How to support your staff to return to working safely as we move out of lockdown.
Inclusion – the key to a more sustainable future
When it comes to inclusive and accessible practice many believe that failure is not an option, due to the criticism that may come from it. But it is through failing that we learn to be successful. If you feel like you are getting conflicting information and can do no right, then fear not! We are here to help.
It is important to understand that the underlying reasons for exclusion are not specific to one impairment group or condition. They are specific to an approach. To really build forward better and to remove the fear we need to accept three things:
- We will not always get it right.
- We will not always know the answers.
- Both are ok if we listen to disabled people’s experience, recognise this as expertise and learn from it. This is ‘lived experience’ and it is a great resource. If in doubt, ask disabled people and their organisations.
You also need to have confidence that you understand your legal requirements and what these mean you need to do. That is why, as a starting point, Inclusion Scotland has put this article together with Andrew Brown from Anderson Strathern, to give you some practical and legal considerations to think about on your inclusive journey.
Inclusive working practices
Many working environments have recently been forced to undergo huge shifts in how they operate due to COVID-19. While this has introduced some new access barriers for some staff it has also vastly reduced barriers for others. Disabled people have spent years campaigning for remote working options, the lack of which has excluded a large and amount of talented people from accessing opportunities. Now we have applied remote working on a large scale lets ensure it is inclusive by listening to ‘lived experience’. Retrofitting a product, service, or culture to be inclusive may cost money and time, as many have recently found out, but can result in savings in the long run as well as other benefits. A vital lesson emerging from our current crisis is that an inclusive organisation is a more resilient one – those who were able to adapt quickly to the need for more flexibility and remote working practice, better weathered the storm of COVID-19 than they might have otherwise. By involving ‘lived experience’ at the design and development stage we can be more efficient, effective, and adaptable.
Andrew has this to say: From a legal perspective, there has long been a requirement for businesses to make “reasonable adjustments”– both for employees to work for the business and for service users to access the services. A failure to take “reasonable” and “proportionate” steps to make a business accessible could be a failure to comply with your legal obligations, even if there was no intention to actively exclude disabled people. The things that businesses have been able to achieve in this time of crisis which improve accessibility might become a yardstick by which businesses are measured in the future, if a business is considered by a service user or an employee to fall short.
It is ok to ask questions, it is the first instinct when facing a situation unknown to most of us. When recruiting, as standard practice you should proactively provide information about accessibility (e.g. of the venue or process), and ask all candidates if there are any adjustments which would make the process more accessible for them. Phrase this as a positive measure for the process, not one which implies anything negative for the candidate – e.g. “adjustments which will help ensure a fair interview” rather than “any special needs”. This allows candidates to provide you with the information you need to remove any barriers without candidates feeling that their request is a burden for you. If you have perceived a barrier for a person then ask if something could be done that would help. Focus on identifying and addressing barriers, rather than medical information. Asking detailed personal questions about a person’s medical condition could risk being perceived as impolite and intrusive – and it is not necessary. It is important not to assume anything, you will find out by asking and it is for the individual to define what, if any assistance they need and what would be helpful.
Andrew has this to say: Asking every candidate probing health questions from the outset for every role is unnecessary and creates various risks from a legal perspective, for example if an unsuccessful candidate could then claim it was used as the reason for not appointing. However, a more tailored and proportionate approach should not. In particular, the legal position is that, depending upon the role and the stage of the recruitment process, employers may be able to ask questions designed to identify what (if any) reasonable adjustments might allow an individual to perform the role to the best of their abilities.
Inclusive approaches to returning to office working
‘Shielding’ and ‘at risk’ status employees: You may be uncertain of how to approach the transition to a “new normal” work environment for some employees. Don’t rush people back without first asking the employee what would work best.
Inclusion Scotland’s Chief Executive Officer, Dr Sally Witcher OBE, is one of many people who have been shielding because they are at particularly high risk from Covid-19, even though not in the official shielding group. She has this to say “Not all disabled people are at high risk and not all people at high risk are, or would identify as, disabled people. They may have a well-controlled medical condition that has next to no impact on their lives, but which puts them at high risk from Covid-19. They may be carers for people at high risk and very anxious about bringing Covid into their home. People at high risk might work in any job in any sector. Employers may not necessarily be aware of who their employees at high risk are. That’s why it’s important to ask, and not to make assumptions.
Discuss with people what they need if they are to return comfortably in your new work environment. Employers need to be proportionate in how they handle risk for employees with health conditions. Obviously, there is a need to keep employees safe, however overly restrictive policies that ignore the individual’s choice and own understanding of their health may go too far. If the culture is healthy and welcoming, then your employees will be motivated to do their best regardless of the situation. While the recent need to work remotely presented many obvious challenges for businesses, in some cases employers may have been surprised to have discovered just how much it is possible to do via remote working – and woken up to the reality that using technology like Microsoft Teams or Zoom are not only very effective, they can also save time and money. They can also be more inclusive ways of working for a wide range of people, including disabled people, parents and carers.
Andrew has this to say: An employer is entitled to take an employee at face value when they are saying that they are well enough to work. Unless the evidence is to the contrary, a medical report is generally unnecessary even if you are aware or believe that they are disabled – not all disabled people are “high risk” in health terms. That said, the employer is under an obligation to make reasonable adjustments even if an individual does not ask for them. For example, even if an employee with a mobility issue offers to “make do” with an office physical access problem, that doesn’t necessarily mean an employer shouldn’t make an improvement to the workplace if it would significantly improve the work environment for that employee and in anticipation of future employees/customers. Addressing reasonably obvious adjustments and alterations will mean you are more likely to have complied with your obligations for returning employees. But it is always better to have direct involvement with the people most affected when designing adjustments, to avoid creating new problems.
Moving towards an inclusive future
Before COVID-19, we still had a long way to go in achieving inclusive practice for all, and if anything, recent events should be spurring us on to do more, faster – not allow the disruption to lead to backward steps. Had we been further forward in this journey, maybe this global pandemic wouldn’t have been quite so disruptive for as many employees? Remote working has provided us with many advantages to navigate this global crisis, but there is more we can learn by continuing to improve our approach to inclusion. There are challenges for disabled people now and going forward and if employers can recognise the advantage of inclusive practice, everyone will benefit. Now is the time to embrace and continue the inclusive journey. To remain resilient and become more so, our society cannot afford for accessibility and inclusion to be an afterthought. Embracing inclusive recruitment practices means attracting and retaining more diverse talent from an untapped pool as well as improving innovation and your bottom line. When incorporated fully as the default and not the exception, inclusion and accessibility make your business stronger.
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