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The many benefits of inclusive hiring

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''We need to accept a heterogenous working environment, which centres around empathy,'' says Mr Chan.

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''Inclusive hiring involves the whole company, not just at the level of the leadership and management team,'' says Mr Lau.

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''Advice that I would give is - as a leader of the team, be an employer who gives opportunities to all,'' says Ms Ong.

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''To hire inclusively, companies need to relook existing ways of operating,'' says Ms Wee.

Roundtable participants:

  • Bernard Chan, operations consultant, Iron Nori
  • Jerome Lau, managing director, Splash Productions Pte Ltd
  • Diana Ong, founder and director, Soap Ministry
  • Wee Wei Ling, executive director (Asset, Lifestyle and Corporate Social Responsibility), Pan Pacific Hotels Group
  • Moderator: Vivien Ang, BT

THERE are many stereotypes and social stigmas associated with persons with disabilities (PWDs). Four Company of Good members share their experiences - and hiring journey - with this group of people, and how the recent Budget gives them a leg up.

The Business Times: How did you embark on this journey of inclusive hiring?

Bernard Chan: We were offered a chance to employ a staff member who was intellectually challenged. We consulted the company management, who said yes, and that was how we started. In the two years' journey with this employee, we found great joy working with him. He was enthusiastic and keen to learn. The simplicity of his thoughts gave us confidence to employ more crew members with special needs. We realised that many PWDs can do well in the back room cleaning duties, and with sufficient training, they can even take on waitering duties. After two years of hard work, we even trained a staff with special needs to be an accountant clerk and as trainer for the new PWD crew.

Jerome Lau: Splash is a partner of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC)'s Company of Good Fellowship programme and as part of our action project, we incorporated inclusive hiring as part of our human resources (HR) policy.

The creative industry is known to be very fast-paced. Splash, as an integrated marketing communications agency, wanted to ensure that we strike a balance between inclusive hiring, and fulfilling our clients' needs.

We have a strong company culture and a conducive work environment, especially supportive colleagues who are willing to promote an inclusive and psychological safety work environment for differently-abled teammates.

Diana Ong: Soap Ministry as an SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) has been focused on extending job opportunities, CSR (corporate social responsibility) and other forms of outreach since our inception in 2010.

New Hope was our first attempt, where we reached out to candidates who lost their homes. We trained and empowered them with skills and knowledge through employment with Soap Ministry. We have since extended our employment opportunities to suitable deaf candidates.

Wee Wei Ling: Pan Pacific Hotels Group currently hires 26 persons with disabilities in our Singapore properties, and we have a further nine trainees this year. We focus on meaningful employment and engagement of our colleagues with disabilities. We started with small steps, first by participating in job-shadowing initiatives, then internships, before we started to look into hiring on a structured basis. Partnership has proven very critical in this journey. Our community partners such as SG Enable and special education schools have provided resources where we are lacking as a corporate. They train our existing associates on working alongside persons with disabilities, and their job coaches assist with job matching, job redesign and easing persons with disabilities into their roles.

BT: As part of Budget 2020, the new Enabling Employment Credit scheme was launched to enhance support for employers of persons with disabilities. What more do you think can be done, or is it enough?

Mr Chan: The credit scheme is a great way to start but there is still more to be done. The support for PWDs after graduating from special education schools is usually only one to two years. Special education school students graduate around 18 years old, which leaves the community of post-18-year-old PWDs with minimal support from 20 years old. The job cycle of each individual is usually two years. After two years, there may be multiple reasons why a PWD may resign or end their employment contract. In such scenarios, the PWD client may be left feeling lost, and would not know how to find a new job. He also would not have job-coaching support in his new job. At times, we noticed those PWD clients who stop working, eventually end up only staying at home, not engaged in productive work.

Mr Lau: For most employers, inclusive hiring is not about qualifying for the Enabling Employment Credit scheme; it is also a conscious, concerted business decision to strike a balance between profit-making and being a socially responsible corporate citizen. I feel that more education on inclusive hiring can be done for not just the employers, but also for HR and the rest of the organisation. The funding for this education will be very helpful for companies to start to consider inclusive hiring.

Ms Ong: Engaging this group of people could mean extra expenses for the employers as there are issues, such as the physical environment of the workplace, which has to be considered. Thus, if the government is able to take that into consideration and fully fund the renovation with pre-approved grant for our inclusive employee, that will encourage an SME to hire inclusively.

Full funding to upgrade the skills for our inclusive employee and compensation for the company to claim the hours or days off from the training will help this group of people increase their ability and performance with their existing company without taxing the company's resources, as SMEs do usually face manpower shortage.

Ms Wee: The scheme is well-intentioned to provide an added incentive for employers to begin their inclusive hiring journeys. However, it should not be the main reason for employers to hire inclusively. Employers should take an active role in shaping a more inclusive community by empowering persons with disabilities.

I believe further assistance in equipping companies with resources to help them begin their inclusive hiring journeys - such as through capability building, for example, train-the- trainer programmes - will be very much appreciated.

BT: What is the biggest hurdle facing the corporate sector in inclusive hiring?

Mr Chan: Based on different abilities, PWDs most probably may not deliver work at the same efficiency level as a foreign worker, or a neurotypical colleague. Corporate hirers have to understand and accept this difference, and still design job fits and remunerations around this difference in work output. Realistically, we know that HR professionals will only want to employ employees with the highest productivity that only commands a fair remuneration package. This is especially since the country is so efficient, and over the past decades, was running productivity campaigns with a bumble bee mascot, which I see as the biggest hurdle.

