In this episode of the Recruitment Hackers Podcast, Julie Sowash Executive Director of Disability Solutions talks about disability hiring. She goes into how to make the hiring process accessible, by looking at your data and seeing who it’s excluding, then filling in those gaps. Plus, she says, you’ve already got people with disabilities working for you — but it’s time to think if the working conditions allow them to actually flourish and put their best work forward.
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Max: Hello, welcome back to the Recruitment hackers podcast, I’m Max, and today on the show, I've got my friend, Julie Sowash from disability solutions. Welcome to the show, Julie.
Julie: Thanks for having me, Max. It's nice to see you.
Max: Thank you. Nice to see you too. We used to meet at events across the North American territory, but now, this is my only way of meeting people, is on my podcast. So, thanks for coming on and I hope we're going to speak about your favorite topic of all, which is how to make organizations more disability-friendly.
Max: But before we go there, could you give us a little bit of your background and how you ended up in this very specialized field.
Julie: Yeah. So, as you said, I'm the executive director of disability solutions so we are a nonprofit based out of New York and Connecticut that work with fortune 5000 global companies also SMBs to help create really end to end talent acquisition solutions for people with disabilities and veterans with disabilities, you can almost think of us like a niche RPO for that talent pool. So there's like employer branding, videos, culture training or like even I need to fill these positions, go find them. We've helped companies hire a little over 3000 people with disabilities, about 20% of them are veterans with disabilities. Over the past five years. I actually also just became the leader of our overall diversity, equity and inclusion strategy for our parent company, which is a very large nonprofit on the East Coast, and the co host of the Crazy and the king podcast. My god!
Max: Nice. Good show.
Julie: Thank you. I love it. Lots of different hats I wear right now but I really came into this world about 12 years ago, I was managing a grant for the state of Indiana, that came from the federal government to help overcome barriers to employment for people with disabilities. And it was also at that time, where I was really struggling with my disability and my mental health and I've had several mental illnesses that I'll live with for the rest of my life since I was probably 19-20, and really through the work that I did in the disability community and through this grant and through the amazing people that I worked for, did I understand I didn't have to live in this constant instability. And so I really found that right around the age of 30, and have been just passionate about making a difference for my community since then. And what I really learned is that the government is surely not going to change the world for anyone. They're not going to change the way that society perceives us, the way that employers treat us, and so we have to work directly with the employer to help them understand our value, understand our impact and really understand that just like any other community you're investing in from a top perspective, and we should be one of those.
Max: Brilliant. I was showing you this presentation and I just came across this umbrella term called 'neuro divergence'. Is that what we saw?
Max: Is that how we talked about people with mental disabilities in general, these days.
Julie: So, no. So neurodivergent is like people with autism, people with Asperger's, people with ADHD, ADD. Technically I fit in the neurodivergent category but I don't say I'm neurodivergent, I say that I have a mental illness, because there's so much stigma around mental illness that we keep coming up with new terms to not deal with us. But in full transparency, it was my neurodivergent disability that took the longest to get diagnosed and was the one I needed to diagnose to get stable. So, you know, it's just how people label themselves and as I have this really big opportunity and big platform, and I don't feel like I can hide behind any of that stuff. I have a lot of privilege that comes with having a hidden disability and being white. And so I try to talk as much about mental illness as I can to help remove that stigma.
Max: Yeah, I totally get it. That honest talk about mental illnesses, is why I think a lot of people would kind of, outside of the US would roll their eyes a little bit when instead of calling people blind we would call them, you know, what's it called
Julie: Hearing? I'm sorry, visually impaired.
Max: Visually impaired, yes. Thank you. Yes, it's all these terms that are used not to offend, which are describing the same thing.
Julie: Yeah, Exactly.
Max: But, talking to employers directly then, once you say that's the solution we need, we need to talk to employees directly as part of the approach to talk about, the upside, that comes with a downside, meaning. If we're talking about mental illness, I guess some of the greatest geniuses in the world have had a serious mental illness. And some of the greatest philosophers, many of the people I've read when I grew up, I found out that they were really troubled people, because we had to read philosophy in school, and, you know, these people, they all end up in the loony bin at some point.
