How to manage employees with disabilities?

People with disabilities may just have the skills and competencies you require within your organization yet they are often under-employed. It is important to consider how your organization can tap this potential source of employees. Here are some ideas on how to manage employees who have disabilities.

Build trust
Developing rapport with employees with disabilities requires patience and effort. “Play the long game,” says Burris. “You need to spend a good amount of time building trust.” Inquire about the person’s hobbies, family, and interests outside of work. Be supportive and upbeat. “Lay the groundwork to show you care about them, and you are on their side,” he says. Developing a positive dynamic within the team will benefit everyone.

Clarify expectations
According to Mary Shapiro, a professor at Simmons College School of Management and the author of HBR Guide to Leading Teams, one of the biggest challenges of overseeing an employee with disabilities is the impact on your ability to manage your team’s workload. “When someone doesn’t have the ability to be proactive or to take on what you’re asking them to take on, you can’t just delegate and move on,” she says. A bit of handholding is necessary. Be prepared to spend “a lot of time” with your employee especially in the initial stages of an assignment. “This person may have a lot of questions that a ‘normal’ employee probably wouldn’t have.” She recommends initially giving your insecure worker “narrow, concrete types of projects” with well-defined deliverables. “Start with small simple tasks, make sure this employee understands the specifications, the resources available, and the timeline of each task,” she adds. Ultimately, though, the goal is for this employee to operate more autonomously, says Burris. “Explain that your expectations going forward are for the employee to work independently.”

Give specific feedback
An employee with disabilities is going to need confidence. To boost their confidence, “create opportunities for success and then give clear feedback on what enabled that success,” says Shapiro. “This is not a person that you can just say, ‘Nice job’ to.” You need to be definitive and explicit. Give your employee “an inventory of what he or she is good at.” She recommends saying something like, “Let me remind you of how well you did the last time you did this task. Your objective should be, according to Burris, is to “coach your employees on how to leverage their strengths by reminding them of times they have done well on a task and felt competent.” Precise and detailed compliments “when given in an authentic way” can help to “build up” their self-esteem.

The Buddy System
It can often be beneficial to pair an employee who has a disability with a peer with another co-worker, says Shapiro. Pairing co-workers to work on specific projects together helps them each “develop new abilities” and learn that there are people here that want to support you in your work. Maybe consider asking your employee to be a “mentor or coach” to another team member while being honest with your employee that they have a disability and will need patience as you work with them. Regardless, by asking your subordinate to coach someone else, it reinforces the value your employee sees in themselves.

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