People with Disabilities Are an Untapped Talent Pool

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

About a year ago on a trip to Washington, D.C., I discovered Bitty & Beau’s. It’s a coffee shop chain, now with 17 locations across the United States, and they do serve a great cappuccino. But what makes them special is the fact that they employ mainly people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

It was founded by Amy and Ben Wright and named for their two youngest children, both of whom have Down syndrome. When you ask them why they started the business, they explain it pretty simply: 80 percent of people with disabilities in the United States are unemployed. Most can be great workers if given the chance. This is an untapped talent pool and can even be a source of competitive advantage.

Our guest today has the research to back up that assertion. She’s found lots of companies like Bitty & Beau’s around the world, ones that employ people with disabilities, not just because it’s a good or moral thing to do, but also because it’s good for business. From wheelchair-bound security guards to coders with autism, these workers bring unique skills, improve workplace culture, and draw in new customers.

Luisa Alemany is an associate professor at London Business School and coauthor, along with Freek Vermeulen, of the HBR article, “Disability as a Source of Competitive Advantage.” Luisa, so good to have you here.

LUISA ALEMANY: Happy to be here with you today.

ALISON BEARD: Most organizations are trying to do a better job with diversity and inclusion. Why do you think that they’re still overlooking people with disabilities as a source of talent?

LUISA ALEMANY: The first thing is because people really are scared. They don’t know how to deal with people with disabilities. And I can give an example of myself. I started the program for people with disabilities when I was in… I started business school in Barcelona. That was around 2013. A person from a foundation that were with people with disabilities asked me if I could start the program for entrepreneurs for these people as they didn’t have jobs. They say, “Well, maybe they can start company and create their own jobs.”

And I was so scared. I mean, I said yes, but then I have to teach them. And I was so kind of like, how do you teach it? I have people that are blind in the class. I have people that are deaf in the class, people in a wheelchair. So, for me, it was lack of knowledge. And I think that’s what happens in many companies. You really don’t know at the beginning until you realize that actually, there is nothing to be scared of.

ALISON BEARD: So, how do you get over that hurdle?

LUISA ALEMANY: Well, I think the first thing is just to meet somebody, work with somebody with disabilities, then you realize. For companies, of course, the problem is how do you recruit these people, how do you find them. And that’s the main issue these days because the normal recruiting processes are probably not made or most of them are not made for people with disabilities. And so, people with disabilities, in general, do not apply to, what I would say because they think they are not going to fit. So, that is a big problem, let’s say, in the part of looking for jobs, and announcing jobs, and making more open that they are looking for people for disabilities.

ALISON BEARD: It does seem like the first problem to overcome is this idea that you wouldn’t be employing people with disabilities because it’s a social cause; you’re doing it actually because it helps you in your business: Better performance, better productivity, better profits. So, let’s dig into some of the areas where you see those competitive advantages. You talk in the article first about unique skills that typically abled people might not have. So, can you just give me a few examples?

LUISA ALEMANY: That was the first thing that people have heard about how people with autism are very good at detecting mistakes or they can focus for hours on work. So, this is a typical, let’s say, or more well-known disability that is a special ability. But actually, we discovered other cases like the case in this shopping mall in Bogota, in Colombia. I mean I saw it with my eyes. You see these security guards in wheelchair and you will probably think, how can a security guard in a wheelchair? That doesn’t make sense. But actually, they are very good at their job because they can see if somebody is pickpockets, and they are also fast with their wheelchair to get to places where there is an issue.

But something that was also a surprise, is that we suddenly realized that there were a lot of customers with disabilities in the shopping mall. And when we were talking to the manager, they said, “Yeah, because as we make it something normal, then people that have somebody in the family, like children or whoever with a disability, they just feel at home here as well. Everybody see it as something normal.” So, it’s more inviting. It’s just more welcoming for everyone.

ALISON BEARD: And you also gave an example, I think it was of call center workers or people taking customer service complaints, just having more empathy?