Max: But obviously they're geniuses, they're great writers and so you know I don't want to draw general conclusions, doesn't mean that everybody who is schizophrenic is a great writer, but how do you communicate around the upside of hiring someone with a mental illness.
Julie: So, I think maybe it's not the upside of hiring someone with a mental illness is that you've already hired lots of people with mental illness, but you're losing them because you're not building your systems, you're not building your benefits, you're not building a leadership structure that allows them to flourish. Right. If we teach our leaders how to lead mental health in the workplace is going to be a much more manageable thing. So, I've had good leaders, I've had good mentors who had mental illnesses that have taught me how to manage the things I need to manage. I'm lucky enough to be able to pass that on now. And so much of the thing around hiring mental illness is just what you said, it's either fake. Julie or just high strung get over yourself, or it's fear. Well, Julie might come in and shoot up the place. And so we really have to get past that piece first and say, the first thing that you need to understand is that we already exist in your workplace, we're already thriving and driving a lot of things in your workplace.
But you're losing a lot of people who could be thriving and driving because you're not attending to the whole person. And you're just treating them as the cog and I know that doesn't answer your question exactly, but there's a lot of barriers we have to get through first to get to the place where you see a benefit because right now so many employers can't even see past it as a reality. And so that's kind of the first step. And I would say you know just kind of keeping things, Uber personal. I wouldn't give my disabilities back. They make me really good at what I do, like really really good. And if my brain didn't work the way that it did. We wouldn't have 3000 people working, we wouldn't have systems and brands and things that we can, we can change the world with. But I wasn't always that way. And so once I had an employer where I could talk openly about who I was, I was able to get the help that I needed to become who I am today. And that piece if we think about it, that's the long-term benefit, that's why you hire someone because they're going to come and they're going to stay. They're going to get shit done right. Sorry, explicit podcast. They're going to get things done and they're going to bring to the table a different way of thinking, than how you think as an able-bodied-able-minded person. And that's the benefit.
Max: Yeah. Well, as an employer, maybe it's so much easier to focus on skills-based assessments rather than to get into personal matters, which is everybody's psychology because it's more directly measurable with the outcome as opposed. So when you're recruiting you're not going to. But I don't know if people will be able to say well I definitely want somebody with Asperger's because now I don't know how to know what's the upside of that.
Julie: Well, maybe you don't say you definitely want someone with Asperger's but maybe when you interview a person who looks down a lot or doesn't engage in small talk well, that you still give them the opportunity to get through the interview and if they have the skills, or the ability to be trained you don't care that you can't connect with them directly. We hire people that we feel comfortable with, but you understand that he or she has the skill set, even though they don't have the best interview skills. So, it's not that you necessarily have to go looking for that person but you shouldn't actively be shoving that person out the door because they didn't have the best interview skills, you know what I mean.
Max: This gets me thinking that maybe 2020 was a pretty good year for people with disabilities. If it puts an end to the face-to-face interview for a lot of companies. Maybe it allowed people to shine a different light on a group of job seekers.
Julie: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, for a lot of people it was very hard, mentally, but it also kind of cut down a lot of those barriers. Button a sea, have to be best friends with everyone that you work with, have to be physically present, no sort of flexibility and accommodations and schedules to now understand that the entire world has the ability to work at home. When an employer decides that that's an allowable thing to do, it's not that we don't have the tech it's not that we don't have the interfaces none of that was a barrier when the world stopped, and for our community coming out of COVID, the conversation is different, the conversation is, not working at home it's not an accommodation that we do at this company. Yeah, you do. Yes, we can all have team-building experiences and build leaders within a corporation, when we're on the phone like this. And so I think it did provide a lot of opportunities for people to get their foot in the door with remote positions and with lesser degrees of intensity on interviews. That's not universal, but I think we should come out of this a lot stronger, from an employment perspective than we went into it.
