Hiring Without Limits

By Joe Mullich

Jun. 1, 2004

At the IBM Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, scientists develop specialized technology that is the lifeblood of the company’s future products–and profits. The center depends on a constant influx of high-level talent, from computer programmers working on speech-recognition products to engineers fabricating semiconductor devices.

    Ironically, amid all this high-tech gadgetry, some of the hardest jobs to fill have the ring of rust-belt manufacturing. Like most firms, Big Blue has trouble finding enough precision machinists who operate lathes and milling equipment. “It’s a dying art,” says Bill Strachan, the center’s program director for technical recruiting. “Most of the precision machinists that are available are highly skilled members of the aging workforce, so we have to look for new sources.”

    That search for new sources took the company to an unexpected place: the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. The world’s largest technological college for students who are deaf or hard of hearing offers a degree in computer integrated machining technologies. Without employees trained in this field, IBM would have to send welding projects to outside vendors, slowing turnaround times and raising costs.

    Hiring disabled workers gives the 315,000-person organization access to a much larger talent pool that enables it to produce the best products, says Millie DesBiens, IBM’s program manager for global workforce diversity initiatives. She notes that, like other employees who are part of IBM’s diversity program, disabled workers also expose the company to fresh ideas and viewpoints. While IBM doesn’t calculate the ROI of its diversity program, DesBiens says that disabled workers contribute millions to the bottom line, and provide a crucial point of view for a company that makes and sells technology for the disabled. “We consider diversity strategic to our organization,” adds Jim Sinocchi, director of diversity communications for IBM, who is a paraplegic. “We don’t hire people who are disabled just because it’s a nice thing to do. We do it because it’s the right thing to do from a business standpoint.”

    IBM, which hired its first disabled employee in 1914, may become a model for creating the kind of workplace that can effectively leverage the skills of disabled workers. Last year, it was one of 10 companies given the inaugural New Freedom Initiative Award from the U.S. Department of Labor, for its training and mentoring programs for the disabled. In March, the American Foundation for the Blind gave IBM a 2004 Access Award for its corporate philosophy of promoting accessibility throughout the company and in its products and services.

    Roy Grizzard, assistant secretary of labor at the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy, recalls being at a meeting with an IBM vice president who told him straightforwardly that the company could not afford to overlook a potential employee because of a disability. “The executive told me that individual might develop the next iteration of a software or hardware product that could make the company a great deal of money,” Grizzard says.

    Disabled workers have long been an untapped source of talent, and are expected to play an increasingly vital role in the workplace in coming years. The massive wave of retiring older workers is expected to leave companies scrambling for new employees, especially hard-to-fill positions like precision machinist and computer programmer. Also, companies that coax older employees to stay on or to return to work will have to accommodate conditions such as poorer vision, hearing loss and mobility problems. “As we have an aging workforce, we are going to see more people with disabilities,” DesBiens says.

Feeling like an alien
    Twenty years ago, Sinocchi broke his neck while surfing on a vacation, and has used a wheelchair ever since. At the time of the accident, he was 25 years old and had been with IBM for five years. “They asked me to come back to work, and I had no idea what I would be able to do,” he says. “I felt like an alien. I didn’t know if I would be a burden or a person to be pitied.”

    IBM moved him to an office closer to his home so he wouldn’t have to make the grueling commute into New York City. He was given his choice of positions and selected a job producing technical briefs. Today, he runs the company’s internal Web site about disability issues and does a wide range of public relations tasks. Still, he says there are people who are surprised and even shocked to learn that he holds down an executive position and flies to conferences where he handles a wide range of media requests, and that he met his wife after he was disabled.

    “The problem is that people equate disability with stupidity,” he says. “When I go out to dinner, the waiter won’t ask me what I want. He’ll ask the people I’m with what I want to have.” This pervasive attitude must be broken for disabled workers to make a full contribution to society, he says. “The next time you see a person with a disability, try to look at them as a leader in your organization, not just as a worker.”

    That potential was a theme at IBM’s recent third-annual Global Leadership Conference for People with Disabilities. Forty-two percent of the company’s disabled workers have key-skill jobs, such as software engineering, marketing and IT architecture. The company estimates that about 1 to 2 percent of its workforce is disabled, but believes that the actual number is closer to 4 to 6 percent when it includes people with undisclosed disabilities such as speech impediments or amputees with prostheses. The higher figure would indicate that IBM has more than 18,000 disabled employees, contributing many millions of dollars, although company spokesmen say that it doesn’t specifically record the ROI of its disability efforts.

Building pipelines
    In its constant effort to attract disabled employees, IBM has developed outreach programs throughout the country. It plants recruiting seeds by sending executives to high schools and middle schools to speak to disabled students about careers in technology. “We have several deaf research scientists who are doing world-class work and can be role models for these kids,” Strachan says.

    For example, a deaf IBM researcher named Dimitri Kanevsky is a renowned expert in voice-recognition technology. The 52-year-old Kanevsky’s most recent advance was developing an automatic system in cars that carries on a conversation with the driver to help him stay awake. IBM research scientists take the time to demonstrate some of their latest projects for the students. Many times, deaf researchers also help students in getting acclimated to assistive technology that they will use in their day-to-day work.

    IBM has launched a number of heralded programs that reach out to disabled students and job-seekers. DesBiens says the key to their success is that they dovetail with the company’s culture. Mentoring programs for disabled workers are simply adaptations of similar programs that have been successful with able-bodied workers. In 1997, IBM joined with the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences to launch a program called Entry Point, which provides disabled students with a summer position or assignment that can last up to six months. The AAAS develops relationships with professors and students on campuses, which is important because many college students, like people of all ages, don’t identify themselves as disabled. Since the program’s founding, IBM has placed 137 students in internships and hired 29 for regular employment.

