The Small Business at Work Toolkit

Helping small businesses welcome employees with disabilities
A man with a prosthetic leg talks with two other men in a warehouse.


Why workplace inclusion matters

Scenario 1: The disappearing mentor

A medical technician works with a pipetteBeth has worked as a fully qualified medical technician at Omnix Lab for nearly 2 years. With about 75 employees, Omnix processes medical samples for clinics throughout the region. About 5 years ago, Omnix began a buddy system that paired new employees with a more experienced worker who could welcome them to the company and provide coaching and support as they learned their jobs. Beth uses a wheelchair because of an injury she received as a teenager. Jenny, her buddy, has worked as a medical technician and team leader at Omnix for 5 years.

During Beth’s first 2 weeks at Omnix, she met with Jenny twice. Jenny gave her a tour of the office and introduced her to co-workers. However, Beth didn’t feel she was getting any real support or coaching related to the work processes and equipment at Omnix. Beth tried to initiate more contact with Jenny, but Jenny always had a reason why she couldn’t meet or talk. Beth noticed that two other co-workers who started at the same time had far more contact and coaching with their buddies than she did with Jenny. Beth’s supervisor noticed this too and contacted Jenny to see if there was anything he could do to facilitate this. Jenny told him she didn’t mind being a mentor and that she felt sorry for Beth, but that she was too busy to deal with an employee who had special needs. When he asked Jenny what those special needs were, she said it was difficult to pinpoint exactly, but that it took Beth longer to get around.

Think about it. What needs to happen?

In this case, the lack of a strong mentor increased the time it took for Beth to learn her new job and create social connections with co-workers. The lack of support from Jenny also might have made it more likely that Beth would leave the job because she lacked support and felt isolated from co-workers.

Two things need to happen. First, Omnix needs to set clear expectations about what being a mentor means. Second, in order to minimize the impact of assumptions around disability getting in the way of success, Omnix needs to build disability awareness among staff through training or with other types of learning experiences, such as participating in National Disability Mentoring Day or other disability-themed events in their community.

The takeaway

Employees with disabilities cannot participate effectively in the workplace when they don’t have equal access to coaching, mentoring, and social connections with co-workers.

Scenario 2: Coffee shop project plans

A man stands by himself in an officeBenjamin is a web designer in a nonprofit organization that employs 76 people. His speech impairment is noticeable to others, but his speech is understandable. With a graduate degree in computer science, Ben is the most experienced among the five workers who are responsible for the company’s website and online functions. So, he was disheartened when he overheard these co-workers talking about new plans for the website—plans he didn’t know about. These plans involved big changes in the look and feel of the site, as well as in its interface with users. When he asked one co-worker how these plans got started, she told him that the four of them had “just been bouncing around” ideas at the coffee shop over lunch and had also talked with others in the company to explore their viability.

Because Ben was never invited to join these co-workers for lunch, he was completely out of the loop. Until that time, Ben had felt very engaged with this job because he felt his work was valued and he believed in the mission of the organization. But now he has started to look for other jobs.

Think about it. What needs to happen?

Exclusion comes at a cost. Ben will be hard to replace. Leaders of Ben’s company can’t control who goes to lunch together. But they can and should set a tone for inclusivity to ensure that all team members are present when important project decisions are discussed. Ben’s coworkers would probably deny that his speech impairment was the reason they didn’t ask him to join them at lunch. But it’s likely that discomfort and unconscious bias related to Ben’s disability came into play here. Here’s what needs to happen:

  • Unless asked, Ben will probably not tell company leaders about the real reason he’s leaving the job. Organizational leaders need to talk with Ben about the reasons for his decision to leave the job. Further, they should be talking with any employee who’s leaving the job to try to find out what they can do better to retain talent.
  • Leaders need to set and communicate clear expectations around what inclusiveness should look like at their workplace.

This company needs to build disability awareness through training and through creating connections with disability organizations.

The takeaway

Workers with disabilities can be marginalized through unconscious bias that plays out in the informal culture of the workplace. Organizational leaders set the tone for whether this marginalization is acceptable.

The scenarios, including all names, characters, and incidents portrayed on this page are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, or products is intended or should be inferred.