New Global Research Exposes Challenges Of Data Collection On Disabled Employees

A report released yesterday by the Business Disability Forum has revealed some of the difficulties global organizations face in compiling accurate data about the number of employees with a disability they might have.

The report entitled “Collecting Global Employee Disability Data: The challenges and enablers for disability-smart organisations,” reveals how global businesses face two distinct barriers when it comes to quantifying the number of employees with disabilities within their workforce.

Firstly, there are procedural issues related to differences in how disability might be defined from country to country. Variations also exist in local data privacy laws governing what type of information can be requested from employees and held on record.

Given that as many as 90% of disabilities may be in some way hidden, the second set of issues relate to more human factors such as employees feeling nervous about disclosing a health condition or disability for fear that it may harm their career prospects.

At the same time, leadership teams and line managers can, often inadvertently, create something of a hostile environment for disability inclusion simply by rarely discussing it openly or failing to demonstrate a level of prioritization within the workplace agenda.

Despite the myriad issues, BDF’s report, which was sponsored by HSBC and involved input from D&I leads from major global firms such as Accenture, Shell and Unilever, explains why maintaining accurate workforce disability data is highly desirable.

Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum wrote in the report’s foreword, “We can only drive change – and close the disability employment gap – if we can get an accurate picture of who is in our workforce already.

“Understanding who is in our workforce can also enable us to support everyone effectively – to understand the effectiveness (or not) of our processes and identify areas where more support is needed.”

Data on employees with disabilities may emerge from several sources. These can include employees self-identifying as disabled but can also come indirectly from information related to workplace adjustments.

An encouraging statistic to note from the research, which included an online survey completed by 51 global organizations, is that 67% of respondents said they were already collecting global disability data in some form.

Of those organizations not yet doing it, 44% expressed their commitment to collecting disability workforce data within the next 18 months.

Unraveling a web of complexities

Aside from variations in data privacy laws at a national level, global organizations also have to contend with a legislative patchwork across different geographies in which some countries have quotas in place for disabled workers and others do not.

Furthermore, due to a lack of a globally consistent definition of disability, deploying culturally appropriate language when requesting information can also be a serious pain point.

In fact, over 27% of survey respondents cited not even knowing whether it was lawful to request disability self-identification in their jurisdictions as a significant challenge.

Developing a geographically consistent policy can be hindered by differing levels of stigma attached to disability and in particular mental illness, which can make it more or less likely for an employee to disclose depending on the country they are working in.

Additionally, efficient and consistent handling of sensitive employee data often involves D&I teams coordinating with other internal departments such as Human Resources, Legal, IT and Compliance.

Priming a disability-confident environment

No matter the scale of resistance to disclosure, the report strongly recommends that organizations do everything they can to create a culture of “psychological safety and trust” to help employees feel comfortable about discussing any health conditions they might have.

In answer to the online survey question, “What has been the most significant enabler, which has helped with collecting Global Employee Disability Data?”  – 59% of respondents cited “Senior Executive support.”

This may entail leaders sharing their own experiences of disability or at least taking it upon themselves to amplify the message that disability is something that can impact anyone.

Input from leadership can also be buttressed strongly at the grassroots by robust disability employee resource groups through providing a forum for relaying lived experience through storytelling and championing disability inclusion overall.

In order to approach disability data collection in a culturally sensitive way, the report recommends that considerable attention be focused on adapting the language and terminology used to extract the data and any supporting communications to the specific national jurisdiction.

Empowering local HR and D&I teams will ultimately be key to this, rather than involving a top-down one-size-fits-all approach.

Organizations who are not yet collecting data were encouraged not to allow the size of the task at hand deter them from getting started. Even though, this may just begin with small steps like testing out the processes in a suitably amenable location first.

There was also a reminder of the competitive advantage that may be enjoyed by confident and transparent ownership of the data set, as D&I metrics can be commonly requested by government and other partners as a component of the tendering process.

On the surface, data collection may not feel like the most alluring of topics but it is a vital engine for measuring change and progress.

Equally, the key to obtaining the dry statistics of disability workforce data is far less about statistical modeling and much more to do with a sensitive human touch that conveys empathy and openness.

In the years to come, it remains to be seen the extent to which Covid-19 has encouraged such openness on both sides.

After all, over the past 12 months, the vast majority of office workers have maintained employment through significant workplace adaptations, in addition to the grave and perpetual reminders that health is something none of us can take for granted.