    IBM’s national recruiting organization has identified and assigned executives to work with five schools that have at least 50 disabled students in the math and science areas: the University of Minnesota, University of Michigan, New Mexico State, University of Illinois and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. “These are five campuses where we were already successful at recruiting,” DesBiens says. In some cases, IBM helped start the disability programs on campus by hosting meetings and having employers talk to students and administrators about their jobs, accommodations and career development.

    Many companies have trouble hiring students and entry-level employees with disabilities because recruiters avoid them at job fairs and employment services. In many cases, IBM employees say, the recruiters are simply unaccustomed to being around disabled people and want to avoid embarrassing and awkward moments.

    In 1999, the company launched Project Able, which streamlines the process of hiring disabled workers. So far, 84 college students, 139 professionals and one nonexempt person with disabilities have been hired through the program. The program has a network of 30 volunteer “line champions” who meet with disabled applicants and advocate for them with hiring managers. The line champions also help managers and applicants prepare for the interviews.

“We don’t hire people who are disabled just because it’s a nice thing to do. We do it because it’s the right thing to do from a business standpoint.”

    Joe Peplinski, IBM’s e-server development environment manager and one who serves as a line champion, finds that disabled students tend to be shier than their able-bodied classmates and sometimes need an extra push to aggressively sell themselves at interviews. “Sometimes they simply aren’t as prepared as they should be for the interview because they don’t think they really have a chance to be hired,” says Peplinski, who has been paralyzed from the neck down since age 17, when he was a passenger on a motorcycle that was struck by a car. He earned a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation at the University of Wisconsin, and worked with disabled patients for several years before earning another bachelor’s degree in computer science from Winona State University. He joined IBM 19 years ago after his basketball coach told him the company was looking to hire for a new manufacturing line.

    At IBM, managers receive training in hiring disabled people. “Managers should be trained to ask hard questions when interviewing people with disabilities,” Sinocchi says. “They should know how to ask hard questions. Ask a blind person how he reads; ask a person in a wheelchair how he travels. The last thing a disabled person wants is to have an interviewer knock him out because of things he thinks he can’t do without asking.” The blind person might use Home Page Reader, a self-voicing Web browser. A quadriplegic might have a reliable driver.

    At the Global Leadership Conference for People with Disabilities in April, IBM unveiled a new six-minute video for managers, titled “Help Wanted,” to answer the questions many are afraid to ask, such as whether disabled workers will be able to work as fast.

    Strachan says that this kind of trepidation is understandable, especially if a manager has never had a disabled employee. When a deaf intern goes to work at the IBM Research Center, Strachan tries to arrange for everyone who will be involved with the student to participate in a two- or three-hour orientation program. Managers, contractors and peers meet with representatives from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

    “It clears up a lot of misconceptions, such as people thinking that every deaf person can read sign language,” Strachan says.

    As a line champion, Peplinski makes sure that a new employee’s work environment is set up properly with any special equipment before he arrives, so his first week or two is not idle. He normally spends 10 to 12 hours with a new disabled employee during his first six months. Unlike a typical mentor, however, Peplinski also spends four to five hours with the worker’s manager, helping to smooth over any difficulties that arise.

    It’s not surprising that technology companies such as IBM have been the first to embrace disabled workers, since they make and sell products that eliminate workplace barriers for them. Nor is it a surprise that IBM goes far beyond the legal requirements to accommodate disabled workers.

    The company is in the middle of a sweeping project that began two years ago to make every one of its buildings in the 160 countries where it operates accessible to people with disabilities. At the Research Center in Yorktown Heights, the entire building is engineered for wireless communication, allowing deaf employees to easily chat online with coworkers. The center’s evacuation system has been outfitted with audible and visible signals, in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. IBM has gone a step further, however, giving deaf workers in labs special beepers–which are tested once a week–as well as linking them with a buddy to assist in the event of an evacuation.

    The organization also tries to remove some of the barriers to hiring the disabled. A disabled worker may need to have doors widened or elevator buttons lowered. Like many other large companies, IBM maintains a special fund for such accommodations, rather than charge managers’ budgets, which would create a disincentive to hire a disabled worker.

    While all this is important, DesBiens notes that people sometimes forget that a disabled worker’s needs go beyond having the right kind of desk or computer monitor. When DesBiens is called for input on providing accommodations, she reminds coworkers to look at the whole person, especially if an employee is just becoming disabled. “Too often, the focus is only on providing the accommodations and getting the person back to work,” she says. “I tell them to think about the person and how they are feeling.” That may mean providing resources for counseling, support groups or tip sheets on how the disabled worker can adapt her home to her needs. The more quickly a disabled person handles such needs outside the workplace, the more productive she can be at work.

Not just once a year
    It’s a cliché, but creating a disability-friendly workplace does start at the top, DesBiens says. IBM’s 39 most senior executives take part in the company’s Executive Diversity Task Force, with four of those executives on the global task force for people with disabilities.

    As Grizzard of the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy points out, companies that create a disability-friendly environment make employees more willing to disclose those disabilities because they know they won’t be stigmatized. IBM trumpets its commitment to the world. Its diversity networking groups provide exposure within the company. Recently, its People with Disabilities Group joined with the women’s networking group to present a workshop about employees with children who are disabled. “Letting people know about disabilities is part of the culture here,” Peplinski says. “It isn’t just brought out once a year during National Disability Awareness Month.”

Workforce Management, June 2004, pp. 53-58Subscribe Now!

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