Corporate America’s Most Pressing Yet Undiscussed Diversity and Inclusion Crisis: Mental Health

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Corporate America’s Most Pressing Yet Undiscussed Diversity and Inclusion Crisis: Mental Health

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You may have noticed that depression and anxiety have been added to the Voluntary Self-Declaration of Disability form in the last few years. Why does this matter?

  • The Department of Labor requires federal contractors and subcontractors to provide equal employment opportunities to people with disabilities and has mandated that at least 7% of the contractor or subcontractor workforce be people with disabilities.
  • Every year, fewer small companies sell their goods and services to the federal government. This means that the majority of today’s leading private employers—from Amazon to Microsoft—use the Voluntary Disability Self-Identification Form to collect information about their employees’ disabilities in order to provide accommodations and supports.
  • About 19% of American adults are diagnosed with anxiety disorders, the most common mental illness in the US and one of the most common disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Ironically, self-identification as disabled with depression and anxiety on the Voluntary Self-Determination of Disability form is a concern for me. Which leads me to a theory: working professionals who are underrepresented in the workplace don’t always self-identify as disabled on the Voluntary Self-Determination of Disability form for fear of “double minority” discrimination in the workplace. For the purposes of this article, underrepresented professionals are minorities in the workplace, either by demographic (eg, female, LGBTGIA+), race (eg: Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic, etc.), or social ( eg veterans working parent) perspective.

I believe this, coupled with America’s growing mental health crisis, has become the most pressing yet under-discussed equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) crisis in corporate America today. I interviewed several HR consultants, ED&I experts, and underrepresented employees to hear their thoughts on the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability form and to test my theory.

The mental health professional

Dr. Harold Hong, a board-certified psychiatrist at New Waters Recovery, believes the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disabilities form can help people with mental health disabilities, such as anxiety, depression or ADHD, request specific accommodations without revealing personal medical information.

While the form is completely voluntary for employees to complete and can be kept confidential if they choose, it is intended to help employees obtain appropriate accommodations, such as assistive technology, flexible scheduling, or physical changes to the work environment. But a 2017 report by Coqual found that among college-educated employees in white-collar work environments, 30 percent of those employees worked with some form of disability. However, only about 3.2% of these employees chose to disclose their disabilities to their respective employers.

The ED&I leader

Others believe it causes unconscious bias. Award-winning ED&I leader Danny Herrera is one of those people. “Unfortunately, not every recruiter or hiring manager has received the proper training to minimize their own biases, especially when it comes to talent with disabilities.” Interestingly, during his weekly career coaching sessions with working professionals, Herrera has found that many neurology, multicultural professionals (especially women of color and especially black women) prefer not to share this information until they are hired.

Worse, unconscious bias among hiring managers is costing today’s top employers. Companies such as PepsiCo, Synchrony Financial, American Express, Aon and Staples that took action to hire people with disabilities saw an average of 14% higher retention rates and 33% reduction in interview to hire ratios, saving talent gaining professionals valuable time while reducing fill time.

Herrera strongly recommends two practices for HR teams. “Companies should review their entire interviewing and hiring practices to identify any biases built into their processes and systems. For example, after reviewing some of their processes, companies may learn that their interviewers may be evaluating their candidates based on their body language, eye contact, handshake, and the time they take to answer interview questions. All of these practices, in one way or another, are extremely biased and unfair to applicants with disabilities.”

This is a critical point to share across organizations, as hiring managers in recent years have begun asking cross-functional team members to evaluate candidates without informing them of best practices for inclusive language and accessibility. This practice threatens disability privacy for those who self-identify and increases the risk of hiring bias.

Second, Herrera believes that to normalize the conversation around reasonable accommodations, recruiters ask these two questions during all of their conversations: Is there anything you need to make this interview process successful for you? and Is there anything we haven’t had a chance to discuss that you’d like to mention before we move on? “Some applicants may use the opportunity to share more professional details about themselves, and some may use the opportunity to request accommodations,” adds Herrera.

The underrepresented employee

Cameron Emily Craddock Howe is a mother of two from Virginia. She believes that her disability does not define her, so she has no problem marking “yes” on the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability form. “It helps establish a relationship of trust with a potential employer immediately. I have ADHD and dyslexia which can affect my performance without accommodation. Being open about my disability helps make sure I get what I need to be successful in my job. It’s a win-win for me and the employer,” she explains.

Rob Oliver is a professional from Pennsylvania who uses a power wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury at the age of 21. He conducted his own experiment: sometimes applying for roles without identifying himself as disabled on the Voluntary Self-Determination of Disability Form. “I found that I got a much better response from a resume that didn’t list disability-related items than from one that shared information that indicated I had a disability.” (Although the study is not scientific, Oliver reports that received three times as many job interview responses using a non-disabled resume.)

“My personal reason for not disclosing my disability is that I am a much better advocate for myself personally than my resume can be for me from a distance,” Oliver continues. “In other words, if potential employers see my disability before they see me, they might not even bring me in for an interview. By not disclosing the disability, they see me and my disability at the same time.”

When asked, these professionals all concluded with the same point of view: they would recommend that applicants self-identify on the Voluntary Self-Determination of Disability form only if they feel supported, if it is physically and psychologically safe to do so, or if they share that information is particularly important for the individual. It is up to companies, and specifically the members of the talent interviewing team, to foster inclusive and fair hiring experiences.

Unless the company is very open and transparent with its onboarding practices and strategies, and this knowledge is shared throughout the organization, it is extremely difficult for a candidate to know whether this new employer will be welcoming, inclusive and approachable.

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