When we started talking about October as Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM), we really wanted to highlight inclusive hiring from a variety of perspectives.
One of the people that came to mind is Bill McGregor from Ready Willing and Able (RWA). We wanted to get his unique outlook as he works in both Calgary and Edmonton, with multiple Employment Support organizations and businesses.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell me about yourself and your background
Well, I’ve been in the human services industry most of my life in some capacity or another. I spent 30 years working with Child and Family Services – operating group homes, treatment foster care programs, and kinship programs. I’ve had some ventures into entrepreneurial businesses that I began. Then I got involved with Ready Willing and Able 3 years ago.
What is your role at ready willing and able?
I am the Regional Autism Coordinator for Alberta. My position is backed by RWA. None of us at RWA actually work for RWA. So, my position for example is based in Calgary and is hosted by Society for Treatment of Autism. But my work is entirely with Ready Willing and Able.
What drew you to the field of inclusive hiring?
Well it was a challenging job opportunity. It was with an agency, Society for Treatment of Autism, that I was very familiar with and I knew people in administrative roles. It was an opportunity to work with people again, which is always been what I’ve done. I’ve always been a salesman because I don’t think you can be in the people business without being a salesman. In this job it’s about selling concepts, it’s about selling ideas and it’s about selling success. In my role, it’s all about selling the concept of how valuable inclusive hiring is to business owners in terms of meeting their own bottom line.
What drives you to stay in the field?
I love working with people. Relationships are everything. In this position, like in many positions, I’ve met wonderful people. Wonderful employers, wonderful agency people, and wonderful job seekers – who without the supports that RWA can provide, would still be looking for employment. Every day is a new adventure.
Have you seen any trends in Alberta in the past few years regarding inclusive hiring?
Not as many as I’d like to see. What we’d like to see in Alberta for inclusive hiring is, first of all, a greater recognition from our provincial government in their role in supporting supportive employment programming and agencies that provide these supports. I feel that what is provided is good, but it’s not enough. And really that’s where RWA comes into play. We’re able to complement and enhance the capacity of agencies like Gateway Association and other organizations. They have people with skills to do the work with the individual job seekers, but don’t have the finances to provide those supports. We know in supported employment that all the research speaks to the importance of understanding that not only is it difficult for people to get a job, it’s more difficult to keep the job due to systemic barriers. How they keep the job is by having those supports. Having those relationships from agency people, the job coaches they’re typically called, is crucial. They’re the people who are on the front lines working with these individuals, building the relationship, and without those supports – continued employment for job seekers just wouldn’t be possible.
In your opinion what is the most effective approach when talking to employers about hiring?
The RWA approach is truly from a business case model, and I’m glad to say it simply replicates what agencies like Gateway do now a days. It’s not a charity case model. An agency takes on the responsibility to support an individual. So, they’re helping Mary or John find a job. However, with RWA I’m not person centric, I’m job centric – employer centric. So my job with an employer is to really help them identify the benefits to their bottom line. Let’s face it, businesses are in business to make money, that’s what it’s all about. Whether it’s a multinational company like Pepsi Cola, or whether it’s just “Mary’s Bakery.” They’re in business to make money, and in order for them to understand the value of inclusive hiring, it has to speak to their bottom line. So, we don’t ever ask them to create positions or carve positions, because I truly believe every good employer carves their job description to suit the skills and the strengths of the people they hire – whether they live with a disability or not. That’s what good employers do. So many times, my role with some employers to helping them understand that what we’re asking them to do is typically not much more than what they’re already doing, just in a different way. For example, we talk about accommodations, and how people with intellectual disabilities or autism might need accommodations in the workplace. Yes, they might. But typically, again, good employers already provide accommodations, just different kinds. For example, if an employer hires a person who is a single mom and their kid gets sick, they may have to miss work to provide care to the child. A good employer accommodates for that already. Job seekers have accommodations, they’re just different. But once I help employers understand that they already provide accommodations, it’s far easier for them to accept some of the accommodation requests that job seekers may need. You know, sometimes we do the right thing just because we believe it’s the right thing, but we don’t really understand the importance of it. We just do it and it just makes sense.
Again, the research supports the whole concept of inclusive hiring. It easily demonstrates how valuable inclusive hiring can be to an employer, in terms of the most committed, the longest serving, the lowest absenteeism and least amount of occupational health and safety violations. Employees are all rating very high, typically above and beyond the rest of their colleagues.
Why is inclusive hiring important to you?
