A Different Side of Diversity

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During this podcast, we talk with Lindsay Haaser, founder of Advocations to learn more about how employing professionals with disabilities can empower your business.

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Andrew: Welcome entrepreneurs. This is Andrew Bowen, your host of CBR’s B2U Podcast, bringing business resources directly to you. This podcast is brought to you by cbrbiz.com, so be sure to check us out online.

Today’s episode is all about diversity in the workforce, and we’re going to touch on everything from the importance of inclusion to employing individuals with disabilities. Here to speak with us on the topic is Lindsey Haaser from Advocations. Did I get that right, your name?

Lindsey: Yes, yes.

Andrew: Okay, super.

Lindsey: Yes, you got it right.

Andrew: Awesome. Well, welcome Lindsey, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do with Advocations?

Lindsey: Sure, so I started Advocations at 25. I quit my job November of 2008 in, like, the heart of the recession.

Andrew: Perfect timing.

Lindsey: Exactly, everybody starts a business at that moment. But I did find when companies were laying off workers they still had jobs that needed to get done, so they turned to contingent labor. And so I started one of the first disability-only staffing companies.

Andrew: That’s fantastic. So I’m gonna go ahead and take a stab and say you’re not from Charlotte.

Lindsey: I’m not from Charlotte.

Andrew: From where do you hail originally?

Lindsey: Virginia.

Andrew: Okay. Well, on behalf of the very few natives that are here, welcome.

Lindsey: Thank you.

Andrew: I like to say welcome to all you invaders. Thank you for coming and helping make Charlotte awesome.

Lindsey: I’ve been here for 10 years, so.

Andrew: Oh, okay.

Lindsey: So I have some roots.

Andrew: So what brought you here?

Lindsey: I lost a coin toss.

Andrew: So what would have happened if you had won the coin toss?

Lindsey: I would be in Austin.

Andrew: Okay. Well, we’re glad you were on the wrong side of the coin.

Lindsey: Right, right. And the good thing is, you know, 10 years later, I’m still with the guy who won, so that worked out.

Andrew: That’s good, yeah. So what kind of services does Advocations provide?

Lindsey: Right, so when we first started it, we would do contingent hires, sort of, temporary hires, filling the demand in entry level jobs and over time, as the economy improved, staffing wasn’t as easy or, sort of, a Trojan horse that we used to get people into good jobs. But we always focused on matching the right person with the right jobs, so our turnover was significantly lower.

So over time, companies started taking notice and we expanded and had, you know, national contracts for staffing and we realized, you know, about six years in that staffing wasn’t really our space, that we were competing with other companies that saw people as numbers and just warm bodies. And so we’ve really expanded and focused on neuro diversity to build, kind of, systematic programs that employ people with disabilities, specifically those with autism.

Andrew: Yeah, I was gonna ask you the next question, did you have a specialty whether it was industry specific or disability specific?

Lindsey: Right, so we narrowed the focus to neuro diversity which includes autism, ADHD and others, dyslexia, because we found that in some ways they’re uniquely wired for positions, so if we were able to find the right role, we could actually produce, you know, a worker that would perform better than the average.

Andrew: Yes, all right.

Lindsey: So it’s a smart business approach.

Andrew: Yeah, very much so. So how much or how many people did you end up placing?

Lindsey: Yeah, so we placed over 4,000 people in jobs.

Andrew: That’s a good number.

Lindsey: I know. I know. We were actually just announced at the beginning of the month, we’re the Small Business Administration Scores Job Creator of the Year this year. So I get to go to a gala in DC next week.

Andrew: Oh that’s fantastic, so that’s not just state-wide. Is that nationwide?

Lindsey: Yeah it’s a national award.

Andrew: Well, congratulations.

Lindsey: Thank you.

Andrew: Yeah. So that means you’re officially the expert on some more of the questions we have for you, okay. So workforce or workplace diversity has long been a hot button topic, right? And I’m sure you’ve heard about the controversial diversity memo that got a Google employee fired earlier this summer. So can you start to, kind of, talk about what kind of challenges you see that local entrepreneurs are having?

Lindsey: Right. So I read the Google memo, and I come from probably a different place than most people. I studied computer science at the University of Virginia in the early 2000s. I was the only girl of my class. I showed up on, you know, an entry level thing and the professor seemed to be speaking a foreign language because everybody else around me had been coding in their basement since they were 10 years old.