Max: Yeah, I mean if you don't have wheelchair access now it doesn't matter so long as you got the internet. I mean, at least for the white-collar jobs but of course, you still have a lot of jobs where I mean most of the market I guess in terms of headcount where it hasn't gone full virtual yet of course. Well, that's great to hear about the markets and the talent pools opening up and processes being adapted. I'm curious. One thing is that I run a company where we try to expand the talent pool as much as possible. The more applicants come in for our customers, the better. And the better for us actually because then we get to use all of our technology to really fast-track the best candidate. So, I'm all for opening things up. And I'd be curious to hear if you have any advice on how we can create a good experience for different groups. I don't know where to begin because we cover a lot of ground on disability but perhaps you could pick one, that you think could work for me.
Julie: Yeah, I mean so if we just even think about recruitment marketing, we've got candidate pools and talent pools and all these kinds of things for everyone. We've got all of this very intensive diversity branding, that's out there that companies are trying to use to draw in candidates that value diversity. Almost none of those include talent with disabilities. And when they do a lot of the time, it is the stock wheelchair photo. It's not real stories, it's not real people at work, it's not leaders within your organization. And so one thing that companies can absolutely do better is to tell that story right. We can't bring our whole selves to work if we know that by hitting the you value every diversity group but ours. And we're the largest right I mean there are 61 million Americans and what over a billion people in the world with disabilities. And so you're actively pushing that talent pool out the door, and you're not inviting them in the way that you're focusing on bringing any other group in. And I think also with that in terms of a branding perspective you also have to recognize that we are the group that everyone can be a part of. So when you're trying to attract black talent when you're trying to attract black women, disability runs through those populations, and they have sometimes less access to services and care than I do.
And so when you live in the intersections right and you start to understand that from a branding perspective and employer brand perspective, the nuance of including disability becomes a lot easier. And then you need systems that, and I'll say this from an American perspective, the systems that we interact with as job seekers are designed to exclude, they're designed for the most part to give you the most efficiency. The most likely successful candidate in 30 seconds or less. And not just this ability but those data management techniques, assessments all of those pieces and parts will push disability out. And they push other diversity groups out too This isn't, rocket science.
If you build systems to give you exactly what you have, then that's what you're going to get. And so, when you're really thinking about how to make an impact, all of the data is in your ATS, you have that information. And if you spend the time in it you will find the places where people with disabilities are falling out, you will find the places where veterans are falling out. And then you adjust for it, and you create that opportunity within the systems because you don't want to create extra work for recruiters, you don't want to create extra headaches. In the talent function. You've got to have record keeping. So you create those opportunities there and then you build actions and outreach and brand to drive those candidates into a pool, or into a process that is going to be built for them and built with them in mind instead of built to physically remove them.
Max: Okay, so let me recap on this a little bit. Let's say I'm listening to this podcast and I feel energized and I'm like, Okay, I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna make my company more friendly. So, I would go back to my pipeline, my talent pipeline, look at people who've been rejected and understand, okay amongst these populations. Is there a way I could have made the process a little bit more encouraging and easier, and who can I have salvage from this talent pool and give him a second chance? That could be one approach, and then, of course, everything you said on marketing or branding and communication. Just find those stories inside your company that can inspire others to apply with confidence.
Julie: Yes. And you'll see in your data when you look at your pool, you'll see versus the general population, you will see where people fall out. It really is those adjustments that make it scalable and make it doable for a company at a very high level or a very enterprise-level without creating subprograms and things that live and die with champions.
Max: Great. Some people have told me I've got a face for the radio, others have called me Robert Pattinson. But are there certain jobs, I mean, is there a way to match a certain disability with certain jobs like I'd say, perhaps if you're blind, you have an end steering and therefore, be great to take on phone calls, for example on customer service. Is that also part of your recommendations to certain employers?
Julie: So I think so much as trying to match a disability to a job. You want to match your outreach to the job. So let me give you an example, you brought up customer service. If you know that your customer management system is web-based and accessible, it can work with a screen reader, then you definitely want to reach out to the blind community, and be able to attract blind job seekers and know that they're going to be able to be successful with that screen reader to manage those customer service calls. If you have a Siebel based system, and you know it would cost $4 million for you to make it accessible, then you probably don't want to reach out actively to that community because you're going to give them a terrible experience right, bad for you, bad for them, bad for the brand. And so, I say there is no person or no job a person with a disability can't do.
