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Intersectionality and adjustments at work: are we asking the right questions?

‘Poor’ and ‘inconsistent’ were the two most common terms used by disabled employees who took part in our Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey to describe their experiences of getting adjustments.

To understand where in the experience of both managers and employees these difficulties take place, and why, we have published a paper entitled Intersectional experiences at work: disabilities, adjustments and everything in between, which provides a thematic analysis of 1,228 disabled employees’ responses to the survey. This is what we found.

Legal labels don’t help

Largely, employees did not feel their age, gender or gender identity, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion or belief significantly impacted how they were treated when requesting adjustments or discussing their disability and support in the workplace.

Making UK workplaces a level playing field for disabled people

When disabled employees explained their experiences in their own words, legal terminology is almost never used, showing that an over-reliance on legal definitions and categories to identify exclusions and inequalities in an organisation is rarely effective.

Being assertive gets you what you need

How assertive and confident an individual is at work, however, was a key feature throughout the findings. Often, employees who had ‘confident’ personalities and were happy to assert what they needed were also typically the employees who were persistent with ensuring their requests for adjustments were fulfilled. Employees told us they repeatedly had to “chase” the adjustments they had requested when their requests were “getting lost” between departments and managers.

Disability Action Plan should offer more workplace support, say specialists

The consequences of confidence

This, however, created a problem for these very same individuals. Being assertive and chasing their requests also gives them a reputation of being "a troublemaker”. In addition, one employee said: “What would be labelled as ‘assertive’ for men is ‘aggressive’ for [disabled] women”. This persistence also led to these same employees using the complaints and/or grievance processes to raise where an adjustments request had not been followed up on. In turn, one in five disabled employees said they felt having made a complaint had prevented them from being treated fairly or getting support and adjustments.

This is important because we see employers rarely identify potential victimisation in their workforces. Victimisation, as per the Equality Act, is when someone is treated detrimentally because they have made, or intend to make, a discrimination or harassment-related complaint. We saw evidence from disabled employees that, since using their internal complaints and grievance procedure, they had been penalised during sickness absence, were given bad references with future employers, were encouraged to resign, or were prevented from getting promotion in the organisation.

The ‘part-timer’ stigma

There was also evidence that disabled employees who work part-time were overlooked for opportunities or experienced comments and attitudes which indicate an embedded stigma of working part-time. Many disabled employees who work part-time also mentioned other reasons for them working part-time, such as parenting responsibilities or getting older. Respondents mentioned unfair overtime pay policies for part-time workers, as well as limited routes for career progression.

How to leverage intersectionality to create a more diverse and inclusive organisation

Seek out the bad stuff

Human beings do not generally like to focus on what’s not working. The suggestion that employers actively go looking for things that are wrong and be ‘barrier seekers’ everywhere in their organisations can feel contrary to natural instincts. And yet, to achieve inclusion, this approach is imperative.

Organisations must have processes for identifying and removing barriers that exist for people in their organisation. This includes ensuring data collection exercises are not just about numbers, but that employees can report in own-word experiences. It is also about ensuring managers and leaders across the organisation, not just the EDI team, can recognise and resolve any attitudes that are preventing people from getting access to support and opportunities. Failure to name and recognise patterns of unfairness means that they become embedded in the behaviours, policies, practices, and cultures of how organisations develop and grow.

By Angela Matthews, head of policy and research at Business Disability Forum