Austin, TX – Bree Sarlati, Co-CEO of Peak Performers, was recognized by the Staffing Industry Analyst’s annual “40 under 40” list. Founded in 1989, Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA) is the leading global advisor on staffing.
These 40 professionals exemplify passion, integrity, creativity and the perseverance that is needed to connect people to new opportunities amid COVID-19 and beyond,” from SIA’s website.
Bree started with Peak in 2012 and has worked in every part of Peak’s business: payroll, marketing, recruiting, staffing, and office management. Bree joined the leadership team in 2017 and under her leadership, she has lead a series of organizational transformations and grown Peak’s book of business by 40%.
In spite of these troubled times, Peak Performers is a success story: we are a local, medium-sized business that continues to grow and offer much needed jobs to hundreds of people,” Bree commented after the award.
Peak has been most recently assisting the Texas Workforce Commission in recruiting for dozens of roles to help with the processing of unemployment claims during the COVID-19 crisis.
Peak Performers is a rare nonprofit staffing firm: there are only a handful of similarly structured organizations in the country. As part of their nonprofit mission, Peak is setting a new standard of employment for people with disabilities and chronic medical conditions by helping them get professional roles. Skilled job seekers with ADA-qualifying conditions receive job priority for Peak’s positions and over 80% of their workforce have an ADA-qualifying condition. Peak’s vision is two-fold: to change what it means to be a job seeker with a disability, and to challenge the preconceptions that make employers reluctant to hire someone with a disability.
Our mission now is especially important. In the best of times, people with disabilities experience an unemployment rate double that of the national average. That’s why we’re committed to helping people succeed through meaningful employment opportunities,” said Bree.
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After reading a recent article from the Society of Human Resource Management, we at Peak Performers were reminded of just how much fear and misunderstanding still exists when it comes to hiring people with disabilities. In the article, SHRM uncovers that significant biases still exist, with 32% of managers saying they would be uncomfortable hiring someone with a mental-health disability, and 42% of HR professionals believing work can’t be done by someone with a learning or attention disability. Perhaps most striking is a lack of disability training and corporate recruitment initiatives for people with disabilities that are in place.
We’ve hired a lot of people with disabilities over the last 25 years. Over 80% of our current staff have a qualifying disability (and many of those are non-observable disabilities). Below, we share our insights into successfully hiring and retaining individuals with disabilities:
People with Disabilities are Everywhere
Disability crosses all races, cultures, sexes, and identities—it affects people of all walks of life. Disability takes many forms; these include physical, mental, and emotional conditions. Conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, PTSD, depression, diabetes, and epilepsy are examples of disabilities that are not usually observable but have an impact on life and work and are qualifying conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Additionally, chronic medical conditions (such as having or previously having had cancer) and perceived disabilities (such as dwarfism or physical disfigurements) also qualify. It is estimated that under these definitions, 20% of the US workforce has a disability. You may already be working with someone who has a disability, or you may have a qualifying condition yourself.
People with Disabilities are Still People
People with disabilities are all around us. Often, they want to be treated the same as any other employee. The majority of employees with disabilities do not seek special considerations; they want to be evaluated based on the merits of their work. Many people with disabilities are fully independent adults who strive to have happy, productive working lives. Having a disability will often have little or no bearing on their ability to do a job.
Accommodations Often Aren’t That Bad
The current laws call for “reasonable accommodations” and seek to develop a dialogue between the employee and employer. Accommodations are often not as costly or difficult as an employer might perceive, and also do not require you to fundamentally treat an employee with a disability differently than others. In our experience, most of our employees with disabilities don’t even require an accommodation in order to get their work done.
When they are requested, many accommodations are slight alterations to the work space to ensure that employees will be comfortable, productive, and healthy. For an employee with photosensitivity epilepsy, we often accommodate them by permitting them to wear sunglasses indoors or provide them with a light filter for their computer screen. For an employee with scoliosis, we provide them with a standing desk. The most common situation we encounter is when an employee needs to take time off or modify their work schedule in order to attend doctor appointments. (Individuals without disabilities also go to the doctor!) When an accommodation request does not seem reasonable or compatible with the essential functions of the job, you may want to consult with a seasoned HR professional or legal team for guidance. We also have links to more resources below.
We also encourage employers to consider the possibility that making your workplace more accessible (particularly for those with mobility-related disabilities) may prove to be an investment that enhances the way your entire workforce uses the space. Similarly, making your digital workspace more accessible and comfortable to use, may help many of your existing employees be more productive in their current role.
They Know What They Need
HR managers usually don’t need to figure out how to accommodate an individual—the employee has often encountered this situation before and has an idea of a possible solution. After all, they’ve been living with their condition! They understand their physical conditions and limitations better than anyone else, and they are more likely to seek out jobs where they feel they can be successful. A person who is deaf is less likely to seek out a position that requires a heavy use of phones and other verbal interactions with customers. A person with multiple sclerosis is probably not targeting construction jobs in their job search. As an employer, the best thing you can do is be available to have a conversation and seriously consider the accommodations they suggest. Additionally, consider that at this time they may not be needing an accommodation, but they may need to explore accommodations later if their condition worsens.