And being able to, sort of, get people to understand that I wasn’t slow, I just hadn’t been doing this forever, I just bribed them with beer and learned the foundations of…so I would get a 24-pack and show up at a computer lab and have them teach me, kind of, the basics because it was clear that I was missing out on something. And so I think when I was reading the Google memo obviously I disagree with probably 99% of what he said in terms of the biological discrepancies or differences between, you know, men and women, but I do think that echo chamber concept that he brought up is very, very real.

And so often times, diversity and inclusion, or at least what it is today, companies continue to add more things and they add more of the wrong things. And so it becomes a zero sum game. And so if you only focus on, you know, increasing one population over another, then it doesn’t become something that works.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s not really beneficial…

Lindsey: Right.

Andrew: …at that point, right?

Lindsey: Yeah.

Andrew: So do you have…

Lindsey: So what are we doing about that?

Andrew: Yeah, how did you know that was my next question on my awesome bullet point of list here?

Lindsey: Yeah, so about two years ago, we started using technology to really assess why companies can’t find top talent. And what we found was top talent is actually, like, if you have normal curve…so a normal distribution in the bell curve, this is actually really hard in a podcast, but…

Andrew: That’s okay, I’m a nerd.

Lindsey: Okay, so you get the bell curve?

Andrew: Yeah.

Lindsey: Top talent actually falls within one standard deviation. So it’s actually average talent if you come to think of it. And so if we can help companies find these outliers on either side, they can find people that aren’t gonna just jump to the next opportunity and they’re really going to be worth the investment in terms of developing their talent. Maybe they don’t use the right key words in a resume or interview the best, but at the end of the day, they’re gonna be the best worker.

Andrew: Yeah, so would you say it’s fair that a lot of companies now, kind of, see inclusion as a charitable effort? Or something they have to do legally but don’t necessarily see the reason to jump out ahead of it and just do it more than they feel that they should?

Lindsey: Right, and so I think there’s a catch 22 going on. So all of the strategies that are “diversity and inclusion strategies” were created in the 1960s to preempt lawsuits. And so…

Andrew: And we know exactly who created anything in the 1960s, right?

Lindsey: Right, and so if you think about it, the fact that 95% of companies are actually missing out on achieving their diversity and inclusion goals, it’s really not a surprise. So one of the things that small and mid-sized companies that are just starting out, they don’t need to worry so much about that CYA approach and they can start working on uncovering those assumptions and start being able to see people as individuals rather than a potential lawsuit if they look like they’ve discriminated against them.

Andrew: Right. And actually seeing employees as people and, you know, welcoming…

Lindsey: Yeah, they can add value?

Andrew: Yeah. Value and different perspectives, right?

Lindsey: Right.

Andrew: On many different levels. So what is this term that I’ve heard called “subtle diversity?” Can you explain what that means and how that works into this conversation?

Lindsey: Yeah, so “subtle diversity,” “subtle bias,” subtle…all of those things, they are things that people say without being so blatant in, kind of, their approach. And so we see it on the disability side in a very kind of interesting way because people have really good intentions. So, for example, we have a guy, you know, he just had a heart attack, he’s coming back after cardiac rehab and all of a sudden he stops getting assigned really stressful cases or really stressful work. And so, at the end of the day, everyone around him thinks that they’re doing him a favor and really helping him out but, at the end of the day, it’s really kind of undermining his success in the future.

Andrew: Wow. That is very subtle.

Lindsey: Yeah, or it could be joking you know those kind of jabs and not being direct and saying, you know, “I just don’t think you’re ready for this promotion.”

Andrew: Right and then it has the unintended consequences of him not feeling as welcome as he may have been because he has, what, may fall into some part of the spectrum, a disability.

Lindsey: Right. And then it’s you know another way it’s used, and if you talk to veterans, a lot of companies come out with, “I’m going to hire 1000 veterans.” And it’s really funny if you actually talk to veterans, they’re like, “Just hire me on my skills, don’t hire me because I’m a veteran.” So it actually seems as if when they get hired, they didn’t really deserve the jobs, and so that can create some really challenging sort of internal dialogue for them as they try and find their way in their new job.

Andrew: Yeah, and back into society as…

Lindsey: Mm-hmm, right.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah. So what do you think are some of the misconceptions employers and even the community have about disability, right? And how do you guys help at Advocations with realigning, you know, what everyone thinks of these things?

Lindsey: Right, everybody, so there’s this sort of tokenism or this idea that everybody with a disability needs to be helped. And at the end of the day it, becomes this power differential and even though they can be very good you, know, good, well-intending people, it really doesn’t level the playing field for people with disabilities at all. So what we do is, for example, I was actually meeting with the head of Global Talent Acquisition at a company here in Charlotte this week and we were talking about autism, and they were all saying, “Well, I don’t even know where to start. We clearly need some training. We’re really excited but we don’t even know.”

