The SME benefits of an inclusive workforce

Chris Jay, below, Managing Director of Bascule Disability Training, explains why it is time SMEs reaped the rewards of inclusivity

It’s no secret that the UK business landscape is powered by SMEs. In fact, it has become common knowledge that they account for 99% of all businesses and responsible for 61% of employment in the UK.

Despite this, larger organisations appear to be more forward thinking in terms of developing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) strategies and progressing towards more inclusive methods of recruiting and operating. It’s been proven that companies with EDI strategies outperform their competitors financially, and are 120% more likely to achieve their financial goals, so why are SMEs so slow to follow suit?

Well, there are a few considerations to take on board. Foremost, bigger companies will have the advantage of specialist HR teams – often with staff members solely dedicated to improving EDI. This allows businesses to dedicate themselves to actively becoming more inclusive.

The added advantage of a dedicated team and resources also means that inclusivity can be monitored, assessed and constantly improved. Other aspects such as accessible recruitment procedures are adopted, new methods of best practice can be researched and implemented, and consideration for support and legal obligations are more widely considered.

However, this is not to say that, without these added advantages, SMEs are less able or ill equipped to be inclusive employers. In fact, SMEs can often offer better conditions for recruiting people with disabilities than many large organisations often simply because they can be agile.

SME advantages as an inclusive employer

In many ways, being a smaller, more personal, independent organisation puts an SME at a more advantageous position when it comes to being an inclusive employer.  In its research of SMEs and larger firms ‘Disability at Work’ revealed several reasons why SMEs can be better employers. Among the many advantages, the report listed that SMEs offer more job autonomy which can be advantageous for people with disabilities. It also claimed that SMEs have stronger fairness cultures, meaning they are more likely to be responsive to employees’ needs than large firms.

Additionally, the report stated that standards of work-life balance are typically better with SMEs than with large firms and that this would aid people with disabilities when juggling work with health needs and everyday living routines. This can also be said for flexible and remote working.

Whilst the current trend for many larger organisations is to demand that workers return to the office, 91 per cent of small business employers offer flexible working, (rising to 97 per cent of those who employ a person with a disability. Providing flexibility at this level is certainly more appealing for employees with a disability.

New talent

Attracting, recruiting, and retaining new talent is often reported to be a challenge, especially for SMEs. In 2022, 70% of businesses reported that competition for experienced talent has increased, and 77% reported difficulties attracting experienced candidates.

Becoming a more inclusive employer will certainly widen the net for the talent you are trying to attract, especially when you consider that 23% of all working age adults in the UK have a disability. By making a few inclusive adjustments, your business will immediately appeal to a vast portion of the population.

Not only will an inclusive workplace allow you to appeal to a wider number of higher calibre candidates, it will also mean you are more likely to retain staff members with a disability, as your business will now have an empathetic, understanding and fully inclusive working environment. This will also save on expensive recruitment costs over years.

The benefits to business

As SMEs embrace difference and begin to employ more staff with disabilities, they will naturally become more accessible, and this cultural shift will spread into the overall ethos of an organisation. If you embrace an inclusive culture across the company, (within all teams, and all levels of seniority), this can lead to the opening of a whole new market and customer base. When you consider that 24% of the UK population have a disability- that change can be significant. In fact, it has been reported that people with disabilities have an estimated spending power of around £274 billion per year, in the UK alone.

Supporting existing staff

Whilst many SMEs might think disability is not something that affects them, it may be worth considering that only 17% of people are actually born with a disability, 83% acquire it later in life. Furthermore, it’s also worth remembering that 80% of all disabilities are hidden or non-visible, and 43% of people with non-visible disabilities choose not to tell their employers, (usually due to concerns of how colleagues/supervisors will react).

So, considering that around one in four people have a disability, (16 million people), you may well already employ someone with a disability, and not even know it, especially if you are an SME that has a headcount near the 250 limit.

Where to start?

Once the decision has been made to become a more inclusive business or to develop an EDI strategy, knowing where to begin can often be overwhelming. The answer is simple. All staff must gain awareness of disability, and this must be the foundation of change. This means developing knowledge, empathy and understanding of disability, through a user-led training programme.

Without an inclusive mindset, all of a businesses’ other attempts to be inclusive will fall flat. For example, imagine an organisation that has ramps at every entrance and exit, with accessible parking, lifts and a wheelchair accessible toilet. If the staff greeting people, interviewing, or even answering phones, have no awareness or understanding of disability, are awkward, use the wrong language or treat someone differently, that person won’t wish to be associated with the business, whether they are an employee or customer.

I once attended an event as a keynote speaker in a venue that had a well-planned process to chaperone people with disabilities to a particular hidden area of the building, where there was an accessible lift and entrance to the stage. It was all very inclusive. Unfortunately, the person on reception greeting the delegates was panicked at the sight of me and hollered ‘wait there’- and ‘stay where you are’, before asking my colleague where I was going, instead of asking me. He fumbled around with panic and urgency, knowing this was the moment he was supposed to follow a set process. I felt more like a dangerous package than a guest, and it definitely impacted how I felt about the event.

Without an inclusive mindset, people with disabilities will see that they are not understood, despite the accessible facilities. This applies to anyone your business may interact with. Consider also that this example based is around a disability that can be seen and potentially adapted to on the fly. How would staff react to one they can’t see at all?

If you think about the fact that Scope reported that two-thirds of the British public (67%) admitted to feeling uncomfortable talking to people with disabilities, you have to ask yourself, are my customer facing staff part of that percentage?  Creating inclusive minds is the first step in changing that.

In summary, SMEs not only have a lot to offer people with disabilities, they also have a lot to gain. By tapping into a new talent pool, and changing your ethos, you’ll simultaneously create a new market, enhance your appeal, and improve your customer service.

As your staff develop empathy, knowledge, awareness and experience of disability, accessibility will naturally become a very important and rewarding aspect of your company brand and ethos.