LUISA ALEMANY: Yeah. It was super interesting because the people from the call center were explaining to us that, in fact, you don’t know that they have disabilities, but they know how bad it is when you have a problem and when you need a doctor. For example, they were working for a hospital and these types of call centers, also for the police. And they say they really try to help you because they feel like they were helping their brother or sister. It’s something very important for them because they know how difficult is sometimes things for them.

ALISON BEARD: So, is there any danger here when you’re thinking about people with disabilities and certain skills that you’re pigeonholing people? Rather than saying, “Oh, you could play any role at this organization,” you’re saying, “Oh, no, you’re perfectly suited to this particular role.”

LUISA ALEMANY: Well, at the end of the day, it’s like any other job. I mean you are good at the type of job you do, and in a sense, it’s a specialization. If you do something that you’re good at, you enjoy doing that. So, I think it’s a positive way of trying to find your skills and your abilities and try to find jobs where those abilities that you have make you succeed, and other people cannot make it.

ALISON BEARD: And you also found that the presence of employees with disabilities can improve workplace culture. So, how did you measure that?

LUISA ALEMANY: Well, first, we did a lot of interviews, and this was coming in the interviews, that people were more collaborative, that people were helping each other, that people were missing less work because of sickness. So, all this was coming in interviews, but of course, you cannot generalize only with interviews. So, what we did is we did some surveys with some managers of different companies. Fifty seven human resource executives replied to this survey. And we basically check whether this change in culture was happening.

The results were very clear. In terms of internal culture, the 88% of the managers of the HR executive told us that the internal culture was improving and actually 70%, this result was super strong. And then we also asked about the psychological safety, this measure that Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard has developed, and they also told us that 65% of these companies saw an improvement in psychological safety. That means that employees were more open to discuss an issue. They were not worried to be penalized or to be left apart since they have colleagues that have disabilities.

And also, when we asked them about whether the teams were working together better, since they have these employees, 74% say yes. And also, in general, the work atmosphere has improved in 75% of these companies. So, really very positive results, that was what we were coming and getting from the interviews. But here, we have data that backs these comments.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And it’s interesting because I imagine that some people would say, “Oh, well, there’s going to be friction and difficulty when you’re increasing diversity in this way.” But it seems like, very quickly, that friction, that challenge, was overcome?

LUISA ALEMANY: Yeah. So something that we got when we were asking why is this happening? And they say that because they feel that or they are helping the new employee, the person that has disability or the new employees, that then the moment they start helping, they start helping each other as well. Like, they see that helping is not actually something bad. It’s good.

Of course, everybody working, at the beginning in some of these places, they were telling us they train the managers of these new employees because they don’t know. At the beginning, they’re a bit scared, as I said, about how to work with them because they have different needs. But once everybody understand this, everybody start being very open and cooperative, and it feels more like a family type of environment.

ALISON BEARD: So, is there an example of an organization that you would give where this type of hiring has really benefited the culture, a case study you could point to?

LUISA ALEMANY: In the survey we ran, we saw companies from large telecom companies, there were banks, there were call centers, there were industrial companies. Unfortunately, I cannot give you names because the survey was anonymous, and the size of the companies goes from very, very big to smaller. Most of them are in the medium rate, and I will say around one-third were large companies, and then the rest were SMEs.

ALISON BEARD: In the article, you talk about breweries, shopping malls, coffee shops. It’s a wide range of organizations.

LUISA ALEMANY: Yeah, there is everything like advertising agencies, the call center, and we saw a lot of these companies, consulting firms in IT. So, it’s very broad and there are very different type of jobs that employees with disabilities are performing.

ALISON BEARD: I do worry on the workplace culture bit that some companies will think, okay, we could do it in a way that is almost like tokenism, hiring one person in the mail room, for example. Is hiring one person or a couple of people enough, or do you need to make more of a commitment than that?

