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Getting Real about Workforce Diversity

Speech transcript on “Real About Diversity” first delivered to the Tri-State Human Resource Management Association Diversity Program (October 26, 2012). Learn more about this keynote & view presentation slides here.

Until I did it for me

I ponder the numbers a lot these days. —25 years of distinguished service in human resource management, overseeing employment of thousands of people.  Yet I never came across a job candidate who was deaf or hard of hearing that was apparent or known to me.  And I never, not even once, directed workplace accommodations or otherwise assisted an employee who I knew to be deaf or severely hard of hearing. Of that great honor, I had zero experience.

Until I did it for me! Since losing hearing in June 2010, I served as Vice President of Human Resources and lived the experience in the workplace.  Oh what humble paradox that this was my stock-in-trade!

HR-doctor heal thyself

Here I am, a senior executive, who is suddenly indisposed of a major life activity—hearing—that is fundamental to every aspect of my job.  Effective people-interactions were core to my position, including training and interviewing and conducting client presentations; coaching colleagues and facilitating meetings; counseling supervisors and employees; and yes, solving vexing personnel problems.

So besieged in twisted-twist, it was up to HR-leader-me to broker a solution for deaf-employee-me. To his credit, my boss, the CEO, encouraged me to bounce back and deliver the same great results, for which he paid me quite well. For my part, I boldly committed to emerge from the crisis better than ever. I pitched that, in the end, the company could be better for it too.

And so I proceeded in desperate earnest to accommodate myself, mostly by creative use of nifty low cost communications technologies—phone captioning, Skype chat, voice-to-text applications, that sort of thing. Of course, emails and text messages played prominent. Conversation by pen, pad and post-it note was a big part too. On my end, lip-reading was exhausting and seemed nearly impossible. Still, everyone but me thought it was the best accommodation of all!

Wait, what? He’s deaf!

Thus I muddled for a year and a half until my esteemed corporate position came to an end in February 2012. The departure was amicable and my references are great. Still, the economy is unfriendly and executive positions are especially dear.  And, oh, yes, did I mention? —I am deaf. (Note Mr. Jensen was still unemployed when this speech was delivered in October, 2012).

It’s a challenging jam. Sure, my credentials are very good. Check the resume; call the references; talk to the network. In the past, I excelled at the job search thing. My professional network was active and my paper credentials impressed. I interview very well too. When I wanted the job, I got it.

But, now, my winning formula has been cut to the quick. “Great resume” they say. “Sure let’s see him. Wait, what? He’s deaf! How’s that gonna work?”

Good Question

Good question. I scoured my professional network of C-level business leaders, fellow human resource professionals and executive recruiters.  They don’t know. Turns out, my career-long inexperience on the matter is common fare. My esteemed colleagues—even in some of the most sophisticated and progressive companies—had not a clue about how to hire a fellow executive who can’t hear.

Oh sure, there is a bit written about accommodating people who are deaf and hard of hearing in the workplace, including by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and advocacy groups. Lot’s of educational stuff out there too—the Internet is a wonderful thing that way.

But that’s just information; not actual experience. My corporate friends were wanting when it came to the real deal.  Like me, the scenario never crossed their expert desk. It’s not in their management playbook. Their big-fat corporate compliance manuals make no mention either.

It Matters

Disability advocates and job coaches, on the other hand, proffer many noble answers. The most common career advice puffs positive about our sameness to any other job candidate. As long as we without hearing can perform the essential job duties, then our disability doesn’t matter.

If only it were true. But of course it matters.  In real life, it matters at the water cooler more than boardroom. It matters when it is more effective to shout billing numbers across cubicles than it is to email them.  It matters when you can’t pick-up a co-workers phone.  It matters when a fork truck is blaring its horn for you to get safely out of the way.  It matters when no one stops by your office to chat.  None of that may be in the official job descriptions, by the way. But it all still matters.

Pure Math

It’s pure math. The simple fact is, that people interact less effectively, disseminate information less accurately and communicate exponentially less frequently when the communication between them is harder.  I am, for example, a big advocate for “open door” access to executives in the office setting. Informal drop by visits from fellow executives and inquiring employees was part of my HR service model. Not just because I was more approachable, but because it is  far more effective to answer quick questions on the fly face-to-face than it is, for example, to email the same transaction.

But now, in my case, because face-to-face communication was harder (including awkward , at first, for employees who didn’t know how to approach me), my number of routine email banters shot skyward and the number of  stop by visits, dropped to almost zero. I was invited to far less meetings, both formal and impromptu.

Believe me, it matters!  And it matters even more, that there is a solution to each one of those scenarios I just outlined that renders an individual as fully capable to do the job as well as anyone.  But if the employer doesn’t know what those solutions are, then well, it matters.