Mr Lau: Gaining access to a large pool of potential candidates, as well as assistance in the selection process. Assistance in selection should include the evaluation of the current job scope, as well as adjustments required to fit the new hire based on their conditions.

Education and preparation will also be required for the new hire and the current employees.

Ms Ong: I believe each and every industry has various and constant changes in its needs and challenges to innovate, grow or to cope and contain during an economy crisis. Be it inclusive hiring or regular hiring, both pose challenges in various ways. Personally, miscommunication is one hurdle that faces companies which hire inclusively. Often, I have to spend more time to put aside my work just to have a counselling, encouraging session to give our inclusive employees a better mindset to motivate them. This is because they can be more sensitive, with inner emotional struggles during a certain period of their employment.

Ms Wee: A fixed mindset and the lack of bandwidth to look beyond existing operational models. To hire inclusively, companies need to relook existing ways of operating. Many either possess fixed mindsets about what persons with abilities cannot do (rather than can do) or are too encumbered by existing operations to explore the changes that need to be made to build an inclusive workforce.

BT: Is there room for all companies to practise inclusive hiring? What is one essential factor in making it work?

Mr Chan: While we have identified issues, it only shows that there is still room in the practice of inclusive hiring. We need to accept a heterogenous working environment, which centres around empathy. Inclusive hiring will naturally introduce colleagues who may look different, sound different, or work differently. The fundamental trait needed, is then to accept this difference. Our Asian upbringing may have ingrained in all of us the need to fight for righteousness and meritocracy. While the two values are still important, it has to be exercised in combination with empathy. I understand that it is difficult as we are usually single-minded and it takes time for us to get accustomed to the idea.

Mr Lau: Most companies can practise inclusive hiring, but not all of them, as there could be specific limitations or obstacles inherent to the company or industry. The company has to evaluate its readiness before going into inclusive hiring. The most essential factor is to be open about the possibilities of inclusive hiring and being sensitive to the new hire's ability to integrate into the company.

Ms Ong: Yes, definitely! But incorporating inclusive hiring within the company requires the leader to appreciate the talent and potential of an inclusive employee. Depending on the nature and the conditions of the inclusive employee, each company will have different types of preparations and needs to create a more conducive, productive and well communicated team.

An essential factor to making it work is the redesigning of the job scope to fit the inclusive hires' abilities, and have frequent sessions of re-evaluation to review their job scopes. Also, communication and respect towards them - as with any other employee - are crucial to avoid misunderstanding, miscommunication, and bias.

Ms Wee: Yes. If everyone plays a part, we can collectively move the needle on inclusivity. Other than hiring persons with disabilities within our properties, we also influence our supply chain to hire inclusively.

Additionally, we volunteer our expertise, such as in Noodles for Good, where we collaborated with Autism Resource Centre and Central Singapore CDC by imparting our recipes and business consultancy skills, so that families with special needs individuals can operate their own noodle kiosks. As a result of that, three beneficiary pairs are selling Si Chuan Dou Hua Restaurant's noodles and dumplings as a means of livelihood.

This year, we also launched our central kitchen programme, where we outsource part of our dim sum production to Samsui Kitchen, which hires persons with disabilities.

Extra?Ordinary People identifies special education students in their graduating year who are trained to make our dim sum items, and employed by Samsui Kitchen upon their graduation.

BT: Why should any company hire inclusively and what is one advice you would give to those wanting to start?

Mr Chan: When a company starts inclusive hiring, the company culture naturally shifts from a purely pragmatic and calculative perspective, to an empathetic and appreciative culture. The latter two values are positive and, over time, rubs off onto even the company's suppliers and customers. In an appreciative corporate culture, we naturally see higher staff retention ratios, and naturally, a more pleasant work environment.

I will encourage companies to just start trying, by hiring a manageable number of PWD employees. It can be one to two staff. Be prepared that there can be wrong job match, or even poor attitudes from the PWDs. The journey is never smooth, but as long as companies start on this journey, they are already starting a positive company culture shift.

Mr Lau: By doing so, we are able to tap a larger pool of talents and be a socially responsible corporate citizen.

Inclusive hiring involves the whole company, not just at the level of the leadership and management team. It is important to get professional advice as it is just the beginning of a journey. The mental health and psychological safety of the differently-abled teammates and making sure they are well integrated into the organisation are of equal importance to the rest of the other able-bodied colleagues as well.

Ms Ong: Many of us do have some form of battle and struggle in one way or another, which is why we should be more empathetic and not treat them with bias but as equals.

Advice that I would give is - as a leader of the team, be an employer who gives opportunities to all. Have a company with giving incorporated into its DNA, and start with inclusive hiring. Start to learn and work through it, as you are doing good no matter how it turns out. It's a learning journey and opportunity for everyone, including yourself.

Ms Wee: The reason is simple - companies are the ones that stand to benefit from inclusive hiring. In our journey that has started in earnest over the past five years, we have found persons with disabilities to be able to contribute to our productivity. The culture of hiring inclusively has also shaped our workforce to be more compassionate and intuitive. Our experience was validated in a research study we undertook with University of Washington's Foster School of Business last year, involving a sample size of about 1,000 Pan Pacific Hotels Group associates.

Companies will also come to realise that the accommodations they make for employees with disabilities will end up benefitting all employees. Line managers will become better managers and leaders, and everyone will benefit from more clarity in SOPs (standard operating procedures), which may have been simplified for persons with disabilities.

Lastly, I would encourage companies to actively partner and collaborate with both corporate and community partners in their inclusive hiring journey.

  • The Company of Good by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) aims to empower organisations to give back strategically, sustainably and impactfully. Find out how your organisation can do good better at www.companyofgood.sg

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