By Tim Vogus
I’m honored to have the opportunity to be the first guest blogger on The Lift Blog. Ryan has previously detailed my research in a post titled Managing Mindfully. But today I’ll write about something quite different, but I think equally important to managers of all varieties.
I regularly shop at the Publix grocery store in Brentwood, Tennessee. I’ve noticed that a number of employees have various disabilities (intellectual and physical) and the employees with disabilities work in numerous areas of the store including front service (i.e., bagging and checkout; this was the primary job), produce, and the bakery. My observation at various times throughout the day was simultaneously remarkable and unremarkable: there was nothing noticeably different about the work process or interactions between employees with and without disabilities.
My observations of work at Publix represent a potentially powerful extension of work on Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), where little work has been done so far to study issues of disability in the workplace. So I talked to Joe Zarcone, the manager of the Publix store to learn why he was so committed to employing people with disabilities and how he made it work so well at his store. Joe’s personal commitment to employing people with disabilities stemmed from a transformative experience in his first managerial role 16 years prior. He “inherited” an employee with a disability and it had a profoundly positive impact on his life. He intimated to me that when you encounter a success you try to replicate it as much as possible.
Joe’s experiences have shown that he was wise to trust his intuition. He stated that when hiring employees with disabilities his experience has been that you gain employees who are more dedicated, more job-focused and less likely to turnover. Therefore, there is a considerable business case for hiring people with disabilities because turnover is a significant problem in supermarkets. He said that for every person with a disability he hires he had a 70% success rate whereas with a typical employee it was much closer to 50% (or even lower). Managers like Joe that can see the abilities and strengths of their employees and potential employees are crucial catalysts for building and sustaining an inclusive workplace.
Inclusive Design and Inclusive Cultures
This experience at my local grocery store led me to one of the few examples of POS research on disabilities: Mark Lengnick-Hall’s  research on the practices, processes, and systems that are also critical to making the workplace more inclusive. His work demonstrates how companies large and small build workplaces that welcome, celebrate, and substantially benefit from the presence of individuals with disabilities. He and his colleagues conducted a series of case studies of companies including A&F Wood Products, Dow Chemical, Giant Eagle, Hewlett-Packard, Marriott International, Microsoft, and SunTrust Banks. Several of these companies have won the U.S. Department of Labor’s New Freedom Initiative for employing people with disabilities.
What Leaders Do
One of the biggest barriers to employing people with disabilities is the emphasis on “dis”- ability and the stereotypes, prejudices, and fears it entails. As a result these leading companies start with an emphasis from its leadership on
• Supporting the hiring of people with disabilities in visible and tangible ways. For example, SunTrust Bank assigns top managers to lead the hiring efforts and report their progress and accomplishments in their annual reports. That is, leaders start with a clear sense of the result they would like to create.
•Identifying the business case for people with disabilities such as its positive effects on reducing turnover and other costs, the potential to enter new markets, and even a better ability to tap the huge market represented by people with disabilities (over $220 billion).
•Emphasizing that importance of focusing on ability not disability meaning that arbitrary limitations are not placed on employees with disabilities. In doing so, this emphasis evokes a broader idea of equal opportunity and fairness. It also recognizes that anyone can acquire a disability at any time – so how we treat PWDs reflects how we would like to be treated ourselves in similar circumstances. In other words, employing people with disabilities is the story these companies tell when they’re living according to the values they expect of others.
•Holding people with disabilities accountable for making contributions to organizational performance.
Effective Organizational Practices
•Recruit early and often through internship programs, mentorship programs, and partnering with disability advocacy or other community organizations.
•Train recruiters and employees on general disability awareness as well as specific disability content (e.g., blindness, deafness) to sensitize and prepare coworkers for the disability that will be introduced to the workgroup. Also train the person with a disability to ease the transition into the new role.
•Centralize the budget for workplace accommodations. Doing so reduces disincentives for hiring managers who may be reluctant to spend their own budgets to hire people with disabilities. But also think creatively about accommodations. For example, at A&F Wood Products in Howell, Michigan one of the supervisors operated all the equipment with his eyes closed to see what it would take for a blind employee to use the power saw (and was able to redesign the work so it was possible).
•Create affinity or support groups for employees with disabilities.
Hiring people with disabilities should be considered as part of an organization’s broader diversity efforts, but also as closely related to being able to manage and capitalize on the unique talents of all of one’s employees. This is evident in organizations that effectively leverage diversity of any type through similar practices to those described above. Robin Ely and David Thomas , for example, found that organizations that take an “integration and learning” approach whereby group members are encouraged to bring all relevant insights and perspectives to bear on their work and learn from and through these differences. They find that the integration and learning approach leads to sustained benefits from workgroup diversity in terms of group functioning, productivity, and creativity.
Joe’s actions and Mark’s research show us that the principles of POS and LIFT are crucial to tapping hidden talent that exists in people with disabilities. It also has the power to transform individual lives, organizations, and the broader culture.
 Lengnick-Hall, Mark L. 2007. Hidden Talent: How Leading Companies, Hire, Retain, and Benefit from People with Disabilities. Praeger: Westport, CT.
 Ely, Robin J., & Thomas, David A. 2001. Cultural Diversity at Work: The Effects of Diversity Perspectives on Work Group Processes and Outcomes. Administrative Science Quarterly, 46(2): 229-273