What About Current Employees?
Unfortunately, injuries and illnesses happen over time—it’s part of being human. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of people with a disability rises dramatically for those past the age of 64.
Disability inclusion in the workplace presents an enormous opportunity to do what’s right, to take care of your own, and improve organizational morale by alleviating fear of displacement through injury or aging. When a current employee approaches you to discuss disability, turn to a trusted HR resource or even the Americans with Disabilities Act itself to understand how to proceed. In general, seek to engage the employee in a conversation and have them recommend an accommodation if one is necessary. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
· Their first choice is probably to stay in their current role. Approach the situation with the intention of making this possible. Discuss their limitations and what they would have trouble doing, or what is currently causing them discomfort in their role. Can this be accomplished by a minor alteration to the work environment or schedule? This may also be accomplished through minor “role restructuring” where you delegate non-essential tasks to other employees (such as lifting boxes in an office environment).
· Consider lateral moves. In the instance of someone not being able to perform the essential functions of the job, opportunities for continued employment may exist in other departments and/or under different job titles. If a lateral position is not open or the individual is unqualified to perform that work, then you may also offer another position for which they are qualified but pays less than their current role—but this should be your last resort.
· Do not discuss with others. Co-workers may notice and ask about it. It’s imperative that you do not discuss disability or medical information that was shared in confidentiality. Many workers with disabilities do not want to be regarded differently in the workplace. However, it’s also important to stress that you are not offering preferential treatment to that employee. The Job Seekers Accommodation Network recommends saying, when asked, “[your organization] has a policy of assisting any employee who encounters difficulties in the workplace, and that many of the workplace issues encountered by employees are personal, and that, in these circumstances, it is the employer’s policy to respect employee privacy.”
What Do I Do Now?
So what can your organization do to be ready?
1) Look at your work. Review your jobs and the type of work that is performed. What kinds of physical requirements might affect someone’s ability to succeed in the role? For example, does it require lifting or strenuous movement? Does it require speaking verbally or seeing?
2) Look at your workforce. Have a conversation with your team about what a disability is and the value of a diverse and inclusive workplace. Talk about the kinds of disabilities that are both observable and non-observable. Your team knows their work environment and may offer ideas on how the work or space might be presenting a challenge for individuals with disabilities.
3) Have policies. Many problems arise because of inexperienced managers or HR teams who have to handle a complicated situation without having any policies or training to guide them. Have policies written down and train your on-site managers ahead of time. Have conversations about how to appropriately and compassionately respond to these situations. Highlight the importance of keeping the door open to a dialogue between employees and management.
4) Consider adaptation plans. Would your workforce benefit by having grab bars in the bathroom? Are your computer applications able to interface with JAWS or other screen reading software? Do you have flexible scheduling options for employees who need to frequently go to the doctor or take time off to recover from a flare up?
Disability is everywhere and often requires little-to-no accommodation to the workplace. Furthermore, people with disabilities know themselves best and will often seek out roles that they can be successful in–much like any other jobseeker! There are many benefits to the organization for having a more inclusive workplace, including making some of your current employees more comfortable. Keep these ideas in mind when taking proactive next steps to hire and retain individuals with disabilities.
We encourage you to learn more about what disabilities are and explore examples of qualifying conditions.
It’s hard finding a new job or transitioning careers, especially when you might be thinking more about retirement. Things can be extra challenging these days competing with tech savvy millennials who will work for lower wages and can relocate easily—however your future is still bright!
Here are 5 tips to compete in the job market! (By the way, we’re always hiring at Peak!)
Stay positive, stay current: Employers can sense energy and enthusiasm—they appreciate perspective but don’t want someone stuck in the past. Make sure to stay positive and in the present both on paper and in person. Remember that you want to highlight your past and not live in it.
Get techie: Realistically, most of your work will be done on a computer from now on. Most likely you already use a computer on a daily basis but maybe it’s time to learn some new skills. It’s likely in your new job you will be using Google Docs, Quickbooks, Salesforce, or another cloud-based, collaborative application–so maybe it’s time to do some research and familiarize yourself with the software currently prevalent in your career field.
Update your resume: Have you been in one job for ten years? Twenty? Probably time to update your resume. Did you know that your local library may have resume writing classes? Have you looked at resume writing tips online? Also, don’t forget to tailor your resume towards each job you apply for.
Link up—Linkedin: Linkedin is not only a great way to look for jobs but also to reconnect with former colleagues and friends in the field. Many of your best job leads will come from personal referrals. So tighten up that resume and get online to connect.
Leverage your experience: you’ve been there and done that. Don’t forget to show it on your resume and talk about it in the interview. Most employers value experience, perspective, and a long list of things you’ve done. While ideal resumes should be tailored specifically to the job you’re looking to get, don’t be afraid to point out all the ways you’ve changed the world!
Imagine yourself walking or seeing or feeling, and then suddenly not.
