The business case for inclusiveness

By Jennifer Findlay. 

American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Doing well is the result of doing good. That is what capitalism is all about.”

For Greg Cruson, general manager of Dutch Industries near Regina, the nexus of that equation can be found in the company’s policy toward inclusiveness.

The agricultural equipment manufacturer has hired several workers with intellectual disabilities over the years — not only to the benefit of the employee, but also to corporate morale and the overall bottom line.

“My grandfather was an immigrant from Holland, so coming from another country, he had a disability in the sense that he had to learn a new language and understand a new culture,” explains Cruson. “I can resonate with that experience. It’s always something we’ve felt important in our business.”

Recently, Dutch Industries brought on a disabled employee to pack bolts to include in global shipments. The result has been a dramatic decline in error rates — to virtual elimination — as well as improved customer satisfaction levels.

“Accuracy is very important in his position,” notes Cruson, “and he has a heightened sense of making sure things are correct. Attention to detail is a valued skill in any worker, so having an employee with a laser-like focus has benefits beyond measure.”

But to be successful, he adds, companies must implement a well-designed system to communicate to employees exactly what their goals and objectives are in a manner they can absorb. For example, if a worker has difficulty with reading comprehension, photos and videos can be a much more useful conduit to establish a common understanding.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, only one in five disabled workers require any special type of accommodation whatsoever. Of those, 65 per cent result in a direct cost of less than $500.

In the case of this particular employee, the only necessary accommodation was to ensure co-workers were aware of how his disability manifests and what to do about it.

“If you recognize everyone has something to contribute, that makes it much more clear what you can do,” says Cruson. “We expect no less of him than any other employee. They become part of the team, and we create value for customers. It’s not a handout — it’s real employment.”

Few leaders appreciate this sentiment more than Audra Penner, the president and chief executive officer of Winnipeg-based ImagineAbility Inc.

The organization runs a day program for adults living with disabilities, assisting more than 200 individuals to find and retain employment in a variety of contract manufacturing, assembly, and packaging environments, including with such clients as Boeing Canada and Kitchen Craft.

“Manufacturing is an ideal sector for the inclusion of persons with disabilities,” says Penner. “We focus a lot on continuous improvement and lean principles — especially visual management. It really helps with our processes and enables people to do more.”

Just like any other new hire, Penner is adamant it’s all about finding the right match.

With roughly four million disabled Canadians of working-age, success requires patience and an investment in time to find the right people — and resources. Job coaches for disabled workers are a popular tool for more seamless integration and forging better communication channels with supervisors.

“Once a person with a disability is employed with a company, that person tends to stay,” says Penner. They’re very loyal, and they want to stay with you.”

Data published by Ready, Willing & Able — a national partnership between the Canadian Association for Community Living, the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorders Alliance, and their member entities — shows the average annual turnover rate for workers across all industries hovers just under 50 per cent. The turnover rate for employees with intellectual disabilities, meanwhile, is a meager seven per cent.

That translates into good social practice and good business.

As for Cruson, who was recognized with the 2016 Saskatchewan Association of Rehabilitation Centres Employer of Excellence award, his best advice: Start slow, but don’t hesitate to jump in with both feet.

“We identified early on six or seven locations in our plant where a person with a disability could work,” he explains. “It’s been a really good thing for our business, from both a financial perspective and a human one.

“It’s worked out well because it advances the skills of all involved. It might be someone’s first job, yet it’s much more than that. It really is a catalyst for change.”