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What If the Unemployment Rate Were 70%?

Image of Seeing Eye Dog

Sadly, this statistic applies to some segments of the population. This week an article by John Kelly of the Washington Post reported discrimination in the housing market as it applies to people with service animals. A test by the Equal Rights Center revealed that about 1/3 of rental properties in the Metro DC area discriminate against people with guide dogs. Claims range from lack of availability to charging a higher rent to include the dog.

Wow. That’s harsh. Unfortunately, unequal treatment is not limited to housing. According to the American Foundation of The Blind, this segment of the population experiences a 70% unemployment rate. Of the people who are blind who do have jobs, many are underemployed.

High Unemployment Unrelated to Ability

Kelly’s article quotes my longtime friend, Eric Bridges, who works as the Director for Advocacy at the American Council of the Blind. Eric and I met on June 25, 2001—my first day working for National Industries for the Blind (NIB). It was also the day Eric returned to the office after getting his first guide dog, Patrick. We used to joke that Patrick and I started working for NIB on the same day.

Image of businessman who is out of work.

© Lasse Kristensen –

I can only imagine Eric’s surprise at discovering a stranger in his office when he came to work that day. Being office-mates turned into one of the more rewarding experiences in my career. I wanted to understand things from Eric’s perspective. He patiently answered every question. As you can imagine, we got to know each other really well over the course of the next two years. I got to know Patrick pretty well, too. Although I have never petted Patrick, he did manage to finagle a piece of tuna sandwich every now and then.

People who are blind are limited only by the constraints the rest of us put on them. Eric is an intelligent, witty, motivated man who, like other professionals, wants a rewarding career, a comfortable place to live, and recognition as a valued member of our community. I can tell you that underemployment for the people who are blind is not due to their lack of ability.

Take a moment to think about what it means to be part of a group that suffers from approximately 10x the level of unemployment currently experienced by the general population. What would it feel like to have your chances of finding a job limited by barriers that have little to do with your capabilities?

Hiring Based on Artificial Performance Indicators

And now for the scary part. Employers tend to base hiring decisions on artificial indicators of performance when things get tough economically. For example, during the Great Depression my grandfather got construction work because he had a college degree. He dug ditches. I have read his early letters of recommendation. While the family welcomed the paycheck, the degree did not better qualify my grandfather for the job.

As we head for the fiscal cliff I’m afraid that more people will experience artificial barriers to employment. Rather than improve our hiring practices, I fear we’ll make them worse.

The statistics in this respect are dreadful. Manta recently reported that 2/3 of all hiring decisions fail within three years. Much of the failure has to do with leadership, poor communication, and breakdown in process. Manta claims that:

  • 1/3 of employees are not a cultural fit
  • 1/3 of employees are in the wrong jobs.
  • 1/2 (or more) of employees do not have the training needed for current or future job requirements

It’s no wonder that 70% of employees hate their jobs. A high turnover ratio often signals a failure in leadership and communication. It artificially inflates expenses, causes morale and productivity issues, strains other resources within the company, and takes a high personal toll on the people involved. Talk about a lose/lose proposition.

Hire for The Things That Count

Like a Fractured Fairy Tale, this story has a moral. Hiring the best person for the job goes far deeper than improving the hiring manager’s ability to recognize talent. It involves developing corporate self awareness so that managers can hire for fit. It also involves understanding which traits will help people perform specific roles with excellence. Hire for the things that count like strengths and diversity. And, or course, companies need to start thinking about training as an investment. People who feel valued, also feel loyalty. These human elements form the basis for a lasting competitive advantage.

© 2012. All rights reserved.

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