From mental health to pay disparities to politics, a growing number of subjects are evolving from taboos to topics of interest in the workplace. Similarly, many employees opt out of disclosing disabilities. An Accenture survey from 2020 found that 76% of employees and 80% of management with a disability are not transparent about it even though they’re 30% more engaged with their work if they do.
As diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders, part of your responsibility is creating a culture where employees feel comfortable disclosing their disabilities without fear of negative judgment or discrimination.
At Voya Financial, 3% of its employees identify as disabled or with special needs, which is on par with Accenture’s survey. As the chief diversity and corporate impact officer, Angela Harrell is focused on generating a disability-inclusive environment that encourages its more than 7,000 employees to work in their truest, freest forms. Her team is also passing along their best practices externally to millions of customers.
Read on for an edited excerpt of our exclusive interview with Angela Harrell to learn how Voya Financial, a retirement, investment, and insurance company, leads disability inclusion training and partners with disability-focused nonprofits.
Senior Executive Media: What kind of disability inclusion training is Voya leading?
Angela Harrell: We have a program called Voya Cares, which caters to helping people understand and navigate through the labyrinth of complexity [of healthcare and employee benefits], whether you have a disability or special needs or you’re a caregiver for an individual who does, and what the financial and health implications are because it’s complicated.
When we started that work, we actually started from inside. We started by understanding the needs of our individuals who were part of that community or caregivers, and that’s how we really started to get insights into what was missing and what the gaps are.
One of the things that we’ve done from a training perspective is continual training on what disabilities mean and what inclusion means. Specifically, all people managers, starting at the beginning of last year I believe, go through mandatory training around disability inclusion in the workplace and how, as a manager, you support those individuals: etiquette, vernacular, conversation, accessibility, accommodation, and employee relations.
[Mary Beth Conklin, the director of corporate communications at Voya Financial adds: “The Disability Inclusion in the Workplace Training for managers was designed to advance recruitment and hiring of individuals with disabilities, as well as help with retention. The training covered a wide range of topics including how to schedule an interview, accommodate candidates with disabilities, interact and work with employees with disabilities, and other tips to advance disability inclusion at Voya.“]
Then, it actually moved from an internal focus to commercialization. How do we bring this to the employers who are our clients, so that their employees who are the individuals who have 401(k)s or health plans have access to this information as well?
[Conklin adds: “We recently hired [Brandy McCrary], a recruiter dedicated to recruiting individuals with disabilities. She is also working with our Veterans Council and People with Disabilities and Caregivers Council to identify and assign mentors to support new hires who are veterans and/or employees with disabilities. Additionally, Voya provides support for employees and clients through Wellthy, a healthcare concierge service focused on helping families care for loved ones with complex, chronic, or ongoing care needs, such as a parent with dementia, a child with autism, or a spouse with Parkinson’s disease.”]
[McCrary shares that when an employee with a disability is hired, Voya offers the following:
- Assistive technology or software, such as screen readers, specialized headsets, voice recognition software, and speech-to-text software
- Modified work schedules or duties to accommodate medical appointments or other needs related to the disability
- Accessible workstations or ergonomic equipment, such as adjustable desks or chairs
- Job coaching or training to help the employee learn new skills or adapt to changes in the job duties
- An optional mentorship program]
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Senior Executive Media: Why is having a culture of disability inclusion important to you?
Angela Harrell: I’m an individual with a disability, which I’ve had for over 20 years, and I never would have talked about it at my previous employer. Never. No one, except for my very closest friends, would have even known because I never would have felt comfortable if people were looking at me through a lens of wondering: ‘Is she capable of doing x because of her vestibular disorder? Is she capable of doing y?’ Or maybe attributing mistakes that I made to: ‘Well, you know, she’s got that disability.’ I never felt like I could be transparent and open about that until I was here.