But if you know what kind of roles that your especially your high volume roles, what you're looking for, then you really can target those groups or those community based organization that serve those types of individuals and provide education, about what the requirements really are, and help people to understand that because you also have to think that this is like what you and I do every day right we live in the systems we live in all of those processes and data management things, job seekers don't and job seekers with disabilities who have supports from community based organizations or from family members. Most people don't know talent acquisition, all they're doing is just applying the more transparency and education we can provide upfront during the process to help people understand what their real requirements of the jobs are will help people to self-select in or self-select out.
Max: And with the employers, you're encouraging employers to reach out specifically to groups that could work well in their environments as well. And do you have success stories where, because I know as a business owner, you would see this as an opportunity, gives you a leg up on the competition, here's this great talent pool of job seekers who typically are shown the door, because they don't perform so well in the standardized selection process. I'm going to reach out to them and this is going to give me access to a new talent pool. Can you give us an example of a company that's done a great job?
Julie: So I'm going to say my favorite Pepsi, who just won an award from the federal government and doesn't have to do those nasty compliance audits for three years. We helped them create a program called the Pepsi act which is achieving change together. They've hired several thousand people with disabilities over the past several years, and two of my kind of favorite stories with them. One since you brought up neuro divergence is, we had a young man who was sweeping the store, like a clothing store right like a retailer, and he really wanted to move out on his own and wanted to get a car, do all these things. And he was autistic, and he literally was the worst interviewer on the planet, like we practiced and practiced and practiced. We finally got him through the interviews with a lot of help and a lot of patience from the hiring manager on the other side. And what we found was that Henry is his name, Henry was incredible at solving people's problems.
So you think a person with autism may not be super social, maybe not great at customer service. You call you're upset about something, you're not gonna get Henry to let that go until he fixes it for you. And so, not only did Pepsi get a great employee who spent several years in the call center. Henry got to move out, Henry got to buy a car, Henry who has been told his entire life he could never live on his own. And those are the kind of things that can be achieved with not that much work like this isn't rocket science. It's just a little bit of time. It's just a little bit of process. And then we had in that same actually in that same call center, a lady who had been in a car accident and struggled with mental health issues had been off work for several years, single mom actually a black single mom, three kids, couldn't get in the door because she'd had such a gap in employment, every time those systems just shoved her right out. She was in her first quarter the top salesperson in the gold club, in all of PepsiCo for the sales team that she worked with, she got a visit from the Secretary of Labor, still works with Pepsi to this day. And she was just really good at her job and somebody gave her a chance, they didn't give her pity, they didn't give her charity, they just gave her an opportunity. And that's what it takes. I mean those are the kind of success stories that you can build but you can build them at scale. It doesn't have to be one Henry, doesn't have to be one person, it can be thousands.
Max: I want to hire Henry.
Julie: Henry is awesome.
Max: I want to hire Henry like sometimes you've got this nagging issue with a customer that you know if somebody was obsessed enough on it, it would just go away eventually.
Max: But nobody has the time because everybody's got a hundred things going on. And, you know, you need to put Henry on that stuff so I could see how someone would, you know this disability would potentially have a really good outcome in this kind of problem. So, a really good example. Great. Well, Julie, we've only just touched on these topics. I'm sure people will want to know more, and study this and open these opportunities for their talent acquisition strategy. How do they get a hold of you? Besides connecting you, maybe you should first connect them to your podcast, and then what's the best way to get a hold of you.
Julie: So you can find the podcast at crazyandtheking.com, and LinkedIn just Julie Sowash disability solutions, easy enough, and Twitter @JulieSowash S O W A S H just how it sounds.
Max: Alright. Thanks, Julie.
Julie: Thank you, Max.
Max: Thanks for coming on.
Julie: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Max: That was Julie Sowash from Disability Solutions, telling us a little bit of good news that came out of COVID. in last year that the talent with disability was actually helped a lot by the transition of the market as employers realize that physical presence was not a prerequisite for a lot of jobs.
Creating opportunities for a much broader segment of the population. Hope you enjoyed Julie's interview and if you did, please subscribe and share the recruitment hackers podcast with friends.