Stay Positive. It’s the Law.

“Go on the offensive,” they say witty. “Selling yourself for a job is about your abilities, not your disabilities!” The wordplay is very popular and the point is well taken. Then in the next breath the rhetoric goes squarely on the defensive:

I have civil rights, don’t you know. They can’t ask me this, they must accommodate that, they can’t discriminate, etc., etc. Well-meaning job advocates are foremost quick to remind that the law prohibits my next would-be employer from even asking about my disability during the pre-hiring process.

Fine, because I won’t hear them if they do!

Righteous though the cause may be, imploring the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is not a business case for hire. Be careful, too, about indicting corporate ethics as tact to get a foot in the door.  Underlying every good employment law is the distasteful presumption of company culpability.

The candidate reminds his civil rights because he mistrusts the very people he wants to impress. Employers hark eloquent about fair access; diversity and equal employment opportunity as corporate lawyers fine-tune the jargon for compliance manuals, application waivers and carefully crafted interview questions—all brilliantly designed to protect company assets from candidate-you, pitch themselves as advocates, even for people they never actually hire, as well as kindly reassure candidate-you that your disability doesn’t matter, even though everyone really thinks that it does.

Thus everyone stays oh-so professional and positive.  It’s the law!

You know you have an issue…

Sure it’s the law and, more ideally, it may truly reflect the good character and genuine intentions of intelligent people on all sides. Good business too. Hiring any great worker with a disability is a wonderful win-win.

But it still rarely happens; so the credibility ain’t there. Thus, even when everyone means it, no one trusts it. Sorry, that’s just not an efficient system.

You know you have an issue when everyone involved steps all over themselves to insist that there is no issue. Go ahead, sing it in unison: This is all about fairness and your ability to do the job. If you are qualified and you can do it WOWRA (with or without reasonable accommodation)—then we are firmly committed to give you the same opportunities and treatment as anyone else. 

Everyone—the employer, the candidates, the job coaches, the advocates, the recruiters, the college counselors, the government, the law—everyone proudly refrains the dummy down obvious as if it were some sort of profound higher value—that:

  1. You are as good as anyone else who is just as good as you,  and,
  2. In fairness, you have to be able to do the job, to, you know, do the job.

That’s the big policy?  I’m not impressed.

Some practical nits

Let’s look at some practical nits. The devil is not just in the hearts of bigots, after all—it’s in the details. For example, when, during the job search process, is it most effective for me to spill the beans that I am deaf? When I say most effective, I mean, how do I optimize my chances of not getting screened out? Or does it matter at all?  They will have to know sooner than later anyway, huh?

So when do I tell em?  On the resume? Nope, counselors say, too early and not relevant to job skills. Plus, there I go identifying my disabilities in the credentials portfolio.  That’s a no, no. The truer-true there is that you don’t want to give employers an early excuse to toss your resume aside for any reason, including illegal ones.

Okay then, in my LinkedIn Profile should I not join or de-join the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Professionals Group? How about Deaf Employment Services? What of Professionals with Disabilities? Dead giveaways, don’t you think? Should candidates hide their affiliation from these groups in their online resume? Tell me, I really want to know.

Call me naïve, but I have nothing to hide and everything to offer.  Do career counselors really advise to tip toe around affiliations with Deaf and hard of hearing friends? – Yes, many do.

So when?

So when? In my case, because of captioning technology, I can get through the telephone interview and they still don’t quite grasp that I am deaf. Yep, it’s happened precisely thirteen out of thirteen times since February 2012. First, my resume (here it is) does NOT officially reference the fact that I can’t hear anything. Although my LinkedIn profile gets you there at second glance and my consulting business website and namesake blog makes proud note of it.

Second, although I mention—at the onset of our phone conversation—that I am using “listening assisted” phone captions during our telephone interview, the recruiters seems to blow right past it—“That’s kind of neat!” one remarked. “Really,” said another,  “My grandmother could use something like that. She has a terrible time on the phone.”

Oh, is your grandmother a candidate for this position too?  No, I didn’t say that, I just thought it!  Nine, count em, 9 out of thirteen times, the recruiter indicated that the phone screen was going well and that the next step would be an in-person interview. They did not all schedule me for such, most just indicated that it was the next step and inferred, in that careful non-committal way that only recruiters do, that I appeared to be a good prospect.

 The moment of truth

So, I told them again. “Okay,” I say, “I look forward to the visit.  Should I talk to you or someone on site about arrangements I’ll need for the interview?” I like the word “arrangements” more than “accommodations” – it’s just a preference.

