Our legal system recognises that equality for disabled people can sometimes be achieved in practice only if conditions are structured differently, physical barriers are removed and/or additional support for a disabled worker or job applicant are provided.
This is all rolled up by the Equality Act (2010) into a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’.
Any company worth its salt will ensure that the provision of reasonable adjustments for disabled candidates is incorporated into recruitment processes. But why?
Well, it is a legal requirement, though if you read enough corporate blurb you will see that most enterprises place their value on diversity front and centre, with those affected by disability implicitly contributing to the drive for a more diverse population. And it is an attractive position. In an increasingly plural society, we can celebrate human difference, challenge unmeritorious hierarchies and at the same time indulge ourselves in a healthy communal and mutual meaty backslap.
Vive la différence and all that.
And yes, there is a connected and consequential chain back to improved diversity. The law was put in place in order to support equal opportunity, so adherence to its requirements should lead to an improved provision of services.
Well, that all makes sense, through will this always be pumped through from the beating heart and soul of a business striving to improve diversity in its purest form and from the most noble of intentions? Let us swiftly revert back to the first point. It is arguably more about a requirement to ensure that those with defined, protected characteristics have the adjustments made that the law of the land demands.
This places us squarely within the realm of keeping within the law, the mitigation of risk and all of the factors that are inextricably linked to this. And money and reputation feature high on the list.
In practice, when organisations engage with job applicants and employees, it is frequently a cut to the chase to the question of a ‘reasonable adjustment’ itself. It is somewhat odd. Think waiters bringing courses out to diners, without having taken their orders first. The adjustment is after all the first objective, with final qualification of agreed reasonableness sealing the deal. Even more bizarrely, the term ‘reasonable adjustment’ is freely used in exchanges in many different contexts.
The term ‘seems to have taken on a persona and identity of its own, rather than simply being a matter of potential adjustments, which in time after a mutually empathetic exchange, the relevant parties will agree to be ‘reasonable’ (let’s not allow the logic that any adjustment can be established as reasonable only when the context of its request has been established get in the way of a good process!)
This language we use in our administration of the adjustments we make, does however tell us a lot about how we view adjustments and about our motivations to act. Perhaps it is the preoccupation with ‘diversity’ – which is after all an outcome itself – that has distanced ourselves from the quest for equal opportunity that seeks to support someone who would be otherwise disadvantaged by a failure to meet an individual need.
That language comes straight from the statute, lifted and shifted into our processes and interactions. Not unpacked and re-worked into a new context, but directly transplanted. While awkward, clunky and illogical when nonchalantly flicked into the candidate hors d’oeuvres, it does nevertheless serve a purpose, even if it does not cleanse the candidate palate.
It suggests that recruiters and employers are cementing an unequivocal connection between action and legal obligation. We are signposting what we are doing, so that all parties are clear that we are meeting our obligations.
Yet rather than a caring and compassionate enquiry about needs and a responsible, empathetic and moral investigation of adjustments, we’re going route one and getting legal. At best it seems begrudging, at worst pre-adversarial. It is like the supermarket scrape, where one party starts citing ‘without due care and attention’. At that point, the scene is set, options close down and all parties tread very carefully. It is a shift away from common sense and the mutually respectful interaction essential for effective communication and engagement.
For some candidates, this short-cut might work well - those au fait with application processes and procedures, or varied employment histories. They are clear on their individual needs and the relevant adjustments they may need. Everything for them will fall into place.
Even for those for whom the adjustment does not freefall tetris-like into place, their willingness to tell you about adjustments they feel they may need is an important part of the ongoing discussion. It is of course no guarantee that the adjustments made in the past will continue to hold their relevance.
And then you have those who do not know what adjustment they might need. In these cases the ‘reasonable adjustments’ conversations will necessarily circle round with little progress, unless the individual need is uncovered and explored.
Perhaps it is not simply that our appropriation of this legalese as our compass is setting us off in the wrong mindset and on the wrong track. We are actually starting in the wrong place. Surely it all needs to be about the individual and what they need?
This is why more and more organisations are now shifting their focus from reasonable adjustments to one of individual needs. Not only does that capture the truly candidate-centric nature of the essential starting point for the discussion, but also embraces the notion of equal opportunity and more crucially, inclusion.
If your goal as an organisation is to enrich your products and services, you surely must be looking to attend to any obstacle that is going to lose you great talent. What can be more disappointing for an employer than seeing otherwise great candidates falling away, often after confounding and inexplicably unexpected performance glitches?
How many times might that have happened when candidates had an individual need that was not considered, as it did not relate to protected characteristics? Many candidates who are not protected, may have individual needs. And not attending to these may mean that those high-potential contributors will fall away from the process. And then you’re losing out on their talent and the opportunity to enrich your organisation and your customers’ experience.
Shifting your focus to meeting individual needs will still meet the legal requirements of providing adjustments for employees with protected characteristics. It is also likely to make the subsequent changes more relevant.
On a wider scale, organisations will be shooting for diversity in its truest sense. Understanding that it is more than simply what is protected at any moment in time and instead ploughing its own furrow to maximise the potential of the human capital available
If we accept that the fixation with ‘reasonable adjustments’ as a starting point may mean that an adjustment falls short, by failing to get to the heart of the need, we are arguably missing the most damaging longer-term impact for organisations.
This is reflected in the quality of the diversity that is achieved. Where the process fails to drive a sense of inclusion, where those from diverse backgrounds are valued and feel that value, so that their contribution to an organisation is felt.
What we are left with is a different kind of diversity. A one-dimensional change to the demographic, with very little change to the breadth or the depth of an organisation’s footprint. A change where the value of a diverse workforce is limited, or maybe does not translate into the brand at all.
This shortfall will not be caused by the swift jump to the ticked box of adjustment, though it is of course a contributory factor. The labelling is an indicator of a mindset and of a focus on the buzzwords and terms, rather than the essence of a sound and fundamentally grounded methodology.
Thankfully it is just one isolated area in relation to equal opportunities where we need to go back to basics and re-think a bottom-up approach.