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Hiring People with Differing Abilities is Not Altruism, It is Good Business

(This article first appeared in The Mighty and was the basis for a TEDx talk that you can see on YouTube and the TED platform.)

We find ourselves in the midst of a growing labor shortage. Employers have gone from saying that they cannot find enough good workers to bemoaning that they just cannot find any workers. At the same time, we have witnessed mass resignations on a scale not seen before. More than 8 million people quit their jobs in August and September. 

At the same time, we have a great untapped resource of workers: people with disabilities.

The unemployment rate among people with disabilities is double the national average, but that does not tell the whole story because so many people with a disability are not in the workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than one in five people with a disability are employed. This situation is awful because so many people who want to work are denied employment. The right to work should be a basic right, yet more than 10 percent of the U.S. population is denied that right.

But I do not want you to focus on the tragedy of people denied the right to work, I want you to see part of the solution to our labor crisis.

Hiring people with a disability is not altruism, it is good business. And those businesses that hire people with disabilities find themselves at a competitive advantage and that advantage will only grow as the labor shortage worsens.

Why is it good business to hire people with disabilities? Let me give you three basic reasons:

  1. It enables employers to fill jobs that would otherwise remain vacant.
  2. It improves productivity.
  3. It improves retention, an increasingly important concern at the time of the Big Quit.
  4. It helps recruit new employees.

Let me give you some examples. Together with my son John, I lead a business called John’s Crazy Socks, a social enterprise with a mission to spread happiness. As the name suggests, we sell socks and we sell them online. Anyone who sells online has to fulfill orders: pick’em, pack’em and ship them out. Many outsource this function; we do our own fulfillment.

 

We’re located on Long Island, outside New York City, and the labor shortage has hit hard here. We hear from other businesses and other fulfillment operations that they cannot find enough workers and therefore, cannot keep up with demand. Newsday, Long Island’s largest newspaper, ran an article on how employers could not find enough workers and it was hurting holiday sales. But guess what? When we needed to add people, we had no trouble filling every job. In fact, we had a surplus of candidates. What was our magic formula? More than half our colleagues have a disability, and because we tap into that labor pool, we have no trouble filling our job openings.

To be clear, hiring people with a disability does not mean paying less than you would pay other workers. Our starting wage is $15 per hour. And it does not mean that we settle for less: every one of our pickers – we call them Sock Wranglers – has passed a test to earn his or her job. That’s part of the dignity we offer: our colleagues know they earned their jobs, there is no charity. Every day, our colleagues help us fulfill our promise of same-day delivery.

OK, you say, that’s nice, but what about other businesses? I can tell you about Rising Tide Car Wash in Florida, Ventures ATL in Georgia, and Spectrum Design here in New York, innovative and growing businesses that have no trouble filling every opening because they hire people with disabilities.

You say, but those are small businesses hiring unskilled or low-skilled workers. You want to know about big businesses hiring people with more advanced skills. You may have heard of a software company in Redmond, Washington called Microsoft. They are in fierce competition to hire programmers and other people with technical skills. They looked out and asked how come they were not hiring people with disabilities, particularly people with autism, many of whom have superior technical skills. Microsoft learned that the problem was that many could not get past the traditional job interview; maybe the candidate would not look you in the eye or avoided handshakes. Microsoft realized this was their problem, not the problem of the job seeker. Microsoft changed their hiring process and now hires many people with disabilities. That gives Microsoft a competitive advantage.

Consider another business hiring highly-skilled employees: IBM. To attract more talent, they started a neurodiversity program. The initiative worked so well that IBM now operates its neurodiversity program in 11 different countries.

These examples and so many more make clear that employers can fill their vacant jobs by expanding their hiring pool to consider all potential employees. Don’t hire people with a disability out of pity, hire them because they can get the job done.

That brings us to the improved productivity that people with a disability can bring to a business. At John’s Crazy Socks, we saw a sudden surge in orders in late 2017 and turned to temp agencies and general laborers to meet our hiring needs. It was a mess. When we expanded our hiring of people with disabilities, we saw an immediate jump in productivity. Why? Because our new hires with disabilities are reliable, focused, and want to be here. They are enthusiastic because this opportunity matters to them and they bring their whole self to the job. It was simple: the best people for the job happen to have a disability.

We are not alone: Take the technology firm Ultranauts. They provide software and data quality engineering to technology firms. More than 3/4 of their employees have a disability, the majority having autism. The company has been a rousing success growing at a pace of 50% per year. When their work is benchmarked against other firms, they are documented to provide higher quality work.