I found myself at a fireside chat that I was actually moderating with somebody else who has a disability. He has had brain surgery due to epileptic seizures… and I just found myself talking about my own disability in this fireside chat, and I was horrified, like, what have I just done? What have I just disclosed? But I was also liberated and relieved. All I got as a follow-up was support. All I got was other employees saying: ‘Because you said something and you’re a senior leader, I feel like I can.’ I feel like [Voya] is the kind of place where even though I have this thing, it won’t hold me back from being successful here. It taught me that sharing your own story can have implications not just for you feeling a bit freer, but giving people permission to also share who they are without fear. From a disability inclusion perspective, we have really focused on that in the past seven years.
Senior Executive Media: You mentioned you disseminate disability inclusion training to your clients. How do you do that?
Angela Harrell: We offer training and education for our clients, who are also employers. That training and education that comes is helping employers know and understand the ways in which they can provide guidance, products, and services to their employees. Those are through one-on-one meetings with our clients, who are, again, also employers, or through various conferences and things of that nature. In essence, what we’re helping employers do is better know and understand how they can support their employees who have disabilities, special needs, or who are caregivers in terms of the benefits that they provide.
“In essence, what we’re helping employers do is better know and understand how they can support their employees who have disabilities, special needs, or who are caregivers in terms of the benefits that they provide.”
We do legislative advocacy work with the CEO Commission for Disability Employment to increase the number of individuals with disabilities who are employed by drawing attention and awareness to the great level of unemployment for individuals with disabilities. We also have other partners; the National Down Syndrome Society is one of our big nonprofit partners. We’re working on legislatively advocating for equal pay … People who have special needs don’t actually have to be paid minimum wage. We’re also working with Disability:IN, another nonprofit partner who advocates for disability employment through a number of programs and initiatives.
Senior Executive Media: I read that Voya Financial donated $50,000 to Disability:IN as well as the National Down Syndrome Society to kick off Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Why did you choose to donate to these organizations? How do they further Voya Financial’s commitment to DEI?
Angela Harrell: When we first began thinking about how we want to start helping people get to a place of more financial confidence and security who have disabilities or special needs or who are caregivers, we thought we might have the acumen around financial services, but we also need to better understand and know the community and the needs of the community through those who’ve been working and serving them over a long period of time. Both Disability:IN and National Down Syndrome Society were two that we partnered with for our own education — awareness and training as an organization — but also our missions align so well in terms of being people-oriented and empowering and providing tools and resources that help people live more fulfilling lives. They’re two of a number of nonprofits within the disability space that we partner with.
We also partner with an organization called Creative Spirit and the Special Olympics.
[Conklin adds: “Creative Spirit and Voya share the same commitment to creating integrated employment opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Creative Spirit also named Harrell a 2021 Champion of Diversity.
Voya has a long history of support for the Special Olympics through both volunteerism and employee giving. A deep commitment to disability inclusiveness has long been a priority for Voya in our marketing efforts as well. Voya’s ‘Invest in Something Special’ advertising campaign was an ESPN Humanitarian Award finalist, raised awareness of Special Olympians’ dreams beyond sport, and donated over $520,000 to Special Olympics.”]
Easterseals is another significant partnership we just kicked off, which will help us focus on what we call career extenders, or Employment Extenders, those individuals who are working well past the typical retirement age … If you’re working past the typical retirement age, you’re probably going to have needs that are not the same as younger generations within the workforce.
Senior Executive Media: How do you encourage your employees to act as allies to support the disability inclusion training at Voya?
Angela Harrell: Three years ago this April, when we launched allyship training, which is an online course, and it is focused on not just knowing and understanding what allyship means but what do you do? What are the actions?
Also, each of our employee-led councils, formerly our employee resource groups, has its own programming. They put together a fact sheet like how can you be an ally for my community? What are some of the things that you can do? What are some of the resources that you can explore to learn more about us, our culture, and the ways that you can stand up for us?
CEO Commission for Disability Empowerment
Employment Extenders Study, partly sponsored by Voya Financial
National Down Syndrome Society