Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Diversity at Work

In Bev's post Autism at work, she points out that there are many accommodations that would help autistic employees to be more comfortable in the workplace, at no cost or minimal cost to the employer. Bev is quite right about that, but I'll take it even farther: Employers can realize a significant financial gain when they are willing to be flexible in managing a diverse population of workers.

When an adjustment to the workplace environment makes an employee more productive, that equation includes not just the cost (if any) of the changes that are made, but also the value of the added productivity. Employers tend to assume that anything described as a "disability accommodation" is an expense that allows a less able worker to maintain an average level of performance (and, by implication, that it would be more cost-effective to avoid hiring people with disabilities, to the extent that a company can get away with it). But in reality, an employee who is working in an unfavorable environment may already be performing at an average level by exerting a great deal of effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles. When such an employee can work in an environment better suited to his or her needs, all of that stress and wasted effort goes away. In addition to being happier and more relaxed at work, the employee also has more physical and mental energy, which may translate into an above-average level of performance.

To put it another way, when employers make accommodations for disabilities and other personal circumstances of their workers, it's not just an expense—it's an investment that can generate a valuable return, in terms of greater productivity and retention of satisfied workers. In recent years, some employers have discovered that it is in their best interest to allow flexible schedules, telecommuting, and other accommodations as a way of keeping mothers with young children in the workforce. If employers also made efforts to provide flexible and comfortable working environments for their autistic employees, they would gain the same advantages of improving their talent pool and increasing productivity.

Managers seriously need to get over their antiquated Industrial Age mindset of expecting all their workers to be interchangeable serfs in a standardized environment. In today's global economy, there's always a generic serf to be found more cheaply somewhere else. Our complacent Western butts are going to get kicked all over the planet by China, India, etc., if we don't learn how to use the talent in our workforce to greater advantage. We need a total paradigm shift when it comes to workplace accommodations. Instead of making the least effort necessary to avoid a disability discrimination lawsuit, our companies ought to be customizing the work environments of all employees to a much greater degree, so that each worker can be maximally productive in an individual niche designed to take full advantage of his or her particular set of interests and abilities.



  • I am amazed at the number I've managers I've encountered who seem to view their own workers almost as "the enemy", a force to be defeated and demeaned through micro-management, overly rigid rules and excessive surveillance. What good do they think will possibly come from this? People tend to conform to expectations, and treating workers as slackers and potential thieves is most unwise. I think that most people, autistic or otherwise, will work hard for employers who treat them with true respect.

    By Blogger Bev, at 9:44 AM  

  • That's a terribly useful argument. Thank you.

    By Blogger elmindreda, at 10:33 AM  

  • Well, there's also the problem I hit. I'm really productive when I'm able to get started on something, and can complete tasks very quickly with few errors. But that productivity takes its toll, and I need breaks fairly often. I need to be able to "goof off", and if I don't remember to do so every hour or so, then I'm only able to be productive for half the day.

    And then what people see is that I'm frittering away my day, not that I've done a full day's worth of work (for someone else) in half a day.

    By Blogger Jannalou, at 5:04 PM  

  • It's unbelievable, the changes in the working condition and workforce in the past 10 years. 10 years ago, working at home was impossible; flextime was all but banned. Smoking, off color remarks, domineering supervisors were the norm. It's really a different world, mostly because of the interconnectivity of the world. But there is a 'diversity' movement in larger corporations. Mainly to prevent lawsuits granted, but it does allow many groups to get their 'diverse' feet in the door. It's real hard to change hiring practices and to have people look past perceived antisocial biases. We may have quite a few more years to go...

    By Blogger LIVSPARENTS, at 10:04 AM  

  • A fantastic argument. The battle is really in getting the people in charge of the purse strings to bite the bullet and pony up the dough in the first place.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:24 PM  

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