Most people without disabilities rarely think about how close we all are to switching categories. While it makes sense that most chronic medical conditions would develop later in life, we were surprised to learn that less than 15% of people were actually born with their disability (See No Pity by Joseph Shapiro).
At the Peak Blog, we honor and celebrate those who have overcome shocking adversity and shattered glass ceilings all the way to the top of their professions. Here are a few less heralded stories of unrelenting triumph to jump start your day.
Wanda Diaz Merced
If you’re a fan of TED Talks, you may have heard Wanda’s story. Nerd alert for the science enthusiasts — here’s an excerpt from her page on the TED site:
When Wanda Diaz Merced lost her sight in her early 20s, her dreams of studying stars in the visually oriented scientific world suffered a major setback — until she discovered “sonification,” a way to turn huge data sets into audible sound using pitch, duration and other properties. Merced realized that she could use her ears to detect patterns in stellar radio data, and could uncover connections obscured by graphs and visual representation. While working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Merced’s sonifications inspired musician and researcher Gerhard Sonnert to create X-Ray Hydra, an album of oddly jazzy music based on her audio representations.
You may not have heard her name before, but Sudha Chandran is one of the most famous people in the world. In South Asia, she is a well-known dancer and actress, despite losing part of her leg following a roadside accident several decades ago. She taught herself how to dance using a prosthetic limb, and she eventually became one of the most highly acclaimed dancers in the world. She has starred in dozens of films, performed all over the world, and her biography is required reading for school children in parts of India. A Bollywood film, Mayuri, was also made about her life.
Senator Inouye represented the Aloha State from 1963 until his passing in 2012. He was the second-longest serving senator of all time, and he is still the highest-ranking Asian-American politician in US history. In the wake of Pearl Harbor and the shameful internment of Japanese people, Inouye doubtlessly faced widespread backlash and public resentment. He later joined the US Army and lost his arm in battle, but went on to be one of the most time-honored advocates our nation has ever seen.
Despite struggling with severe dyslexia, Harry Belafonte has found astonishing success in nearly everything he’s attempted. Not only is he an award-winning singer, songwriter, and actor, but he is also a notable social activist. Growing up in an education system that did not understand learning disabilities, he has often described school as a “crucifying” experience that viewed him more as a misfit than a marvel. After dropping out of high school, he went on to win three Grammys, an Emmy and a Tony Award.
While the situation is improving, many challenges remain for job seekers with chronic medical conditions in the United States. Discrimination in the workplace, lack of accessibility and inaccurate perceptions are all contributing factors to a disability unemployment rate that is more than twice as high as the general population. Moreover, the unemployment rate is not an ideal metric to gauge the economic participation of people with disabilities, as it does not account for many people who would like to work but are not actively seeking employment.
However, more and more employers are realizing the benefits of hiring a diverse workforce, including people with disabilities. In this day and age, companies need employees who are able to solve problems in unique and creative ways. And candidates with disabilities are often well positioned to think outside the proverbial box.
If you’re unable to get a government job directly, you might consider working with a company that does business with the public sector (shameless self-promotion alert). At Peak Performers, we recognize that disabilities have little to no bearing on an individual’s skills and capabilities. Our mission is to find jobs for qualified individuals, especially those with a disability. In fact, at our company, your status as a person with a disability can actually put you at an advantage–when we fill jobs, we give priority to qualified people who have a chronic medical condition.
Expand your network
Shameless self-promotion aside, we’re not the only ones in Austin providing jobs for people with disabilities. We recommend utilizing a variety local and online resources in your job search. Here are a few of our favorites:
The Launch Pad Job Club is a networking, support, and job lead sharing organization that aids and supports job seekers in Austin. Looking for work is hard to do alone. The job club model offers free, weekly meetings to network and learn from local experts and job seekers.
Workforce Solutions is our regional workforce development system and a partner of the American Job Center network. With three locations in the Austin area, WFS is a one-stop resource for job search assistance and employment-related services in Travis County.
If you are new to the workforce or are recently disabled, you might benefit from the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) – one of the leading sources of guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.
Consider when to disclose
The key question for many disabled job seekers is when (or if) to disclose their medical condition to a potential employer. Depending on your individual circumstances, this decision will be different for everyone. However, it’s important to think ahead and be prepared to address any skepticism from a hiring manager.
For people with highly visible disabilities, it is generally recommended to address any accommodations at the outset, so that expectations are set early in the process. Those with invisible disabilities can typically choose whether or not to disclose at all. Many career advice articles suggest that if your disability is not easily noticeable, it’s best not to say anything. Despite legal protection, the sad truth is that workplace discrimination is still a significant reality for people with all types of disabilities.
Know your worth
If and when you do decide to disclose, keep in mind that it’s not necessary to outline your entire medical history. We recommend sharing any accommodations you might need and focusing on how you’re able to contribute to the company. As with any job search process, it’s important to highlight your skills, experience and professional accomplishments. Understanding your worth can go a long way to giving you the confidence to nail the interview. The system might be broken, but you certainly are not.