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Nov. 18, 2020

How disability diversity in the workplace can improve productivity

Three words are ever-present in business right now: diversity, equity and inclusion. For businesses across industries, there is pressing customer demand for companies and leaders to take a stand on these issues and act on their promises.

Although much of the recent focus has been on issues of race and gender inequality, people with disabilities are also part of the DEI discussion. They face many barriers to employment, such as negative attitudes and beliefs from other people, exclusionary hiring practice and a lack of technical assistance on the job.

In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the participation rate of people with disabilities in the workplace is 20.6%, compared to 68.6% for those without disabilities.

“When you consider the fact that there are talent shortages and at the same time there are people with disabilities who are underemployed, it seems logical that employing these individuals would be a win-win,” said Sriram Narayanan, Kesseler Family Endowed Faculty Fellow and professor of supply chain management. “There is a need for organizations to broaden and diversify the pool of individuals that they’re hiring.”

Diving into this issue, Narayanan and Edward Terris, fixed-term faculty of supply chain management, teamed up to research the inclusion of employees with a diverse range of abilities and disabilities — and how this can impact and improve workplace productivity.

It pays to be diverse and inclusive

Their paper, “Inclusive Manufacturing: The impact of Disability Diversity on Productivity in a Work Integration Social Enterprise,” was accepted for publication in Manufacturing and Service Operations Management. The study documents the empirical relationship between disability diversity and team productivity in a manufacturing setting using micro data.

The researchers gathered data from apparel facilities in collaboration with Peckham Inc., a nonprofit organization located in Lansing, Michigan. Peckham is known for providing job training opportunities for people with disabilities. More than 75% of the company’s hours billed are from employees with significant disabilities.

By observing over 13,000 workdays at Peckham, Narayanan and Terris found that it is better to employ people from across the disability spectrum. They considered 10 disability categories — mental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, PTSD and physical disabilities, to name a few — and found that productivity is increased when the number of workers with different disabilities on a team is increased. Further, team productivity was increased when there was an even distribution of people across the disability spectrum.

“This study has shed significant light on an important issue that I think many people realize intuitively,” said Terris, who was vice president of manufacturing at Peckham for 11 years prior to becoming faculty at MSU. “People enjoy working, and they enjoy the company of others at work. Whether or not a person has a disability is not the driver. It is important that people are placed into jobs that fit their skillset and they enjoy doing.”

Another way to look at the results: teams that had more workers without disabilities did not have higher productivity. The strongest teams on the factory floor were inclusive and diverse in terms of disability.

“Given the proper orientation, training and ongoing reinforcements on the job, a person will excel,” Terris continued. “The result is that it takes all kinds of people for workplace success to happen. I think the study of disability diversification is a reflection of that … it takes a village.”

A model for disability inclusion

A significant implication of this work is how organizations like Peckham can serve as an example for inclusion of workers with disabilities. Specifically, Peckham is a work integration social enterprise, denoting its focus on solving challenges and prioritizing efficiency for disadvantaged people.

Peckham uses a modular productivity system that requires teamwork, flexibility and increased contact with its workers. The nonprofit relies on strong recruiting teams and dedicated specialists to provide ongoing support to match individuals’ skills with various roles at the company — and, clearly, it’s working.

“More research is needed in better detailing how work can be truly fit to employee abilities and pursue the mission of inclusion in the broader economic environment,” Narayanan said. “Organizations like Peckham are doing important work in the context of the current economic environment, balancing both inclusion and productivity objectives.”

As Narayanan and Terris explain in their research paper, job carving is no small task. It requires specialized consultants, systematic approaches to workforce development, ongoing collaboration with individuals and constant experimentation to assess best fit for employees. However, as the example of Peckham shows, if the resources are invested to do it right, job carving can pay off, ensuring that employees with a range of abilities and disabilities are happy and productive.

“This important research not only provided data-driven evidence of what we intuitively thought we knew, it also shed new light on the importance of integrating different types of disabilities within a workforce,” said Jo Sinha, president and CEO of Peckham. “Dr. Narayanan and Mr. Terris’s research has far-reaching implications for both the work setting and for better informed public disability policy.”

Ultimately, Narayanan and Terris hope their study can help in taking another step toward illuminating the challenges that people with disabilities face, to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion in firms.

“I think it’s important that this research continue in other organizations employing persons with disabilities and barriers to employment,” Terris said. “Not only does the research shed light on the importance of diversity and inclusion, it also supports the notion that a purposeful approach to work readiness opens up employers to a larger pool of potential workers. I believe this research provides evidence to support a needed paradigm shift amongst all employers.”

This story was originally featured on the Broad College of Business website.

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