The organization DisabilityIn has created the Neurodiversity at Work Roundtable made up of companies small like Spectrum Design and ours and large like Warner Brothers and Dell that promote hiring people with autism and share best practices. JP Morgan came in to evaluate the performance of people with autism hired by those companies. They found that the employees with autism worked 48% faster and were 92% more productive than neurotypical employees. So yes, hiring people with disabilities means improving productivity.

And then there’s retention. As I told you, at John’s Crazy Socks, we run a warehouse operation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, warehouses have among the top four turnover rates among all industries in the United States. Yet, we have almost no turnover. People come and stay. While other firms in the same field struggle to find workers and then struggle to keep them, because we hire people with disabilities, we have a steady and stable workforce.

Let’s look at another firm at the opposite end of the employment spectrum: EY, which used to be called Ernst and Young. They have 250,000 employees worldwide and they experience a 20% annual turnover rate. Imagine that, to stay even, they need to hire 50,000 new people a year. Let’s visit their office in Dublin, Ireland where they set up a program with Trinity College to hire people with autism. Guess what? Once they added people with autism to their workforce, they saw their retention rates skyrocket. Why? Because the benefits of hiring people with disabilities do not only accrue to the people with disabilities, everybody benefits: morale is higher, productivity is up and retention is up.

Who are these employees with disabilities? Let me tell you about Dyllan Rafail who was hired by IBM to do quality testing. Once hired, IBM dispatched him to a client worksite. Dyllan was hyper-focused on the testing process. He hated seeing people wasting time. He saw ways they could improve the process, efficient paths that no one had seen before. Dyllan began creating new tools for doing quality testing that dramatically improved the quality and the productivity of the work. As a result, Dyllan has been promoted multiple times and has earned patents and awards — all because he took a different point of view. Including Dyllan was good business for IBM.

Let me tell you about Matthew Brennan, who was hired as a quality analyst at Comcast. Just like Dyllan, Matthew started unearthing new stories the data was telling that nobody else saw. Within two years, he’d received multiple promotions and earned an award as Employee of the Year. Do you think Comcast is glad they added Matthew Brennan? 

And I want to introduce you to my partner and youngest son, John Cronin. John is an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, and a Special Olympic athlete who happens to have Down syndrome. He will tell you, “I have Down syndrome; Down syndrome never holds me back.”

In the fall of 2016, John entered what would be his last year of high school so he started looking for what he would do when school ended. Like many people with disabilities, John did not see many opportunities. But John is a natural entrepreneur. If he did not see meaningful work that he wanted, he would create a job. He told me, “Dad, I want to go into business with you.”

Ultimately, John suggested that we sell socks. He came up with the name and the plan to sell online. He even drew pictures of our website. We opened John’s Crazy Socks on Friday, December 9, 2016.

So what can a person with disabilities do? For John, it meant starting a business. And what has he accomplished in five years leading the business?

We have created 31 jobs, 22 0f which are held by people with disabilities. We started by offering 37 different sock styles and now offer over 4,000 different socks, making John the owner of the world’s largest sock store. We have shipped 360,000 packages to 88 different countries and our Giving Back program has raised over $450,000 for our charity partners. John has testified twice before the U.S. Congress, spoken at the United Nations, and won the EY Entrepreneur of the Year. Pretty good for someone no one would hire.

Let’s bring this home to the basic premise. Hiring people with disabilities is not altruism, it is good business. What business would not want Dyllan, Matthew, and John in their employ? And there are thousands of people like them just waiting for a chance, waiting for the chance to show what they can do, waiting to demonstrate how hiring people with disabilities will lead to better productivity, better retention, better morale and will help you recruit.

When you go to hire, think of people like Dyllan, Matthew, and John, think of Michael, Chelsea, Masoom, Diego, and so many others who work with us and do a tremendous job. Don’t do it simply because it makes you feel good, which it will. Don’t do it because it is the right thing to do, which it is. Do it because it is good business. When hiring, focus on what people can do, not what they cannot do. Learn not to be blinded by a person’s limitations, be awed by their possibilities.

About John’s Crazy Socks

John’s Crazy Socks was inspired by John Lee Cronin, a young man with Down syndrome, and his love of colorful and fun socks—what he calls his “crazy socks.” He and his father, Mark X. Cronin, started the company as a social enterprise with a mission of Spreading Happiness™. They do this by offering socks people can love that allows an expression of one’s true self. More than half their employees have a differing ability, their Giving Back program has raised over $475,000 for charity partners like the Special Olympics, the National Down Syndrome Society, and the Autism Society of America. Most of all, they are Spreading Happiness™. 

For more information about John’s Crazy Socks, visit our webpage, Facebook page, Instagram account or YouTube channel. You can also contact us at 631-760-5625 or via email at service@johnscrazysocks.com.

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Hiring People with Differing Abilities is Not Altruism, It is Good Bus