And I explained, you know, you are a global organization, which means you’re used to working with non-native English speakers, and so if you can apply some of those same strategies to the way you interact with somebody with autism, it actually can create, you know, a more clear communication, not really relying on idioms and social nuances and all those things that sort of get, kind of, become funny but also create awkward situations for our talent with autism.

Andrew: Right. Yeah, so like with many problems, communication or improvement of communication can actually be very beneficial and solve most of the problem.

Lindsey: Right. So we often find that managers, after a year into the process, they say well this actually made me a better leader, it made me a better manager because I had to force myself to figure out what I was communicating. And when we start working with a company, we learn the job along side our clients and we find that we can actually find, kind of, efficiencies in the way that they train people, and so then that becomes an additional return on investment because our tools and strategies become mainstream and just part of how they train everybody.

Andrew: That’s fantastic. So we’ve heard about recruiting and talking to individuals with disabilities, but are there any differences when it comes to hiring individuals with disabilities?

Lindsey: Right, yeah, so from the people with disability’s side, it’s always that question, “Do I disclose? Do I not disclose? Or, is it going to be the elephant in the room? Are people going to be judging me?” And then from the employer’s side, it’s, “I don’t know what I can legally ask.”

And so then all of a sudden it becomes like who is more scared of who, the spider? And all those sorts of things. And so what we find is, you know, if you can sort of hire the right person for the job and if they happen to have a disability, they do.

But then building more of an authentic relationship with them, and that’s one of the things we really work on is having people feeling more comfortable having, kind of, tough conversations because it then it creates this I don’t always have to say the right thing, but at least I’m coming from the right place. Because when you start kind of second guessing everything that you say, you’re not going to have a natural conversation. And people realize that. It’s funny, when people, you know…

Andrew: Body language tells a lot, when you’re starting to have a conversation, you’re clearly uncomfortable for one reason or another, and then the person you’re speaking with clearly understands why.

Lindsey: Yeah it’s like when you escalate the level of your voice when you’re talking to somebody who’s blind. It happens all the time.

Andrew: Fascinating. Very interesting.

Lindsey: They can hear okay.

Andrew: Yeah, okay. So I usually only raise my voice when it’s someone who’s hard of hearing or I’m talking to myself, right, so…can’t always figure out what I’m doing. So how about retention of employees? I know we, kind of, gotten around to better communication, seeing people as people which in itself makes people better leaders, and then probably makes it easier to retain people because there’s so much more to retention than just, you know, improving people’s pay and giving them good benefits. It’s actually workplace and feeling, like, you’re part of the, like, work family, right? Is there anything specific around retention for folks with disabilities?

Lindsey: Right, yeah and even just broader. So we often see a lot of companies, they go through, kind of, the standard check marks. So they work on increasing inclusion for women and then you know kind of all those different things, LGBT, and blah, blah, blah. And eventually, they get to disability. So it’s often the last thing that people think about. And so what we’ve found is if they can actually flip that approach, obviously, people with disabilities are the largest minority segment, and you can cross all different other diversity classes within disability itself.

And then the best part about it is not everybody that has the same disability is the same. So all of a sudden, now you start implementing approaches not preemptively assuming that people would want you to act in a certain way, but actually putting, kind of, systems in place so when the mainstream approach fails, that people are actually included. And so we, you know, we always try to, kind of, beat down the door, and so, I think, that’s one of the biggest opportunities for the entrepreneurs and, kind of, startup and mid-sized companies in Charlotte is they don’t have to try to compete with, you know, the big boys in town.

Actually if they did inclusion right they could get top talent, those outliers, those people that, you know, are being overlooked that could add value in your organization. Sorry, I talk really fast. I realize this for this podcast.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah, my brain is still catching up. But, no, it’s great. If you had your druthers, right, what would this landscape look, like, in 5 or 10 years, right? So you were saying a lot of folks are coming at it from the wrong direction. You, in Advocations, right, in 10 years, what’s different? What have you guys done?

Lindsey: Yeah, so exciting, we’re actually launching data driven diversity, and it is an approach that basically allows any company to continue doing whatever they’re doing. And then when they overlook somebody or somebody is off the radar it will actually pop them back into view and gives people a second look. So how does this work? You know, 98% of people that apply for a job are screened out in the first round. So if we can actually give those people an opportunity to be re-considered for roles and connect them with people outside of the HR organization, but to the broader network of a company, we can challenge barriers, open people’s eyes, allow them to see different perspectives and, at the same time, kind of, just creating this new steady turn.

