This tech firm is breaking down stigma around ‘secret’ disabilities

Among other things, the past year has led employers to accelerate programs that respond to employee needs holistically–but it’s essential that all employees feel that support, says one HR leader with first-hand experience.

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According to Steve Pace, head of HR at Forward Networks, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that develops enterprise software for network management, one daunting complication of protecting all employees is the stigma of shame, anxiety and fear held by employees working with a “secret” hardship.

At Forward Networks, leaders view these disabilities as learning opportunities, Pace says, especially as a means to check biases. One employee with Parkinson’s Disease, Lisa Garvey, prompted the department to roll out training to expand the company’s pool of knowledge about disabilities in the workplace and has advanced internal conversations around diversity and inclusion to “ensure we’re being open and encouraging to all our employees for whatever challenges they’re experiencing,” he says.

Lisa Garvey

Pace adds that, while Forward Networks is being proactive about learning how to better support those with disabilities, he would encourage others in the tech industry to follow suit in supporting other dimensions of diversity and inclusion, particularly for Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) candidates and employees.

“I’d strongly suggest that HR professionals not shy away from supporting their employees, in whatever form that takes,” he says.

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Garvey, a Forward Networks marketing vice president, has been living with Parkinson’s for nearly a decade and recently went public about it. According to experts, while many people are familiar with the tremors and mobility challenges that come with the disease, they don’t always think about the small ways it can affect daily work-related activities: sitting at a desk, writing on a whiteboard, even typing.

Although Garvey’s friends and family knew about her diagnosis from the start and she has long been an advocate for the PD community, she revealed her situation to a broader audience on Facebook about eight years ago.

“At the time, I had expressed my concerns to my boss/CEO, essentially saying I was worried about being hired in the future if people knew my status,” Garvey explains. “His response was: ‘Lisa, your work stands on its own. If people don’t want to hire you because of this, you wouldn’t want to work there anyway.’ ”

A few months ago, she decided to reveal her condition on LinkedIn, just as she was about to undergo brain surgery to address her symptoms.

“I had come to the conclusion that there was a lot of overlap between my personal and professional networks, and the theory proved true: I received an outpouring of support on LinkedIn,” she says. “I’m really grateful for that.”

Steve Pace

Pace, who has known Garvey for more than 10 years and had worked with her previously, was aware of her condition when she joined Forward Networks.

“In fact, when I saw her resume came through for this position, I immediately flagged that we needed her on our team,” he says.

To help support her at Forward Networks, Pace has been working closely with Garvey to ensure that the company appropriately responds to her needs. Together, they’ve been pushing the company as a whole to create an environment that supports all the nontraditional needs of their staff.

“She is open about her situation, is the first to bring it up, and it has not slowed her down one bit,” he says. “In many ways, Lisa’s openness makes it much easier for us as an organization, because it helps us to help her. It also sets a positive example for other employees, who see our response as a good thing.”

Learn how employers are supporting diverse workforces at the free, virtual Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, May 11-13.

For her part, Garvey said she knows many professionals, especially early-onset patients, who are “in hiding” at work–people at all levels, from senior execs to individual contributors.

“One of the reasons I’m so vocal about my situation is to destigmatize Parkinson’s in the workplace,” she says, adding that she encourages employers to be cognizant that all employees are dealing with challenges outside of work, even those that are less obvious.

She even contributed a LinkedIn article called “Well, we all have something.”

“I believe that’s true,” she says. “Under the surface, you have no idea what people are dealing with … It could be a friend, a neighbor, a parent. It’s rare that everything is perfect.”

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected]