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Game-changing employment strategy bolsters people with a disability

As many businesses in the water sector work towards fostering diverse and inclusive workplaces, one company is making huge strides in disability employment by leaning into new employees’ unique strengths and providing next-level support.

In December 2022, Ventia took out the Disability Employment Award at the Australian HR Institute Awards in recognition of the outstanding results the company has achieved in recent years through its disability employment strategy.

After introducing a structured program on its NSW whole-of-government contract in 2019 in response to social inclusion performance indicators, Ventia has achieved a staggering sixfold increase in employees with a disability – from 27 in 2019, to 163 in 2023.

Ventia Social Inclusion Manager Loes Westerbeek-Veld said the company is dedicated to reflecting the diverse communities it serves through its direct and indirect workforce.

“There are many areas that we focus on within our diversity and inclusion approach, such as female participation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Māori and Pasifika engagement. These are all areas we’re looking at in our D&I approach, but disability engagement is a key focus area for us as well,” she said.

“With one in five Australians and one in four New Zealanders identified as living with some form of disability, we realise the importance of reflecting this in our workforce and supplier engagement as well.”

“We focus on both attraction and retention and ensuring that our workplace is inclusive. We engaged with JobAccess, in particular, to help us improve our processes.”

One particularly successful contract has been Ventia’s contract with NSW schools, with work on inclusion led by Ventia Project Director Matt Cook and Disability and Social Inclusion Manager Daniel Osgood. Osgood said in his industry experience that Ventia’s approach to disability employment is quite unique compared to a lot of other organisations.

“Generally, within Disability Employment Services (DES), a candidate with disability finds employment and is put into ‘post-placement support’. They are then monitored during the first six to 12 months of their employment, with fortnightly or monthly contact from their DES,” he said.

“But we are quite a complex company. There are a lot of moving parts within our organisation and with our clients that don’t align with how a DES operates. We had to rethink how we could utilise the frameworks we already have to provide one-on-one, specialised support for our employees’ disabilities.

“We have experienced incredible growth in representation. And it all started off by ensuring we were providing this very focused, specialised support. It sets us up to be able to provide the working environment our people need to succeed.”

Genuine support

Osgood said the key to providing effective support to employees with a disability is to ensure employees’ needs are genuinely understood and to look at ways to adapt the work environment to cater to those needs.

“I have ADHD and my lived experience helps me see people with a disability through a different lens. It comes down to understanding the individual person, understanding their barriers, but also understanding their incredible skill sets,” he said.

“It’s about tailoring what we do within the organisation to fit with our people rather than expecting them to adapt, and it’s about working with each individual to ensure they have what they need to be able to do well within their position.

“When this type of specialised support is not provided at the start of an employment journey, new employees can feel very overwhelmed, which puts us at risk of losing a great employee.”

In order to ensure new employees with a disability have the support they need to succeed, Ventia has been shifting away from the traditional approach to onboarding staff and towards a much more tailored approach that puts the individual first.

“We are changing the way that we would usually introduce people to a role, noting that people with a disability are disadvantaged under ‘normal’ circumstances,” Daniel said.

“It’s about thinking outside the box and asking what we can do as a large organisation with lots of resources to help support people with disabilities so that they don’t feel like they are out of their depth, because they’re not.

“My lived experience makes me want to ensure that none of our people with a disability feels less than good enough, because I know what that feels like.”

Osgood said supporting people in this way is great for retention, as it makes people feel valued, and provides them with the sense of wellbeing and fulfillment that comes through employment.

“Being employed within a company that values you provides a sense of belonging, and if we at Ventia can help people feel that, then we have made a real difference in our community,” Daniel said.

Transformed approach

While Ventia is transforming its approach to onboarding new employees with a disability, Loes said the company is also reconfiguring its approach to attracting new staff, starting with how it structures position requirements.

“In terms of the attraction piece, we have been working on establishing key relationships with stakeholders that bring  different people to these vacancies,” she said.

“There are often adjustments that need to be made within our organisation when we bring on new employees, but we also look for opportunities to augment the skill sets required within certain roles to make space for people’s particular strengths.

“Taking this approach also helps us open up positions to a far greater number of candidates. And once we have recruited a new employee, we then work with them further on any other particular adjustments they might need.”

Osgood said making these adjustments to disability engagement and employee procurement are not just good for people with a disability; it’s also beneficial to the companies that have the courage to take the journey.

“The reality is that people who see the world differently or have a different experience are often the people who find new ways of doing things. And companies who don’t utilise people with a disability for employment are missing out on that perspective,” he said.

“The only scary thing for people about this movement we’ve created is that they are not always sure about how to support employees with a disability. They might not have the experience. So we are breaking down those barriers by having open and honest conversations with key hiring managers.”

Sharing stories, changing culture

Adapting to cater to the needs of employees with a disability is a crucial step, Daniel said, but dedicating energy to transforming workplace cultures is just as important – many companies get carried away promoting diversity and inclusion externally, but the internal work is key.

“We have digital kiosks where we promote people’s stories internally within the business. We share stories all the time, including bios of our people with information about who they are,” Daniel said.

“We want people to feel comfortable to share their stories with us. So this is about nurturing a culture of sharing and learning about one another so that we can break biases around disabilities.”

Ventia also has a mental health program called Healthy Minds, which consists of a peer support program – Healthy Minds Champions – made up of volunteers from across the business who are happy to be an ear for anybody who needs it. This is in addition to the more formal support and counseling services available to employees.

Ventia’s Healthy Minds Champions are trained to know when someone needs the support of a healthcare professional but are there to provide a first point of call, and Loes said the program helps create a safe and inclusive workplace.

“The success in our business really comes down to having someone within the business that people can talk to, it’s about the support structures that have been established. It’s also about creating awareness across the broader business and delivering specific training,” she said.

“Employment and procurement is something we do every day, but by doing it slightly differently, we can make a huge impact. By removing stigmas around what a person with a disability can or can’t do, we are ensuring our internal culture is inclusive and supportive.

“The more stories we share, the further we progress with removing those barriers.

“This work is also really starting to align with our  clients. Questions around our disability engagement are being asked more and more. It’s very exciting to see the increased importance and to be able to support people’s mental health and quality of life in this way. We are thrilled to be an employee of choice for people with a disability.”