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Opinion piece

People manager confidence

two women sitting beside table and talking

Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum

I am often asked by organisations just starting to think about disability inclusion where they should start and what they should focus on. And I say three things:

  1. Senior leadership;
  2. People manager confidence;
  3. Both backed up by practical support in the form of a really great Workplace Adjustments Process.

I’ve talked a lot about senior leadership in previous blogs, so today I want to focus on the other two key components: people managers and adjustments.

People Manager Confidence

I often say you can have the best policies and procedures in the world but they live or die on the relationship between an employee and their line manager; the trust that the employee has to talk to their manager and ask for what they need and the confidence of the manager in responding to that conversation and knowing where to go to get support.

Managers are often incredibly time poor but saying that they don’t have time to consider disability and the needs of disabled colleagues isn’t just wrong ethically, it’s also bad for business. Surely, it’s in every manager’s interest to support everyone in their team to perform to the best of their ability?

Too often though, managers (and not just managers) are afraid of saying the wrong thing and hence do nothing. I did some work with a recruitment company a while back and we came up with the expression “the frozen middle” to describe middle managers who were too nervous to have the conversation; and a conversation which sometimes can make all the difference between a disabled employee getting or staying in a job – or not.

Managers also worry that they need to be experts in disability but actually often all that is needed is asking people what they need to do their job well. If there was one piece of advice I would like to give managers though, it’s to take a step back and to ask “is there something else going on?”. We regularly get calls to our advice service from a manager who is thinking about starting a performance management process with someone who is not performing and when they speak to the employee in question, they discover that, for example, it’s not that they aren’t paying attention in meetings, but they are going to great lengths to conceal that they are losing their hearing. I had a conversation with someone recently who shared a story about an employee whose formerly excellent performance had “dropped off a cliff”. Instead of going straight into performance management, this manager simply said they’d noticed the change and was the employee OK? Was anything wrong? It turned out that the employee had a very recent diagnosis of terminal cancer. And it became a wholly different conversation.

Covid-19 presents additional challenges of course. Even with a video camera we miss the visual cues that might alert us to the fact that someone is not OK. So it makes it ever more important to ask, and to really listen to the answer.

Inclusive design and removing barriers for the many will mean that fewer people with need to ask for adjustments – but they will always be needed. So, onto adjustments…



Workplace adjustments (called “reasonable adjustments” under the Equality Act”) are the practical cornerstone of disability inclusion. The right adjustment can be truly transformative in removing barriers and enabling people to do the best possible job for you.

So what does a good adjustments process look like? Well, it can be run in-house or outsourced but either way it should be:

  • Available to all;
  • Ideally with a central budget to avoid individual managers making different calls on “affordability”;
  • Well publicised including to people managers so that they know where to go to support their employees and also to job applicants (giving examples of the kinds of adjustments that are already made for your existing workforce can really bring it to life and give disabled candidates confidence to apply);
  • Widely promoted including by senior managers;
  • Timely – swift delivery from request.

This all sounds fairly straightforward but the reality can be somewhat different – and the evidence from our Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey, sponsored by our Partner Microlink, shows just how much disabled employees still worry about the stigma of asking for adjustments:

  • 28 per cent of those with adjustments and 34 per cent of those without adjustments said they did not make requests because they were worried their employer might treat them differently.
  • 23 per cent of those with adjustments and 31 per cent of those without adjustments said they did not make requests because they were worried other colleagues would treat them differently.

Some of the good practice we are seeing in this space includes reframing adjustments as productivity tools – i.e. what do you need to do the best job for us – and introducing self-service adjustments such as the ability to order your own assistive technology in the same way that you would “standard” software for example. Both approaches remove any perceived stigma of asking for something “different”; they are simply about enabling the employee to do the best possible job for you. At their heart, they are underpinned by a culture of trust that the employee is best placed to know what they need, though it’s important to note that someone who has just acquired a disability or has a new diagnosis may not fall into this category, and an appreciation of different ways of working – an outcomes focus rather than being prescriptive on the process. It also links into a strongly related approach of inclusive design to processes and policies as well as physical design, i.e. designing out the barriers in the first place so that you then need fewer individual adjustments (although there will always be a need for some).  I would also like to see such a culture supported and promoted by senior people role modelling working with adjustments; I say this on the basis that senior people who need to work differently or flexibly can generally just do it or if they need different kit can just buy it without having to go through a formal process)

Of course, in one respect, we are all working with adjustments now! Pre COVID-19, home working specifically was the most frequently requested workplace adjustment and many businesses who thought it wasn’t possible have now had their preconceptions confounded. We have I hope realised that we don’t need people in shiny offices every day, lined up in ranks outside the boss’s door!

And, when it comes to working differently, arguably disabled people are the experts. As someone said to me recently “if you want to know about remote working, ask your disability network.” I hope that one lasting legacy of the pandemic will be a much deeper acceptance and appreciation of working differently and the role of assistive technology in the workplace.

Business Disability Forum’s new People Manager Toolkit, sponsored by Microlink, includes a wealth of information to support people managers, including a dedicated section on workplace adjustments. You can find out more here.

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