‘Up their game’ | The UK's Disability and Access Ambassador on companies' 'misguided complacency'

The UK's Disability and Access Ambassador on companies' 'misguided complacency'

When we think of D&I, we most often think of race, gender and sexuality. But what about disability? 21% of working age Brits are disabled, with only 53% of them in work; compared to 82% of non-disabled Brits. Is your company’s complacency on this issue contributing to the talent shortage?

Manchester-born diversity and inclusion consultant Kate Headley is almost totally blind in her left eye, with blurred vision in her right eye. She also lives with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), which, according to the US Center for Disease Control, “is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks its own tissues, causing widespread inflammation and tissue damage in the affected organs. It can affect the joints, skin, brain, lungs, kidneys, and blood vessels.” There is no cure for it, and the severity ranges from mild to life-threatening.

And while Headley worked in D&I before developing these conditions, they’ve certainly informed her work with disabled people and their needs, particularly, she shares in an exclusive interview with HR Grapevine, that “disability can be very empowering, and that it doesn’t mean the disabled person will not contribute in the same way a non-disabled person will.”

More importantly, though, says Headley, is the fact that plenty of disabled people want to and can work, but that neither the job-seeking channels nor the companies’ mindsets are fully or even partially inclusive.

“There is a misguided complacency of well-meaning organisations who need to up their game,” she says in her frank but friendly manner. “At the moment, it’s a very reactive process – someone applies for a job or is at work and asks for reasonable adjustments to accommodate their disability, and the employer or the recruiter maybe works with that.”

However, she explains, in her work with Manchester City Council in the 1990s and early Noughties, part of her remit was to make sure that the Local Authority’s work matching unemployed people with employment gaps was equally accessible for everyone across the board. Unsurprisingly (and absolutely not exclusive to the North West), the data showed people were keen to work, jobs were being sent out, and people weren’t applying for them.

But here’s the really interesting thing: Headley was involved in executive search, rather than service-level recruitment. And guess what? The data was the same: plenty of capable, talented people available; plenty of jobs for capable, talented people – and a lack of ability to marry the two.

You then realise that you're in a position where a disability can be seen by others to define you.

“We had to ask ourselves why we were sending out roles and people weren’t applying for them. So we did the research, we got the data and we realised we simply weren’t recruiting in the right way, to reach the most diverse candidates, and to be as inclusive as possible, to let people know, ‘Hey, I’m qualified for this and should apply.’”

And despite continuing her journey as an Executive Search consultant, Headley knew that D&I was in her veins: “It became really clear to me that providing opportunity for all people was absolutely the focal point for everything that I wanted to do – so that people who are ‘golden nuggets’ in society weren't just left on the shelf, unhired, not knowing that they were golden nuggets and employees weren't left without great people, because their processes, practices, policies, biases, whatever it might be – were unintentionally blocking hiring great people. And that's kind of been my focus all the way through my life,” she explains.

The Clear Company

So, what made Headley branch out on her own?

“I think everyone in the executive search business reaches the point where they don't want to do another search project ever and despite 20 years in the business, I still hadn’t hit that point, and I was increasingly working with employers, looking at how they could attract more diversity, particularly at senior leadership level.

“And I won’t pretend: originally, it was meant to be a lifestyle business! You know, I'd worked hard in corporate, I’d worked in London, and I wanted a nice, easier pace, managing a consultancy. But I guess I’ve always been really driven and surrounded myself with incredibly motivated people and well, since I founded The Clear Company in 2003, we’ve grown massively, and now here we are winning CIPD awards for our clients.”

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