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Catch-22 of Disclosing Disabilities for Job Seekers

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 3/11/2015 Kenneth Matos
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What job seeker hasn't found some of their applications disappearing into the resume black hole: that frustrating experience where you send out dozens of resumes and fill out multiple online applications and never get a response. You have to wonder why you didn't get a call back. Not enough detail? Too much detail? Wrong font?

Unfortunately, disclosing you have a disability may be one reason, according to new research.

Researchers at Rutgers and Syracuse universities looked to see whether resumes with an acknowledgement of a disability would be as effective as identical resumes with no mention of a disability.

In an article about the findings in The New York Times today, one member of the research team shared her surprise over how big of a difference the disclose makes:

"I don't think we were astounded by the fact that there were fewer expressions of interest" for people with disabilities, said Lisa Schur, a Rutgers political scientist. "But I don't think we were expecting it to be as large."

The question of disclosure of a minority identity in job applications is one facing multiple communities including veterans, LGBT individuals, racial/ethnic minorities and anyone else who questions whether it is better to get the interview by playing it coy or pre-screen out unsupportive organizations by letting them reject you first. While the value of this job search strategy depends on the person, the question assumes that being out on a resume will have an effect.

The researchers of the just released study attempted to show the real effects of disclosing disabilities on a resume by sending applications to 6,016 advertised accounting positions. All the resumes were almost identical and presented a well-qualified fictional applicant. The only difference is that one-third of cover letters disclosed that the applicant had a spinal cord injury, one-third mentioned the presence of Asperger's Syndrome and the remaining one-third did not mention any disability. The fictional applicants with both types of disabilities received 26% fewer expressions of employer interest than those without disabilities. So, according to this study, disclosing on a resume really does result in screening out some potential employers.

This creates a Catch-22 for job seekers with disabilities. Ironically, other research shows disclosure could lead to more support for job success from employers.

A Families and Work Institute study Including the Talents of Employees with Disabilities released earlier this year found that more employers (84%) provide employees with disabilities access to task flexibility than employees in general (73%).

In other words, for at least one important support for enabling employees with disabilities to be successful, disclosing their disability increases the likelihood they will get it.  So, employees may need to disclose to get supports they are entitled to, but if they do so too early, they may never even get a chance to prove themselves worthy of the job in the first place. So, neither disclosure option is optimal for employees with disabilities.

One thing that might help reduce the gap is a formal staffing plan that includes employees with disabilities.

Considered strategies for attracting, recruiting, developing and retaining employees in general and with disabilities in specific should help advance both the organization and all its job applicants. For example, a formal plan which deliberately includes people with disabilities might help organizations avoid contributing to the gap by providing recruiters with clear directives on how to respond to a disclosure and properly evaluate an employee and to recognize than most accommodations for employees with disabilities are low or no cost (57% of accommodations are free, and the remaining 43% average $500 or less) and should not be reasons to pass over an otherwise qualified candidate.

However, the Institute's study also found that while most companies with formal staffing plans did include people with disabilities, 57% of employers don't have formal staffing plans for anyone, much less for people with disabilities.

So, while some may say that we need special efforts in order to support employment for people with disabilities, it may be that what we really need is not a series of accommodations and special efforts. Instead, these issues may benefit from a return to the basics: helping employers better strategize about how, where and why they hire particular employees and how they integrate them and their diverse talents into the workforce.

Families and Work Institute will be releasing new research from our national workforce study next year, which includes some questions that will provide more insight on what employees with disabilities face out there, including their work-life experiences. Stay tuned.

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