Kris Foss | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Kris Foss

Background:  

At Ability Beyond in Bethel, Conn., Kris Foss leads a nonprofit consulting practice that specializes in creating customized plans for companies to strengthen their workforce by hiring and retaining people with disabilities. Her team has partnered with big firms like PepsiCo and Synchrony Financial to successfully fill talent gaps by attracting a historically under-tapped pool of workers—people with disabilities.

The Mistake:

Because my early work building a model to hire talent with disabilities with PepsiCo had gone so smoothly, five years ago, I expected too much to happen too fast with other companies. It took some time for me and my co-workers to reassess, implement change, and then evidence the model that had gone over so well with PepsiCo.

I realized that I needed to pitch past the “feel good” aspect of hiring candidates with disabilities and approach businesses with what they—the businesses—had to gain by hiring employees with disabilities. Hiring talent with disabilities is not about charity, but about smart business. Their unique perspective and life experiences enhance the innovative ideas, processes, and market reach they can contribute to the workplace.

Even though I knew this from our work with PepsiCo, it took over a year to gather measurable data that would provide evidence for future clients who were looking for real business results. It took a while, but before long we had the kind of information HR departments needed to see. For example, we documented how talent with disabilities has an average 14 percent higher retention rate in the same roles as other employees; they save HR time with the hiring practice because they are more likely to accept job offers they have been interviewed for; and they have higher rates of voluntary “self-disclosure,” which is an important compliance result for government contractors.

We also began to take more time to educate ourselves about what our prospective clients needed from their workforce. Every company’s business model is different. Since our work with PepsiCo we now start with a discovery process to understand each business better. This includes looking closely at job qualifications, work environment (including a “day in the life” analysis), business goals and objectives, and the application process.

Hiring talent with disabilities is not about charity, but about smart business.

The Lesson:

I had to learn to be patient. Although systems, policies and procedures are not the sexiest topics, they are extremely important to identifying often easy-to-fix barriers to job seekers getting interviewed and hired.

Based on what we learn in the all-important discovery phase, hiring managers and HR workers are prepared through training and best practice discussions, and we then begin outreach together with HR site leaders to build talent partnerships on their behalf. 

Now when I’m asked about the types of jobs a person with a disability can do, my answer is always the same—“What do you have?”  The reality is that the talent pool of people with disabilities remains underutilized, even though it includes job seekers with a wide and diverse range of education, degrees, professional certifications, work experience and skills. It takes time to build a brand and to break into a new field with a goal like ours: “changing minds and changing lives.”

Follow Ability Beyond on Twitter at @AbilityBeyond.

Photo courtesy of Kris Foss

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