A recent case in the US has drawn attention to how new technology can have the unexpected impact of discriminating against disabled employees.
But how can HR bosses predict when systems will be disruptive to employees who need additional support?
Marol Spaeth started working at Walmart in 1999. She received repeated positive performance reviews, until a new computerized scheduling system was introduced in November 2014 that impacted her hours.
Spaeth has Down syndrome, a condition that means that she requires a rigid routine, and so she struggled with the change. In spite of repeatedly asking for her schedule to be adjusted back to her previous working hours, she was fired in July 2015.
When the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) bought the case to a Wisconsin court, it was ruled that Walmart had failed to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate Spaeth’s disability, and Spaeth was awarded $125m in damages.
However, a Walmart spokesperson told UNLEASH:
“We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year.
“We often adjust associate schedules to meet our customers’ expectations and while Ms. Spaeth’s schedule was adjusted, it remained within the times she indicated she was available.
“We’re sensitive to this situation and believe we could have resolved this issue with Ms. Spaeth, however the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable.
“The verdict will be reduced to $300,000, which is the maximum amount allowed under federal law for compensatory and punitive damages.”
Inclusivity as a “tick box”
The Walmart case brings crucial attention to the rights of disabled employees, and the duty of care that employers owe them.
Data suggests that 73% of disabled workers have stopped working as a result of a disability or health condition, and that a shocking 66% of managers say that the cost of workplace adjustments are a barrier to employing a disabled person.
“Many companies purport to prioritize inclusivity for disabled colleagues, but there are very few that do it well,” says Jane Dyer, a business consultant who uses her personal experience of navigating the workplace with birth defect Spina Bifida to help those with health and disability-related needs to ensure that their requirements are met.
“Inclusivity is often seen a tick box when it comes to recruitment and progression, but there are many hurdles around both inclusivity and accessibility,” notes Dyer.
“For small organizations this is mostly due to a lack of awareness of the issues, and large organizations are often hampered by historic, inflexible HR policies which do not fit with the needs of the individual.”
The tip of the iceberg?
The Walmart case demonstrates how technology can hinder colleagues with very specific needs, however there have also been some significant strides in improving accessibility aided by new digital tools.
The rise of remote working has allowed individuals who have difficulties travelling to a workplace to thrive in roles that might previously have been inaccessible to them.
While assistive technology such as caption calling (which provides a text recitation of phone calls) or screen magnification (which can enable sight-impaired workers to see the content of their monitor more easily) have had a significant impact in enabling and retaining talent.
Yet experts argue that the Walmart case is just the tip of the iceberg. Karen Jackson is an employment law expert and Managing Director of disability discrimination lawyers Didlaw.
She points out that cases in Europe and the UK have also seen individuals successfully show that companies that used technology in working and hiring practices were discriminatory.
In one example, an individual with Asperger’s syndrome argued that a multiple-choice recruitment exercise graded by a computer indirectly discriminated against her, winning the case on the basis that this put her at an unlawful disadvantage.
“Companies have to consider whether any technology that they use might have an adverse effect on any protected group,” says Jackson.
“And if it does then they are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove the disadvantage.
“In practical terms, this might mean having a separate and non-tech policy for anyone who is disabled. It is incumbent on businesses to do more for disabled employees.”
Disabled individuals face discrimination even before they are hired
She believes that technologies that monitors employee behavior, targets and workflows often drive towards a “standardized” model of work where there is little space for different needs or ways of working.
“Even before being hired, disabled people face discrimination from automated technology,” she says.
“From resume readers that discount applicants with employment gaps to video interviews where points are scored for things like holding eye contact, disabled people are already at a disadvantage.”
Ensuring that technology doesn’t discriminate
Mole believes that the most important thing that a company can do to ensure that their technology does not discriminate is to open up clear and dedicated pathways to a HR team member who is trained to help disabled staff members.
The earlier that employees are able to report their concerns, the easier it will be to find a constructive solution.
She also points to the importance of seeking out technology that specifically supports and prioritizes disabled employees, rather than just trying to avoid tools that might do the opposite.
“Companies shouldn’t be afraid of new technology that is seen as experimental,” she says.
“Advancements like the Blockchain (digital records linked together using cryptography) give us a glimpse of the future of assistive applications for a wide range of business areas, including HR.”
“With the ability to anonymize resumes it removes the potential of unchecked bias discrimination, and could also provide a system where disabled people can create a smart contract of their accessibility needs.
“This could then be automatically transferred to any new employer, and helps to integrate the worker’s job capabilities and the existed technology that the company uses without the lengthy personal enquiries that disabled people face every time they start a new place of employment.”
The companies leading the way for inclusivity
Mole also points out that some companies are already doing great work in improving accessibility – Lloyd’s Banking Group, for example, actively commits to developing disabled talent and has been recognized for how they work to harness the untapped potential of their disabled workforce.
AirBnB, UPS, Microsoft and many other companies have all been commended by The Disability Equality Index, which annually benchmarks how companies perform against factors such as demonstrating a cultural commitment to disability inclusion; supplier diversity; and workplace accessibility.
How can other companies follow suit and ensure that they are developing and using genuinely supportive and accessible technology?
“Continuously monitoring employees is the first step to finding pain points in a business that is failing in its commitment to diversity, accessibility and inclusion,” says Mole. “But what a company does with this information is what is going to make the difference.”
“I would love to see more companies taking the initiative to include their disabled staff in senior conversations [about new tools].
“Actions such as running trials of any new technology with staff who are going to be most impacted could help companies to develop their accessibility measures, and to ensure that new tools aren’t rolled out without sufficient due diligence.”
“Companies have to understand that new technology won’t be an easy transition for some, but that overall the future is a really exciting place for accessibility and inclusion.”
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Katie Bishop is a book editor and freelance writer. She writes on topics including feminism, mental health, and the social impact of technology. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, Business Insider, the Independent, and Vogue amongst many other publications.