Because I think it is truly a win-win-win situation. You know, why do we work? We work because we need money to live. We can get to that point where we can go beyond our basic living expenses – we get to do things like buy a car or go on trips. But in all of that, one of the most identifying things for people in our society is the work they do for employment, which can reflect their self-worth. So, helping these individuals find and keep work is important because it brings a sense of internal value. I think it’s a win for the business, because of retention and training costs. So, hiring people that will stick around for a long period of time is beneficial, and that’s what the job seekers tend to do. It’s a win for society in general because now we have more people belonging and contributing to their community. It’s what keeps me in the business – hearing stories like the one of the young man that Gateway worked with, and RWA supported, who started part-time at a company, moved to management and recently just bought the company. Every time we can have one more person working, I think we just build a much better community, a much better society, and we have one happier person, who is now in a position to contribute on so many levels to their communities. For me, it’s not hard to be passionate about my work.
Do you have an example of an employer who was against hiring but became inclusive?
I wouldn’t say that I’ve had any. Typically, when they’re totally against it then I will walk away. Because if I have to convince, persuade or encourage someone to change that much it’s typically not going to be very good for the employee. But I’ve found many employers who are sort of interested but are reluctant because of the common myths that surround people with disabilities. You know, like: “can they do the job?” “will they show up?” “can I count on them?” As human beings we tend to fear those things we don’t truly understand. So, for many employers that I talk to, I’m pushing them outside of their comfort zone. The other part that I believe is so important for inclusive employment is not only the support for the individual job seekers but supporting the employer as well. If an employer doesn’t understand Autism, for example – has never worked with, lived with, or met anyone that lives with Autism – it can create the fear of the unknown. So, one of the things I look for in partner agencies like Gateway Association is for them to provide an ongoing education and learning opportunities for that employer and their employees. We want them to gain the support from the people that are around them and that’s what most natural, but sometimes it’s a long road between having no supports and having organic supports. And again, that’s where RWA comes into play – by supporting agencies like Gateway Association through funding opportunities.
Do most employers seem to have an openness to inclusive hiring right away?
You know, right now in today’s word in Canada and the united states, if you look at corporate websites, you would look on there and it would be written many times that “we are an open and inclusive hirer, we don’t discriminate”, etc. But when it comes down to it, it’s about getting them to actually follow through. I believe it is an expectation of society and communities in general, that people be open to that concept of inclusive hiring. Some corporate entities put that on their website and they look good for it. But that’s not what makes an inclusive employer. A huge international company that has 750+ employees at one location considers themselves to be a good inclusive employer because they hired one person with a disability in 10 years ago. That’s not what I call an inclusive employer. RWA has national partners, like Home Depot and Costco, but just because they are national partners doesn’t mean that each location’s manager is willing to consider hiring inclusively. And that’s where unfortunately some personal biases come into play. And as much as you really work with them to help overcome barriers and help educate them, in some cases that’s possible and in others you just have to walk away.
Do you have an example of an employer who completely ran with inclusive hiring?
In Calgary, Purolator across the country made a commitment to become a national employment partner with RWA. So, across the country we were given the opportunity to go into the individual locations and explore those opportunities. In Calgary we currently have 12 people with differing abilities employed at Purolator, and more in the coming weeks. I meet with them about a couple times a year and have open communication between phone and email. The agencies are providing exceptional support, again, not just to the individual but to the company as well. They do lunch and learns, they do whatever is needed to help educate, and Purolator has just bent over backwards to support their employees. We had a recent situation where one job seeker was hired into a job that turned out to be not the best fit, so as in many cases, instead of firing her, they said “I think we could find another position for her in the organization which would better suit her strengths”, and that’s what they’re doing. So, you know, when you have those kinds of relationship and those employers that step forward, it’s spectacular, it really is.
Is there anything that you’re excited about regarding the future of inclusive hiring?
I’m excited about more employers being able to come to the table and truly become inclusive in their hiring practices. It benefits not only the employee but the entire community. I mean Canada is about inclusion. The demographics of Canada are made up of such a diverse mosaic which includes people who live with disabilities and our workplaces need to reflect the same thing. When they get accepted – when a work environment accepts individuals with differing abilities – it creates a totally different community. As I spoke earlier, being outside of our comfort zone is where we learn. By having people who come from different backgrounds who have their own traditions, that I’m not familiar with, learning about those things make me a better person. We need to celebrate differences, and the bottom line is simple: different means different. It does not in itself have judgement in it.
Have you seen a workplace culture change due to inclusive hiring?
I know that’s happening because I hear it from the employers and I hear it from the agencies that I partner with in Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge. Diversity helps change the whole culture. Certainly, I’ve met with employers who have said “absolutely the culture has changed here.” If you allow it to happen, the culture can’t help but be affected by having someone with a differing ability.