Law in practice: disability

The demand for talent is demonstrating that diversity is a key ‘bottom line’ business issue. With competition for the best people increasing, human ressources (HR) must ensure that nobody feels excluded and that all barriers to employment are removed.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was introduced to make sure employers don’t overlook talented staff simply because they have a disability. It has since been expanded to provide users of services with the same protection.

John Last, global head of diversity at RBS, feels it is now an important business issue. “If you are not getting the best people for the job, that will have a huge impact on the bottom line. This is all about making an investment to get the best people,” he says.

RBS is one of the largest financial services companies in the world, with more than 140,000 staff worldwide.

Ignorance is not bliss

Last says the needs of disabled people are too great to ignore as potential employees and customers. The organisation estimates there are 6.9 million disabled people of working age in the UK, with an overall purchasing power of more than £80bn.

“We really try to focus on the business case for diversity. Of course there is a moral case as well, but I think organisations need to focus on how they can get the best people for the job. This means attracting everybody regardless of disability and removing all barriers to employment,” he explains.

Disability is an area that RBS has made a core part of business thinking, so much so that the company’s code of conduct – distributed to every employee when they start work – spells out its commitment.

The message from the group’s chief executive and board champion for diversity Sir Fred Goodwin explains to new starters that the policy on disability is at the core of the business and goes beyond the legal requirements of the 35 countries in which it operates.

In recruitment, one of the first things the group introduced was a commitment to interview every disabled job applicant who meets the minimum standards of the vacancy. It also made a written commitment to ensure that staff who become disabled while they work at the company are given every chance to remain in post.

Last says very minor adjustments can often have a huge impact on disabled employees and help them into the workplace. He believes that the written commitment in both the formal diversity policy and the overall RBS annual report demonstrate to staff how inclusive the company aims to be.

“This isn’t about legal compliance, it’s about having a sound business plan and a strategic vision of how you want the company to look,” he says.

In 2004, 2005 and 2006 RBS invited a number of disabled employees to form disability forums and discuss their experiences of working in the group directly with the group chief executive.

Workplace adjustments

Throughout 2006 RBS conducted a major workplace adjustments review to look at how offices and the network of branches worked for disabled people. After a period of consultation, the company introduced measures including audio induction loops, automated opening and closing doors, disabled car parking bays, more use of handrails and improved lighting.

Training is also a key area. Every staff member attends the group diversity awareness programme which stresses the importance of complying not just with the letter of the law, but also with the spirit of the law.

More than 1,600 senior managers have attended ‘respect at work’ training since 2005, while all employees must complete two mandatory DDA sessions per year.

Because of the nature of the business, the training strategy focuses on how staff interact with disabled customers.

“All employees undergo regular DDA awareness training which includes best practices on dealing with customers with disabilities, as provided by the Employers’ Forum on Disability. This ensures employees have the confidence to deal with any issue a customer may have, but also that the needs of our disabled customers are taken into account,” Last says.

The measures are reviewed each year to see what has been achieved, where improvements can be made and how employees can be informed of any progress.

The work seems to have been worthwhile with more than 85% of staff agreeing that RBS provides a working environment that is accepting of employees with disabilities. The company has also won several awards including the O2 Ability Award and the 2006 Remploy Leading the Way Award.

Disability Discrimination Act

  • Under the DDA employers are required to make reasonable adjustments so that they do not discriminate against disabled candidates or customers. The rules also apply to staff who may become disabled during their employment.
  • Over the years the DDA has been significantly extended to give disabled employees more rights. Employers in the public sector are now legally required to actively promote equality of opportunity for disabled people.
  • The laws have also widened the range of disabilities covered and now include greater protection for staff with mental illnesses, cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis.

In five steps

  1. Don’t think of disability in isolation. Look at how the policy will impact on staff, customers and managers.
  2. Disability issues should be a major priority for the business – make it part of the overall business plan.
  3. Think about the business case for engaging with disabled staff. It could have huge benefits in terms of new ideas and customers.
  4. Encourage and highlight company ‘role models’ around disability.
  5. Create forums or channels where staff can feed back their thoughts on disability.

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