Still, it confused. “Arrangements?” he baffles.  “Yes,” I say, “I use a great technology called CART—Communication Access Real-time Translation. It’s actually very simple. It’s the same technology we are using right now where your words are being translated to text on my iPhone display.  The same principle applies in face-to-face conversations too.  I will set everything up.”

“Ahhh…, well of course, whatever you need Mr. Jensen.” Up to now he called me “Brian.” Suddenly, the recruiter’s free-flowing discourse on my iPhone display seems to get a bit more, well formal.   One candid headhunter, who I appreciate, asked flat out, “So, how deaf are you exactly?” It’s a completely legitimate and reasonable question.  It was the moment of truth and the employer needs to know.

Still, none of them ventured details about setting up the CART. And a couple downright back peddled about my on site visitation prospects. “Well, yes we would like to see you and we are looking next week to begin the on site interviews, so I will get back to you then about your candidacy; and, of course, Mr. Jensen, whatever you need.”

Incidentally, in my situation, I would actually pay for the CART (if they ever gave me a chance to use it) and make all the arrangements with a captioning provider with whom I am comfortable. However, this is not required; the law requires the company—not the candidate—to provide interview accommodations, that may include CART, video relay, sign-language interpreters, whatever you need, right?!  The logistics alone—and the company’s lack of knowledge about the logistics—probably knock out more qualified candidates at this point, than any other factor.

In The End

In the end, there were no on-site interviews. Follow-up phone calls went unreturned. Email rejections came from a few.  So now they know.

Oh sure, I could have been screened out for any number of reasons. There are a lot of good highly qualified people in the job market after all. One friend counseled that I’m getting on in years. I am 51 this month (Note: this speech was delivered in October 2012) so perhaps I’m getting screened out because of my age, not my disability!

But most likely, let’s be real, at least a few times, I was nixed because I can’t hear anything. See, I understand bias too. Mostly prejudice is due to ignorance, not hate. And people don’t understand situations they have never experienced before.

How many Vice Presidents of Human Resources in the United States are deaf?  I knew one. He lost his job in February. I would love to meet others so situated.

Different, Unique Challenges

If not deaf, there must be a few executives out there with some form of substantial disability. But every situation is very different and unique, isn’t it?

A Chicago-based executive recruiter who specializes in placing professionals with disabilities offers this critical insight: “Treating all people with ‘disabilities’ in one broad-brush category, as for example, employment laws tend to do, completely ignores the business and practical realities faced by the candidate and corporation alike.”  Here, here.

Take, for example, my self-characterization as a job candidate who happens to be deaf.  Not quite, say some who were born Deaf (with a big “D”) and who prefer or require American Sign Language (ASL) as their sole mode of communication. I know a brilliant 26-year-old RIT graduate with masters in engineering.  Let’s call him Joe Smith. Deaf since birth, Joe primarily uses Video Relay Service (VRS) to talk remotely to the hearing world via ASL interpreters through videophones. So, for Joe, effectively using VRS is a critical job search tool.

My situation is much different. In fact, as far as the job hunt goes, I have huge advantage over young Joe Smith, even though his IQ is 20-points higher than mine. I don’t use visual language to speak; I use my voice.  I can’t hear the other party, but she can hear me. That’s huge. Me, I use—ready for another one?—VCO. That means Voice Carry Over.

Huh?

Huh? Stay with me. Remember, I lost all my hearing only two years ago.  I’ve been doing public speaking and training stints for 25 years prior. I am a verbally articulate guy. So I use VCO.  Basically that means that the party’s phone-words airing my way are, upon painful delay, translated to text on my phone display. I read the words you say (as heard, restated, auto-transcribed voice to-text and cleaned-up re-type by a captioner- whew!). Then I respond to you by, you now, talking with my mouth, and you hear me as you always did—over the phone. Nifty, huh?

For me, yes; but not so much for Joe. Joe’s modus operandi is American Sign Language (ASL) going both ways—speaking and listening. By the way, many people like Joe who was born Deaf take great exception to the inference that they can’t speak. Me, I’ve watched Joe communicate. He’s articulate, expressive, genuine and smart as a whip.

Joe just speaks a different language—ASL—a great language, by the way, in my humble assessment.  It’s an eloquent, robust, intimate way of connecting and relating with other people. Efficient too. But most people on the planet, including me, are sign language impaired. So the work-world doesn’t use it. Shame. Enterprise might be more effective if it did.

My points are…

But I digress. My points are: 1.) Joe and I have entirely different disabilities, er… abilities; 2.) Joe’s challenges at finding employment in a hearing world are exponentially more difficult than mine; 3.) The tools required to conduct the job search and the dynamics on how and when to use these tools properly to optimize success—are entirely different too.

