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Labor shortage? Consider this untapped pool of talent

Jonathan Bennett, head of employee benefits at The Hartford
Jonathan Bennett
Jonathan Bennett is head of Employee Benefits at The Hartford, a leading provider of employee benefits products and services, including leave management, group life and disability insurance, as well as other voluntary products.

Businesses across the country are facing a labor shortage. Employers are struggling not only to bring back many of the workers they let go earlier in the pandemic but also to retain their existing employees. Adding to this challenge, the “great resignation” is far from over—our research found that 37% of U.S. workers are likely to search for a new job in the next six months.

One way to address this labor shortage—while also addressing companies’ commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion—is to focus on hiring people with disabilities, who are disproportionately under-employed or unemployed. In August 2021, just 19.2% of people with disabilities were employed, compared to 63.9% of people without disabilities.

As employers across the U.S. consider the “new normal” of the American workplace, they have a historic opportunity to address the barriers that too often exclude people with disabilities from the workforce. In fact, new data from The Hartford shows that an inclusive workplace culture may help retain employees of all abilities. For the 63% of U.S. workers who do not plan to look for a job in the next six months, workplace culture is one of the top three factors encouraging them to remain in their current jobs.

Related: 3 ways to hire ‘hidden’ talent and boost your bottom line

Companies of any size, in any industry, can act today to build a workplace environment that is fully inclusive of people of all abilities. This is not only important for hiring but is essential for retention. An inclusive work environment is critical when supporting an employee’s return to work following a disabling injury or illness that occurred on or off the job. These actions will help employers both attract and retain a diversity of in-demand talent.

Step 1: Flexibility sets employees up for success

As a prerequisite, employers should be familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the civil rights law that broadly protects people with a wide range of disabilities from discrimination. Some managers may be surprised to learn how all-encompassing the ADA is. In fact, one in four U.S. adults has some kind of disability. It’s critical for employers to be aware of the full range of disabilities that employers play a role in supporting—including disabilities that may not be immediately visible to a coworker or manager.

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Helping to ensure that every employee has the tools they need to thrive in the workplace maximizes the productivity of your workforce. This comes down to flexibility and collaborating directly with employees to understand how they can be set up to perform their best.

Contrary to persistent stereotypes, disability inclusion doesn’t need to be costly or burdensome to the employer. Supporting employees with disabilities may be as simple as seating them closer to the restroom to allow for more frequent bathroom breaks or granting them flexibility in their schedule for therapy appointments.

Related: How COVID-19 will redefine workplace flexibility forever

If employers don’t do their part to meet the needs of their employees for flexibility, they may struggle to retain workers of all abilities. Of those U.S. workers who said they are likely to look for a new job in the next six months, 38% said their need for a more flexible schedule is motivating their search.

Step 2: Refocus the cultural mindset of your workplace from accommodation to inclusion 

Once an employer is prioritizing flexibility in their workplace arrangements, they can begin to shift the cultural mindset of their workplace from disability accommodation to the full inclusion of people with disabilities.

Educating the workforce about the broad range of disabilities, while helping managers and human resource professionals support employees with disabilities, helps break down the stigma that stands in the way of full inclusion. Employers can turn to trusted experts, such as the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and Disability:IN, for free educational resources and training for employees on their role in fostering an inclusive workplace.

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Companies should also champion internal employee resource groups (ERGs) to support employees with disabilities and further embed disability inclusion in the company culture. The Hartford’s own cross-enterprise Flex-Abilities Network ERG is an important partner in amplifying visibility around people with disabilities, educating employees about disability inclusion, and connecting employees with disabilities to professional development opportunities.

Step 3: Demonstrate disability inclusion internally and externally.

Finally, to bring new employees into the workplace, employers must ensure their internal culture of inclusion is fully embedded in their external-facing recruiting and hiring practices.

In their job postings and recruiting content, companies should prominently state the actions they take to support people of all abilities and should invite potential applicants to contact the company directly if they wish to discuss inclusion practices. When speaking with job candidates, recruiters should proactively re-state these values of inclusion.

Throughout my career in employee benefits and disability insurance, I’ve seen firsthand how the equal opportunity to work and be productive is foundational to leading a fulfilling life. Building an inclusive workplace that is flexible to the needs of people of all abilities is not just the right thing to do but also a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining employees.