The Disclosure Dilemma

Employer practices encourage employee disability disclosure
Friday, December 5, 2014

If you had a disability, would you tell a potential or current employer?

In the study Perspectives on Disability Disclosure: The Importance of Employer Practices and Workplace Climate, close to 600 people with apparent, less apparent and non-apparent disabilities were surveyed with the goal of better understanding an individual's hesitation and decision to disclose.

The study, written by Sarah von Schrader, Valerie Malzer and Susanne Bruyère of ILR's Employment and Disability Institute, is published in the December issue of Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal.

For many, disclosure is a very personal decision. Many respondents surveyed were concerned that disclosure would lead to unequal treatment in hiring, workplace interactions and promotions.

"Among factors that may influence the decision to conceal a disability, the most highly rated responses among people with a disability were risk of being fired/not hired -- 73 percent indicated this was a very important factor," found von Schrader. She is a senior research associate and assistant director of research at the Employment and Disability Institute and first author on the paper.

"This was followed by concerns that the employer may focus on disability, the individual may lose health care benefits, have limited promotion opportunities, the supervisor may not be supportive, being treated differently by supervisor/co-workers and being viewed differently by supervisor/co-workers."

Despite these concerns, 80 percent of respondents did choose to disclose information about their disabilities. This was due to reasons including a need for accommodation and the desire to be honest with the employer.

Individuals with "very apparent" disabilities were more likely to have disclosed their disability at their current or most recent job (89 percent), than were those with less apparent disabilities, according to the study (77 percent).

For both employers and employees, disclosure carries benefits including offering an opportunity to discuss possible workplace accommodation and the ability to better understand disability in the workplace, both from a workplace culture and compliance perspectives.

The new regulation around Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal contractors to have seven percent of their workforce be individuals with disabilities; if individuals are not comfortable identifying themselves, this goal will be difficult to meet, according to von Schrader.

Research showed that employers could reduce fears of potential negative consequences from disclosure and to encourage employee disability disclosure within an organization.

Sensitivity training and education

"Our findings suggest that employers should educate supervisors and employees more generally about the negative consequences of holding stereotypes about people with disabilities," von Schrader wrote.

Upon disclosure, less than 10 percent of respondents noted immediate negative impacts to their announcements. Over a longer term, negative impacts were reported by 24 percent. This can be reduced through education, von Schrader said.

"Disability awareness training for all employees can help to decrease stereotypes and misunderstandings about the capabilities of individuals with disabilities, as well as offer concrete suggestions for positively interacting with people with disabilities."

Building supervisor awareness

"Individuals were more likely to disclose disabilities if they had a positive and supportive relationship with their supervisors," von Schrader said.

An employee's relationship with their supervisor was rated highest among employer-related factors that encourage disclosure. Overall, 63.5 percent of respondents indicated that having a supportive supervisor relationship was very important in their decision to disclose.

"This suggests that organizations may be able to encourage disclosure by fostering positive supervisor-employee relationships."

Creating an inclusive corporate culture

"Many thought it was very important to know that disclosure would lead to new opportunities for promotion or training (40.7 percent), to see a message of disability inclusiveness on the company's promotional materials (38 percent) and recruitment materials (37.8 percent), or to see an employee with a disability at recruitment events (32.4 percent)."

According to von Schrader, each tactic helps build employee trust in a company's diversity and inclusion culture.

"Many respondents also noted that seeing an individual with a disability who had succeeded in the workplace was an important factor in their own decision to disclose," said von Schrader. "By promoting the successes of workers with disabilities, an employer may further cultivate a culture that encourages disclosure."