Our common ground—whether VRS using ASL or VCO using captions—is that most people doing the hiring have no clue what I just said!  Come on… how many of you, right now still don’t understand how VRS phone conversations happen between a hearing person and a person who is deaf? What about VCO?

You need pictures don’t you? With little arrows showing the communication flow chart.  Yep, I needed them too as I scrambled to accommodate myself. Then I had to explain the technology, consider its impact on all employees and train therefrom. Whew!

So how many hiring professionals take the time to figure all this out to engage anyone?  Not many.

The Cause Is Wholly Good

But there are many good public servants, job coaches and advocacy groups who serve people with disabilities tirelessly and well.  Many understand my plight more than I can possibly appreciate.  These are the folks in the trenches, trying to help people get jobs who don’t get a fair shake because the hearing world has virtually no clue how to accommodate our hear-less-ness.

To my comrades, I know our path is fraught with challenge. I have only recently discovered, in the autumn of my life, what you long knew all too well—that, with rare exception, the hearing world of commerce is not in the business to care.

As so suggested, I know even more about the employer’s perspective. I know good employers who have their hearts in the right place, even as understanding is not. I was the evil “they” and they are not evil; insensitive, maybe; ignorant, definitely; but outright bigots against people who can’t hear them? – Not too many.

Then again, it really doesn’t matter much if prejudice is driven by hate or ignorance. The result is the same.

The humblest realization for this lifelong “company guy” is that I simply didn’t know; but now I do; and I couldn’t be more grateful for the gift of insight so bestowed.

Hire Me Because I’m Deaf!

Soooo…. when I say it matters I am, of course, not at all inferring that people with disabilities shouldn’t bother to go for the job of their dreams; or that their disability should disqualify them; or that the law isn’t a good and needed thing to protect our interests. There is much evidence that disabled workers with or without accommodations are as productive and cost effective to employ as anyone else.  I get that.  Now I’ve lived it.

But still, I implore, it matters. Because even if it may be harder; even if it may cost more; even if there may be productivity issues beyond the essential job functions that can’t possibly be delineated in a job description—hire me anyway.

Why? Because, among other exceptional things, I am deaf!  A company has to want to hire a deaf vice president for it to happen. And so they should. I want to work for an employer who wants to hire me because answering the question,  “How’s that gonna work?” is an exciting, challenging, novel business opportunity, not an uphill battle to get a freaking interview!

Champions

Do such entities exist? Yes they do.  Here’s a great example: This video tells the story of how Image Microsystems works with Texas School for the Deaf to train and hire deaf and special needs workers. The company recently won wide acclaim for their work with the Deaf community, including for employing deaf workers in technically complex jobs in re-manufacturing, recycled products manufacturing, and accounting.

And do note, first and foremost, as you review this wonderful account, to read the Closed Captions, provided by the auto-captioning functionality offered by You-Tube.  To the people who are unable to hear such videos, this auto-functionality, though perhaps well intended, is a joke.  You decide for yourself now to read what I hear, because this video, like millions on the web, is NOT manually closed captioned for the benefit of people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

That means that the very audience who would surely most appreciate this inspirational account—are denied access to it. Yet You-Tube, at least, will tell you it is captioned!  How ironic is that!  See, I told you it matters.

My proposal is simple: that if you want to get real about diversity then be an employer who champions people with specific disabilities. Don’t water down the conversation by pontificating sameness for all; quite the the opposite, get great at accommodating specific disabilities at all levels across your enterprise.  In other words, be strategically different with laser focus.  Target specific groups without apology because the difference matters, not the sameness.

The Difference Matters

I am still very new in my deaf adventure. Admittedly, I know but a little.

But with all due respect to parties on all sides, the rule of sameness does not impress me. I am impressed by the exceptional. There is a lot to be said about aspiring to be better, to be more, to earn our keep at a higher value—unlike most everyone else. Great performance, after all, isn’t about equity—it’s about the difference.  True diversity isn’t about respecting our sameness—it’s about  leveraging  our differences for the common good.

Achieving great things while not being able to hear a sound is about ability—wonderful, extraordinary ability.

I, and thousands like me, make a greater difference today, because we are very good at our profession. We possess the talent. And yes, you better believe it—I am deaf!  And it matters. And that’s why you should hire me.

Thank you very much!  Be Inspired!

About this Speech

The forgoing are excerpts from Brian Patrick Jensen’s keynote speech and presentation, “Real about Diversity” first delivered to human resource management professionals at the Tri-State HRMA Diversity Program on October 26, 2012 at The Courtyard Marriott, Mount Laurel, New Jersey. The keynote is now among Jensen’s most celebrated offering for workplace audiences and disability advocates. See “Real About Diversity” presentation slides to learn more.

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