At Business Disability Forum, we are often asked how can you tell if an organisation is inclusive. We believe that while monitoring disability data can be helpful, data on its own rarely paints a complete picture of an organisation’s approach to an inclusive workplace experience.

The statistics around disability employment may look ‘good’, but the everyday reality for disabled employees working at that organisation may be very different. We have heard of organisations where employees are almost forced to share information about their disability or long-term condition in order to ‘improve’ the statistics, for example.

In our view, it is the experiences of disabled people working at that organisation, which are often the biggest indicator of an inclusive workplace culture. Disabled employees will notice when their employer is taking tangible actions to create a better working environment and when they are simply paying lip service to inclusion. Research amongst managers by the CMI shows the perception to action gap which exists in workplaces around disability. While 81 per cent of respondents agreed that their organisation was inclusive of everyone, regardless of disability, only 34 per cent said their organisation had at least one disability initiative.

Disability Smart Awards

The annual Disability Smart Awards were created to show what disability inclusion looks like in practice. The awards are free to enter and organisations of any size and in any sector, are invited to enter the awards and to demonstrate the actions they have taken to improve the experiences of disabled people as employees and as customers.

The 2023 awards ceremony took place in April. Ten Disability Smart Awards were presented this year, including an award for inclusive workplace experience. The winner, Evenbreak, is a great example of an organisation which has put inclusion at the heart of everything it is and does.

Organisational wide inclusion

Evenbreak is the first specialist disability job board run by and for disabled people. It is currently the only such job board to work globally. The organisation advertises roles and helps disabled candidates to find work, so it is fair to say that Evenbreak knows a thing or two about inclusion. But the award it won was not for the services it offers to candidates and employers. Instead, it was for the approach it has taken to its own workplace practices.

Evenbreak has managed to build an inclusive workplace experience that is built around the individual needs of its employees. This begins with a person-centred approach to recruitment, which actively encourages potential employees to demonstrate their skills in any way they choose. Once in post, employees are able to request to work in a way that works best for them, from their location to annualised hours, which allow people to work more or less hours at certain times of the year if their disability or condition fluctuates. They are also provided with a holistic, individualised support package of coaching, counselling, mental health and well-being which enables them to grow, develop and thrive in the organisation.

Feedback from employees shows the difference that such an approach makes. One said: “When employers say they offer flexible working it often translates to flexible working that suits the employer and not the employee. That’s not the case at Evenbreak. We’re all encouraged to work in a way that works for us and our own needs. This truly flexible way of working really helps me manage my own disability needs.” Another employee said: “I feel comfortable in being able to approach senior management about concerns, without fear of being struck down due to the culture put in place.”

Post-COVID practices

BT Group and Charlotte Street Hotel, part of the Firmdale Group, were finalists in the same category.

BT Group was recognised for its proactive work to support employees with underlying health conditions and disabilities who were recovering from the impact of Long-COVID. It introduced a ‘2 Step Programme’ to address the individual impact of Covid with a holistic and individually tailored package of medical and rehabilitation support for individuals who have not been able to access the NHS Long-COVID program. This is a pragmatic approach which we had not seen elsewhere and which has had a significant and positive impact on the wellbeing of the employees who participated.

The judges recognised Charlotte Street Hotel for their proactive approach to recruiting disabled candidates and to creating an inclusive and welcoming workplace. Post-COVID, the hotel partnered with job centres across London with the aim of attracting people from all walks of life, including people with disabilities. They made it clear that they would make adjustments for anyone with disabilities. Through this process, they recruited members of staff who were Deaf and partially deaf. They trained relevant departments and adapted some of their procedures to ensure their new colleagues would have the tools to be successful at work. Team members learned sign language, opportunities were given to improve lipreading and foreign language interpreters were provided. Evacuation procedures were adapted using lighting and vibrations rather than sound to signal an emergency.

Person-centred approach

What we see from these examples is that there is not one way to create an inclusive workplace expereience but what all of these organisations have in common is that they have looked at the needs of individuals and have then taken practical steps to try and meet them. These organisations all have impressive metrics around the impact of their work but they also have evidence of the positive impact on individual lives to back up those statistics.

So, what learnings can we take from these examples for our own workplaces?

  1. Be ready to think differently about workplace inclusion and to try something new. If you use the usual approaches, you will get the usual outcomes, which may not result in a more inclusive workplace. Approaches need to be pragmatic and deliver tangible outcomes for individuals as well as the organisation as a whole.
  2. Put people at the centre of everything you do. A policy may look great on paper but does it really deliver positive change in practice? Involve disabled employees in your policy development. Ask what works for them and what does not. Use the opportunity to start a conversation – and to listen to what they tell you. Be ready to make changes and to keep learning and adapting.
  3. Get buy-in from as many people as possible. Unless you are a sole trader, you cannot create an inclusive workplace on your own. Involve different teams and managers in the planning and delivery process. Show how their roles impact on, and are central to creating an inclusive workplace experience. Seek their advice and ideas and give them clear actions to fulfil.
  4. Find a senior champion who will actively drive change. At BDF we see time and time again the importance of visible senior leadership in setting out “what matters round here” and role modelling inclusion. They may lack confidence in doing so initially, so provide the support and tools they need.
  5. Change your mindset so that when a colleague asks for something different, perhaps an adjustment in the shape of a piece of kit or a different working pattern, you ask yourself “why not?” rather than “why?”. It can be easy for managers to push back on requests and think that “everyone will want it”/you’ll be opening the floodgates/setting a precedent. The reality is that the vast majority of people will only ask for something they really need. Ultimately, this is about enabling everyone in your workforce to thrive.
Diane Lightfoot
Diane Lightfoot

Diane is responsible for representing Business Disability Forum at the highest levels of business and government, and in the media. She has appeared on Radio 4 and Sky News, and is regularly asked to comment on the impact of breaking news on disabled people and businesses.