Welcome to our October blog post. The topic this month is disclosure, one that is of significance for both autistic individuals and employers, yet one that can cause anxiety and confusion for everyone.
Blog post art provided by Meron Philo. To view more of Meron Philo’s artwork, visit https://www.meronphilo.com/.
The Why’s and How’s of Disclosure
By Marcia Scheiner, October 2022
When managing neurodivergent and autistic employees, knowing they have a disability (or just think differently) can be an advantage in providing them with what they need to be successful at work. The same is true when recruiting and interviewing these job candidates. One of the biggest obstacles for neurodivergent individuals in obtaining work is the interview process. According to a 2017 study conducted by Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation), 30% of the professional workforce reports having a disability, yet only 39% of those individuals have disclosed to their managers, 24% to their teams and 21% to human resources. As an employer, you can create an environment for potential candidates and existing employees to disclose, offering an appropriate and positive interview experience, along with a supportive workplace, where neurodivergent talent can demonstrate their skill sets and thrive.
Why Candidates/Employees Don’t Disclose
It is important to understand that disclosure is a personal decision to be made by each individual, and just as no two individuals on the autism spectrum are the same, the decision regarding disclosure will be different for everyone. As mentioned above, however, research shows that most job candidates and employees with a disability choose not to disclose. Why is that? Individuals without a disability will often assume it is due to a desire for privacy. However, that is not the case. The number one reason employees with disabilities do not disclose is the fear of stigma – manifesting in retaliation (or being fired), slower career progression, and less meaningful roles and/or assignments.
Yet the same 2017 study by Coqual found that “employees with disabilities who disclose to most people they interact with are more than twice as likely to feel regularly happy or content at work than employees with disabilities who have not disclosed to anyone (65% versus 27%). They are also less likely to regularly feel nervous or anxious (18% versus 40%) or isolated (8% versus 37%).” Not only does disclosure have benefits for the individual, but it also benefits employers. As an employer, you cannot accommodate what you do not know. If an employee is struggling due to challenges related to their disability, you may not be able to help them be successful without understanding the root cause of their struggles. Providing a supportive environment for employees with disabilities to disclose also has the benefits of making you an employer of choice for the disability community and increasing employee engagement among all existing employees.
Creating a Supportive Environment for Disclosure
Most employers know (and if they don’t, should) that it is illegal to ask directly if a job applicant or an employee has a disability. Many employers do have a question on their job application where a candidate can choose to disclose that they have a disability as a result of the US Dept. of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance requirement for federal contractors to give applicants the opportunity to disclose. Unfortunately, the yes or no nature of this disclosure does little to inform interviewers and managers about how to support job applicants and employees with disabilities.
There are several steps employers can take that will make applicants and existing employees more comfortable disclosing.
- Ask all candidates what they might want: The process of interviewing and starting a new job can be intimidating, whether someone has a disability or not. Ask all candidates, prior to their scheduled interview or when starting a new job, if there is any information they want to have shared with their interviewers/manager and/or any accommodations they would like to request.
- Leverage your website: On your company’s website, feature a landing page expressly for individuals with disabilities. Provide concrete information on your organization’s practices and policies for jobseekers and employees seeking accommodations. If you have specific programs supporting employees with disabilities (i.e.: an Autism@Work program), highlight those programs, as well as Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s) or Business Resource Groups (BRG’s) for employees with an interest in disabilities. Provide information on how to contact these programs/groups.
- Training: Creating an environment in your workplace where employees with disabilities want to disclose is dependent on having interviewers and managers who are educated in this space. Train human resource staff, managers, and colleagues about disability, creating a depth of understanding of the varying needs of individuals with different types of disabilities. For example, train about the unique skill sets of autistic individuals and some of the behavioral differences they may exhibit in the workplace. This can reassure employees that their different learning or presentation style will not be misunderstood by co-workers and supervisors.
- Avenues for disclosure: Create multiple channels within your company for individuals to disclose (i.e.: employee assistance programs, HR, direct manager, intranet portal, etc.).
- Mentoring programs: Develop mentoring programs for employees that pair experienced employees with newer employees, including those who identify with a similar disability.
- Publicize your support for inclusion: If you have specific programs supporting employees with disabilities, your website shouldn’t be the only place you highlight these programs. Let the market know about these efforts through professional associations, trade organizations, job fairs, business publications, any place jobseekers may be looking for career opportunities. Set up social media sites targeted to disability audiences that share your organization’s values and vision for an inclusive workplace and a link to your Careers site.
Disclosure benefits both individuals and employers. There are significant opportunities to create a more supportive environment for individuals with disabilities, making them more comfortable disclosing in the workplace. Employers can drive this improvement by developing customized programs to support employees with disabilities and training their staff to understand the various needs of candidates and colleagues with disabilities.
Your Next Steps
Does your organization have barriers to disclosure? Do you know what programs/training your employer offers in support of people with disabilities? Look into these questions and recommend actions that will make your organization a more conducive environment for people with disabilities to disclose.
Stay tuned for our November post when we focus on anxiety.