There are plenty of reasons to be wary of advocating mandatory reporting on employment targets that favour minority groups. For one, mandatory reporting spawns yet another regulatory regime. Another is that, as a form of affirmative action, it can often lead to real or perceived cases of unfairness and injustice. And a third: it tends to create waves of public cynicism, backlash and sometimes envy.
Turn your mind for a moment to the acrimony caused by affirmative action campaigns of recent years in gender equity and Indigenous affairs. Light skinned Aboriginal people were alleged to have used their ethnicity to gain supposedly lucrative jobs, and talented women have been subject to continual innuendo and name-calling as token appointees after winning a rare executive promotion or a board position.
Merit should prevail, so the argument goes, forgetting that for years merit was not a factor in the persistent exclusion of those from society’s out-groups. I dare say that many longstanding board directors might get a little nervous if the merit meter was passed over their appointments in years past.
That said, I believe the evidence is now building that supports the introduction of mandatory reporting for the employment of Australians with a disability, mindful that it is not wise to use the legislative stick lightly. I do believe, however, that we can mirror a few of the things that are happening in the gender equity arena. The recently passed Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 will add to the obligations of employers to report on gender equality indicators. And last year the ASX imposed a number of new diversity reporting requirements on listed companies; however, the only mandatory reporting requirement applies to progress on gender diversity.
A look at the history of diversity with respect to disability employment over the past decade is a sobering experience. I’m talking about the time since the Costello welfare-to-work budget when Governments began to put significant taxpayer money into boosting the workforce participation of those Australians with a disability who were willing and able to work but who could not get into the workforce. The main argument for moving in that direction has been the lagging total factor productivity number which could be improved by moving more Australians from disability support pensions into jobs. Other reasons include the social inclusion agenda of the present Government culminating in the Prime Minister’s Australia Day speech this year on the dignity of work.
Yet despite all the bi-partisan good will, the now billions of dollars invested in the issue, and all the excellent work done in improving the job readiness of candidates, the number of Australians with a disability who are not able to get a job has remained roughly unchanged for the last decade at around 800,000. A COAG report released a few weeks ago confirms that is still the case.
Last year PwC released a report showing that people with disabilities living in Australia have the poorest quality of life in the developed world. We rank 27th out of 27 countries in the OECD. Writing recently on an ABC blog, Stella Young went to the trouble of listing the other 26 countries. Here they are: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, the United States. Do we really want to be at the rock bottom of that list?
At a time when Australia has record low unemployment and we are rightly proud of being the envy of the world during hard economic times, this OECD ranking is a blight on our self-image and our international reputation, and might go some way to explain why our productivity continues to dog the economy despite all the other signs of strength. When the Grattan Institute reported recently on improving Australia’s productivity it cited only the increased participation of single mothers and the mature aged workforce as having a significant impact. Around four million people (nearly one in five Australians) have a disability and there are a further 2.6 million carers. These two groups continue to face substantial barriers to full participation in society (according to the COAG report). It surprises me to see that these groups are not being discussed as a priority in our productivity debates?
At a personal level, it’s widely accepted that having a job is one of the best ways to improve the quality of a person’s life. Stella Young regards herself as one of the lucky ones: she was from a rural community and was not placed in a special school when she was young. Instead she gained academic rather than ‘life’ skills. That enabled her to get a university degree and a well-paid job. Here is Stella again: “People with disabilities are unemployed for a variety of reasons. Namely a lack of access to education, the built environment, personal support and equipment.”
To Stella Young’s list I would add one more: the widespread reluctance of employers to employ a person with a disability. We recently surveyed our 20,000 HR practitioner members and asked a question about where their organisation would prefer to source labour if they were limited to choosing from one of five target groups. The results showed that 49 per cent would choose mature aged Australians, 26 per cent skilled immigrants, 13 per cent young Australians, but only 7 per cent would choose respectively from the groups of Australians from Indigenous backgrounds or Australians with a disability.
In light of these survey results it’s no surprise that our members who identify themselves as advocates for people with disability within their own organisations also tell us that it’s a hard sell. There is no public groundswell that they can call on such as we see with gender equity, for example. If they propose short-listing a person with a disability during a recruitment exercise, they risk earning the rancour of the line manager for proposing such a person and the resentment of everyone else if an appointment is made which doesn’t work out.
There are many reasons why an appointment might not work out, and it may not be because the person who gets the job is not willing and able to perform. Those of us in employment need adequate resources to perform to our optimum and people with a disability are no different. That is especially the case with the speed of technological change. We all need to keep up to date and to be trained. Yet despite an excellent and well-funded support system from government to enable the smooth appointment of people with disabilities, many employers tell us they are not aware of uncapped assistance that will fully fund employers for costs incurred in making workplace adjustments, purchasing specialist technologies, conducting inductions and providing ongoing training, among other things.
I would like to think there is room for hope that things are changing, but change will need to involve employers taking ownership of the agenda, and from where I’m sitting that’s a long time coming.
My clear preference is for employers to voluntarily take it upon themselves to set targets for giving jobs to people with disabilities, and to set performance indicators for managers to make it happen, especially if those KPIs involve rewards through bonuses. Some good employers are already doing that.
A game-changer needs to happen to get disability employment on employers’ radar and the game-changer most likely to work looks like being the legislative imposition of mandatory reporting on targets – otherwise I can see myself writing the same blog in 2020.
Serge Sardo is the chief executive of the Australian Human Resources Institute and a member of the Australian Government’s Reference Group on Disability Employment Services
An edited version of this blog appears in the digital version of The Australian Financial Review on 27 June ‘Ignorance becomes its own disability in hiring’.