the program also focused on the development of soft skills, with relationship-building opportunities and unconscious-bias training.

Once hired, individuals were provided access to Cisco’s integrated voice, video, conferencing and collaboration technology to maximize their job success. If needed, third-party-accessibility software was also integrated into the platform. Then the participants were paired with mentors from the company’s Connected Disabilities Awareness Network. Slate says this employee-resource group also partnered with managers to ensure a higher understanding of workers’ needs and their desired opportunities.

Among key questions, adds Slate, was what did managers need to do differently when coaching, facilitating and engaging employees with disabilities? Surprisingly, there was little, if any, difference from how they interact with employees without disabilities. She says effective management practices that inspire talent are the same for all workers.

In 2016, the company benchmarked the India pilot. When compared with their co-workers without disabilities, productivity among program participants was 120 percent higher. They also had lower turnover and error rates than their counterparts in similar roles. Staff with disabilities closed 85 percent of TAC service requests in the same period versus the traditional TAC baseline of 60 percent.

“We had this incredible richness and perspective on the amazing outcomes and value that LifeChanger could bring to the company when we were able to employ all talent,” says Slate. “[Organizations should] ensure that people of all physical and cognitive abilities have the opportunity to have not just a job but a career in each of our companies. It’s our responsibility to make that happen and drive the partnership across our organization to ensure the structure, technology and partnership is in place.”

Behind the Scenes

When creating a program like Cisco LifeChanger, HR must ask a myriad of questions, says Leslie Wilson, vice president of workplace initiatives at the US Business Leadership Network in Alexandria, Va., which promotes disability inclusion in the workplace.

For example, how accessible is your company’s career portal to those with vision impairment? Are they able to use screen-reader software? Will it be compatible with your technology? What other types of digital technology can they access?

“[HR] has to think about this before moving in this direction because they don’t want to be embarrassed and say, ‘Oops, we’ve hired you but can’t make these software programs accessible,’ ” Wilson says.

Then, HR leaders need to drill down: What skills are really needed to perform the job? Does everyone need great communication skills or good eye contact? “That’s ridiculous,” she says, adding that recruiters may need to flex the interview process to accommodate those who aren’t typical interviewees but who can still perform the essential job functions. Otherwise, she believes recruiters or hiring managers will pass up great talent.

“If you’re hiring computer programmers to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day, what difference does it make if they have great communications skills?” she says. “Those things are really not all that important in the workplace today.”

Kris Foss, Managing Director at Disability Solutions

Wilson says some companies support talent-acquisition champions who are experts on recruiting and interviewing people with disabilities. Although not everyone is comfortable interacting with the disabled, HR can reduce their anxiety. For example, she points to one employer that introduced sign-language classes for employees after hiring individuals who were deaf or hard of hearing.

Comfort Level

A wave of new technologies is helping disabled employees perform a wide range of job tasks that many take for granted.

Microsoft Word 360 features a text-to-speech app, “ReadAloud,” which can literally read aloud web pages, news items, documents, e-books or custom content. Aira recently launched smart glasses that give trained agents a visual of what blind individuals can’t see in real time, and enable the agents to talk them through various work and home situations, such as navigating to a meeting or reading a restaurant menu.

Since technology for disabled workers is catching up with the demand, hiring people with disabilities shouldn’t really be a big jump for companies, says Kris Foss, managing director at Disability Solutions, a national consulting practice of Ability Beyond in Bethel, Conn.

But helping employees feel more comfortable working with people with disabilities and dispelling the myths surrounding them may be a bigger issue. Many companies still believe they need to make significant technology investments to support the workers, which most of the time isn’t true, she says.

Foss explains that companies considering recruiting workers with disabilities need to create a platform for managers to express their concerns so they can be addressed before such programs are launched.

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“Don’t overlook your need to talk with managers,” she says, adding that managers should be aware of both the value and potential challenges of hiring employees with disabilities. “Do some training around the wide range of disabilities out there and the corresponding wide range of abilities and experiences and professional level that comes with that.”

Among the best ways to relieve executive and manager anxiety is to show how workers with disabilities can produce a return on investment, says John Sullivan, professor of human resources at San Francisco State University and a global HR adviser in San Francisco.

Sullivan explains that HR needs to demonstrate how employees with disabilities can help build the company’s brand, often stay longer and, as proven by multiple studies, are more productive.

Particular attention needs to be paid to hiring employees with disabilities for remote work; without company policies, training or HR guidance, managers don’t know how to interact with them, causing some to feel isolated, not part of the team and disengaged.

Managers must stay in touch by scheduling weekly meetings, asking employees what additional tools they may need to perform their job and ensuring that more than one IT employee is familiar with the technology being used, says Foss. Help-desk calls from workers with disabilities also need to be assigned a higher priority to avoid their “office” being down for the day.

“If you want to hire more remote disabled people, make sure managers understand the benefits that apply to them,” says Sullivan. “Unless you show them the business case, they’ll do very little.”

If managers are resisting and would prefer instead to “watch” new hires instead of supervising them remotely, hire workers with disabilities for project or contract work.

“This way, some managers won’t feel they’re being handcuffed,” says Sullivan, adding that many also believe innovation suffers if remote workers can’t easily share their ideas with co-workers.

People with disabilities can successfully work in many on-site or remote jobs, Foss adds. Consider positions involving customer service, phone sales, IT, social media and data analytics, to name just a few.

Keep in mind that, as your workforce ages, older employees may develop some type of disability and could also benefit from programs designed for people with disabilities.

“As longtime employees, there’s a very good chance they’ll age into some type of disability,” Foss says. “Companies are looking for ways to keep their institutional knowledge and keep their talent on the job longer. Being able to support them remotely by having these tools in place … [can] keep top performers on the job longer as they age.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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