So rather than trying to fix, sort of, diversity as it is right now, understanding that what we call diversity right now is actually, sort of, a preemptive strategy to prevent lawsuits. And so if we can actually just take it and call it what it is and say, “Now we actually want to increase diversity because we see the value in it now there’s a business case, we would go about it in a completely different way.” So I think it’s going to be really hard for companies to, sort of, take that step and stop doing what they’re doing because it’s become this, sort of, perpetual, kind of, race with no finish line, but if we could help them do just kinda what they are already doing just a little bit better, I think it’s a win win. And there’s no risk.

I mean, at the end of the day, you’ve already counted all these people out, and they wanna work for your company.

Andrew: Right, yeah. And you can only say there’s not enough qualified…

Lindsey: Workers, right?

Andrew: …workers so many times, right?

Lindsey: Right.

Andrew: To say, “Well, what about those other 600 people who didn’t come through that first round of…

Lindsey: Right, and so with our program you can actually track the trends, so you can see when there’s a skills gap, and you can actually create programs to, sort of, skill people up for the jobs they’re competing for.

Andrew: Great. So is Advocations kind of integrating with specific companies? Or, companies calling you and saying we want your help or are you just, you know? Breaking down the door and saying, “We’re here and we’re going to help whether you like it or not?”

Lindsey: Right, so we, sort, of have two approaches, one is leveraging our existing client base. So we do provide, kind of, consulting for a lot of organizations right now around disability inclusion, but then realizing that we can broaden it in a way because what works for someone with a disability often times works for other marginalized groups. And so data driven diversity in that segment will actually be a standalone organization. So we can really scale what we know works in a new way.

Andrew: That’s great. What else?

Lindsey: What else?

Andrew: I feel, like, there’s more. Something about highlights of, so I’ve…you sent this other thing in the email before we came onto the podcast. And I was reminded that Whoopie Goldberg has dyslexia, right?

Lindsey: Right.

Andrew: And the reason she was such a good comic was because she literally had to practice over and over and over and over way more than anybody else because she had no choice but to get her bits right. So there’s got to be other really great instances of someone with a disability, whether, you know, perceived or more or less having done very great things, right?

Lindsey: Right, they’re game changers. They’re those out liars, so we have Edison. Four of the Sharks on Shark Tank have a disability. I think oftentimes, you know, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson…I mean, if you think of all the people we, sort of, hold in high regard, we realize wow, they really wouldn’t fit into a normal 9:00-5:00 job, and…

Andrew: And it’s clear because they went and started their own thing.

Lindsey: Right. Because they didn’t have an opportunity where they could just be plugged in. And what the benefit that they’ve been able to bring because they do think differently about, kind of, the world’s problems.

Andrew: That’s fantastic. So we’re coming, it seems near the end of our podcast time together. Is there anything else that you’d like to add or share in the benefit of…

Lindsey: Well, no, I think, one of the things, I just want to thank the entrepreneur community. So about a year and a half ago or so, I really got plugged in. For a long time I really felt, like, I was going on my own because I was a social kind of good enterprise and people that were in business wouldn’t really get what I do. So it’s very interesting, you know, Kiva at the Chamber, and Chris Amour, and Terry Coxon, Jay VanDusen, all these really, really smart business people started listening to what I was doing. And then all of a sudden, they became, like, kind of, champions and built my confidence.

So, I think, you know, as, kind of, the entrepreneurial community grows here in Charlotte really understanding that, you know, even if you can’t find somebody that’s exactly in your business, being able to learn from people that are in business can go a long way.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s fantastic. So thank you again for being here.

Lindsey: Yes. Thank you.

Andrew: I’m gonna go ahead and close it up. And before we do, I’d like to say thanks to Charlotte’s Communications and Marketing Group for letting us have their sound studio. So if you notice, there is no echo, echo, echo…

Lindsey: Echo.

Andrew: …that’s because we’re in a really nice sound studio and government center uptown. So thank you to CC and M, as we like to call it. Again, this is Andrew Bowen and this has been another podcast of CBR’s B2U Podcast. For future podcasts, visit us online at cbrbiz.com and follow us on Twitter @cbrbiz. To learn more about Lindsey Haauser and Advocations, be sure to visit http://www.advocations.org. Until next time, we mean business.