Why social enterprises should employ disabled people

Disabled staff are as productive as their non-disabled colleagues and have less time off sick, says Evenbreak’s Jane Hatton.

At the heart of any social enterprise is the desire to contribute social value. Having only started my first social enterprise less than a year ago, I am quite new to the concept, and have loved finding out about the diversity of ways that social enterprises make a real difference in society and in people’s lives.

Social enterprises can make the world a better, fairer and more sustainable place, not just through the social aims of the enterprise itself, but also in the way they actually deliver their services or products. All social enterprises, whatever their particular niche, will be concerned that their business is run ethically, with values such as being environmentally friendly and employing a diverse range of people.

My particular passion is based around employing disabled people. Of course, there are many sound business reasons for doing so, apart from the ethics involved. Disabled employees are, on average, at least as productive as our non-disabled colleagues. We have less time off sick, have fewer workplace accidents and tend to stay in our jobs longer. So if you want loyal, productive staff who save you money in terms of retention, you need to be attracting disabled staff. Also, there are more than 11 million disabled people in the UK – that’s a lot of consumers. In fact, we spend somewhere between £50m and £80m a year between us. Having inside knowledge of this market has to be beneficial to any enterprise’s bottom line.

The challenge is persuading the corporate world of these measurable, tangible benefits. Myths still abound about disabled people being expensive to employ. This is rarely true. Most need no adaptations at all, those that do cost little or no money (eg flexible working patterns) and in most cases, reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of a disabled employee will be covered by Access to Work.

For social enterprises, it’s a no-brainer. Not only will employing disabled people help us gain all of the benefits outlined earlier, it also contributes to promoting this good practice. Disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people – and, contrary to the stories in the popular press, this isn’t because we are all lazy benefit scroungers. The difference people find when they send in a “straight”, CV compared to when they declare a disability is quite significant. This level of prejudice is damaging to disabled applicants, but also damaging to employers, who may be missing out on the best talent.

Most social enterprises that I have spoken to understand all this, and are keen to attract a diverse range of applicants when they advertise vacancies. They wish to reap all the business benefits of employing disabled people, and also recognise the social benefits of doing so. Being employed is important to disabled people, not just for the income, but also in terms of feeling valued, doing something useful, having a sense of dignity, worth and independence.

The challenge is in attracting disabled candidates. Many are mistrustful of employers, having vast experience of being discarded the minute they declare a disability. But there are many ways of making a social enterprise attractive to a disabled applicant.

Obviously, already having a visibly diverse workforce (at all levels in the organisation, not just the low-paid, low-status jobs) will demonstrate that diversity is genuinely valued. If that is still an aspiration rather than a reality, then it’s important to look at how to word adverts and where to place them.

Making it clear that people will only be appointed on merit is helpful, as is explicitly being open to look at reasonable adjustments to accommodate the right person. There are many media channels to use, and the more the merrier, although most social enterprises need to be mindful of the costs involved. There are a number of specialist journals and job sites for disabled people to consider. Typically, organisations receive a much higher number of disabled applicants from these sources than by using mainstream channels alone.

My guess is that, to some extent, I’m preaching to the converted, as my experience tells me that social enterprises instinctively understand all of the moral, social, ethical and concrete business cases for employing a diverse range of people, including people with a wide range of disabilities.

Our challenge is to lead by example, in promoting the reality that employing disabled people is just as beneficial for the employer as it is for the employee, and is anything but an act of charity. I’d be interested to hear how you are already meeting this challenge, so we can share good practice and learn from each other.

Jane Hatton is director of Evenbreak, a new social enterprise and the only not-for-profit specialist job board run by disabled people for disabled people in the UK.

Source: socialenterprise.guardian.co.uk