Employing people with disability in the APS: Findings from a cultural audit

Tue 1 November 2016

Employing people with disability in the APS: Findings from a cultural audit


The Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra recently completed a cultural audit of perceptions and practices in relation to the barriers employees with disability face in the APS.  The audit report is to be launched in Canberra on November 24. 

What is ‘disability’?

In our work with public servants on their perceptions around disability, a key question often raised was what is actually meant by the term ‘disability’’?

Traditional definitions of disability focus on the limitations of individuals often referred to as a ‘capability deficit’. For example the Australian Bureau of Statistics, defines disability as something that occurs if a person has ‘a limitation, restriction or impairment’ which lasts for a considerable period of time and restricts daily activities.

However, it is increasingly acknowledged that disability results from limitations imposed on individuals by a society designed by and for the ‘able-bodied’.  Thus the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability considers disability occurs ‘as a result of the interaction between people with impairments and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’.

We found that in the workplace, the term ‘disability’ often leads to a focus on what is lacking in a person, rather than what is limiting in the environment. This supports a culture of reactive adjustments for individuals who disclose disability, rather than proactive attempts at increasing the ability of an organization to support the recruitment, retention and career progression of people with diverse abilities.

Why the concern?

In most, if not all countries, there is an under-representation of people with disability in employment. In Australia for example, although people with disability make up almost 9 per cent of the workforce, in the Australian Public Service (APS) that figure is around 7 percent with only 3 per cent disclosing their disability to their agency.  Low representation and few role models can lead to hostile work places. In Australia, for example, public sector employees with disability are almost twice as likely to report feeling bullied or harassed than other groups. There is a moral imperative to place value on an inclusive culture and to empower rather than exclude minority groups; recognition should also be given to the benefits diversity brings such as representativeness, creativity, and overall enhancement of organizational performance.

Why an audit of disability perceptions and practices?

Even with the best of intentions and a comprehensive disability management program in place, an increase in the number of people with disability employed may have minimal effect on workplace culture.  This often occurs where staff have limited understanding of what constitutes disability and why disability awareness initiatives are needed. Research suggests disability policies can also lead to a backlash and concern about ‘reverse discrimination’.

An upfront cultural audit of the existing state of awareness and attitudes towards disability, provides a baseline measure of the organization’s ‘diversity climate’ and readiness for change.  It is important for leaders and managers to know the extent to which employees acknowledge any problems, in order to gauge whether there is a need to experiment with solutions.  This was the strategy that underpinned the audits we undertook across seven APS departments of various sizes and functions.

Our approach

We explored the main cultural and systemic factors perceived by public servants – whether or not they had disability – to affect workplace participation and career progress by people with disability. Our intention was to inform decision makers about any barriers and to provide evidence-based recommendations to enable effective policy action.

We used several methods to collect data: a qualitative analysis of three focus groups in each department; a quantitative on-line survey for all members of Department to validate findings emerging from the qualitative work and identify any inconsistent knowledge claims; and a quantitative analysis of relevant data across all Australian Government departments drawing on the Australian Public Service Commission’s State of the Service Reports.

What did we find?

In essence, we found that the mobilization of unconscious bias against public servants with disability was undermining both the quality of their professional lives and career progression. In overview, people with disability perceived more varied and intractable barriers to workplace participation largely because of poorly implemented departmental policies and procedures, than did people without disability.  However, both groups identified significant cultural, organizational and individual barriers. Some of the (overlapping) barriers identified included:

(a) Cultural barriers

  • unconscious bias in language, behaviours and preconceptions of capabilities;
  • at times an inhospitable culture, including in human resource areas; and,
  • at times, an absence of committed leadership.

 (b)  Organizational barriers

  • the definition of disability used can disempower employees;
  • lack of accessible and equitable recruitment, promotion and performance management processes;
  • lack of reasonable and prompt workplace adjustment processes;
  • unclear management roles and responsibilities;
  • an absence of senior role models;
  • limited human resource experience of dealing creatively with difference;
  • insufficient provision for targeted learning and development opportunities;
  • the impact of resource constraints; and,
  • a gap (sometimes quite large) between policies and implementation.

(c)   Individual barriers

  • a lack of empowerment, leading to insufficient autonomy and low confidence;          
  • the assignment of work that under-estimates capability;  
  • inability to access support networks;                    
  • inability to access flexible work arrangements;  
  • uninformed performance review processes; and,          
  • financial costs of participation.

Directions for Change

These findings indicate three critical dilemmas faced by public sector agencies; dilemmas that lead to specific areas for policy action.  These include: an alienating culture which leads to unconscious bias; organizational myopia and a lack of managerial capability; and ineffective policy implementation, including lack of appropriate learning and performance regimes.

It follows that strong, committed, consistent and inclusive leadership is a necessary (if not sufficient) area for action.  Culture reflects the underlying values and assumptions of the organization, which translate into the behaviours that leaders need to drive.

We asked our participants to suggest what their departments could do to reduce the barriers to employment they had identified. Despite differences in departmental cultures and individual backgrounds, the responses were surprisingly uniform across the departments, with a common call for action to include more awareness and unconscious bias training and support, as well as programs to build self-confidence.  Our studies suggest particular attention needs to be paid to building human resource teams with relevant skills and to ensure that human resource areas have representation in the departmental executive team. Moreover, all managers need supporting with training on affecting inclusive organizational behaviour.

Several writers have argued that an effective strategy for encouraging more people with disability into employment and ensuring their career progression, would start with ensuring that those within the organisation are involved in tasks that broaden their awareness of the benefits of increased diversity. Only once there is some motivation and awareness of why people with disability should be more prevalent in their organization, can managers then look to appropriate strategies to create a more diverse workforce.

If the aim is to ensure all individuals, regardless of difference, work to their full capabilities, then those with expertise – in this case, the person with disability –should be at the centre of a process of co-design geared towards building an inclusive workplace culture. Just Ask The Person (known in the trade as ATP) is the first and necessary step.  In this way more effective co-design of workplaces and practices can occur and not just for people with disability.  More specific areas for action designed to enhance organizational capability are included in our report.

In line with an emphasis on accepting the many differences in ways in which people – with or without disability – work, goes the value of mainstreaming policies that benefit everyone: accessible workplaces, flexible workplace policies, fair complaint systems, improved and fairer performance management processes, and more supportive supervisor-staff relationships will enhance all employee capabilities.  This would represent a move away from the medical approach to disability which views the individual as having a ‘problem’ which needs to be fixed, towards a more inclusive social approach to disability in which all employees in the organisation are valued.

Finally, our findings suggest it is more effective to consider how the workplace can be adapted for people with disability rather than focus on how they can be supported to fit into the existing workplace.  There is also a need to counter the belief that the concept of merit-based assessment already exists.  Only when an organization has taken seriously the value of diversity and combined it with an inclusive culture and a comprehensive set of safeguards, will trust grow and all employees have the chance to realize their full potential.





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