LUISA ALEMANY: I think you need to make more of a commitment. If it’s just one or two, it can backfire because it can be seen, as you say, as you are just trying to get your checkpoint here for hiring somebody with disabilities. That’s not the point. So, it has to be really something that is embraced. And that when you are trying to recruit for any position, it can be in accounting, it can be anything, but you try the same way that you do with any other minority. If you’re trying really to increase diversity, you have to encourage this diversity.

ALISON BEARD: You also studied the effect that employing people with disabilities has on external stakeholders. I want to dig into that. Let’s start with customers. What is the positive impact that you saw there?

LUISA ALEMANY: With the customers, we did several experiments. And it was very interesting because the first question on that or the first experiment, we thought, “Okay, let’s see if people are willing to pay more if we tell them that something has been produced by a person with a disability.” So, with the first experiment we run, we have 200 people and to 100 of them, we told them, “Look, would you be willing to pay, buy this much, this high quality with high reviews?” And then to the other 100 people, we say the same, but we mentioned that the mug was produced by a person with disabilities. And we saw no difference whatsoever in pricing. They were not willing to pay more.

And then we run a second experiment. And in this case, what we found it was that people were not willing to pay more, but they were really building a relationship with the company. So, they will be more engaged with the company. They will be building a long-term relationship with the company, which means that they will be repeating in the future, buying again from this company, which is, of course, very positive for companies. So, not paying more, but just building this psychological association with the company.

ALISON BEARD: You also make the case that this can lead to an advantage when it comes to finding both capital and talent. Talk more about those two pieces.

LUISA ALEMANY: Yeah. Part of the talent is something that we have observed on the current, in the millennials and the people that are right now looking for jobs, the younger generation. And I see a lot of this with my students here at London Business School. They really want to work in a company that has some impact. They’re looking for a company that cares about what they do. That they just not care only about profits, but they care bringing good to the society.

We did also experiment that having employees or other colleagues with disabilities was something that people will be more interested to work in that company. They feel the company is better. And then even one of the experiments, we check whether they will be willing to accept a lower salary. And yes, we saw a difference with the groups that were just a multinational company, a “normal” job versus with the same company with employees with disabilities. People were willing to let part of the salary for working in this company.

So, that was very interesting. And of course, it’s very challenging to recruit these days. You can recruit people with disabilities that are amazing workers, but you can also get more people to work with you because you are employing people with disabilities. So, it’s really a synergy that you’re getting here.

ALISON BEARD: And then the capital or investment piece?

LUISA ALEMANY: On the capital part, as we know, ESG now is something super relevant in capital markets, and there is a lot of money on impact investing. This is something that, for example, I was doing some research before and still doing in impact investing, and I work a lot with the European Venture Philanthropy Association and they do this annual report. And more than 36%, so let’s say one-third of the money that goes to impact investing goes to people with disabilities. So, actually, there is funding available. And of course, the normal ESG capital as well will be there, but there is a specific money there. So, that will be also an advantage because if you can access capital cheaper, well, then that means that you’re going to have positive returns, and these are financial returns.

ALISON BEARD: When you talk to people about this idea, what hesitations or criticisms do you typically hear from company leaders?

LUISA ALEMANY: Well, some people might say that it’s difficult to integrate them, but as I said, it’s just a lack of knowledge. As an example, when I have to do this teaching for people with disabilities, they told me, “Lu, when you say in class as you can see here, remember you have blind people. You cannot say as you can see here and just point out with your slides. And when you are talking, you cannot talk behind because they have to read your lips.” So, they tell you all these things. You have to learn and you are scared to death. But I think sometimes it’s our own fears that we have to break. So, that will be the first thing.

And the second thing is maybe people say, “Yeah, but I don’t know where to find employees with disabilities right away because I put a job posting and nobody applies. How do I get these employees with disabilities?” I will say there are many associations in every town. There are foundations. I mean, if you Google it, you can get a lot of names of people that work with people with disabilities, and I’m sure they will be very happy to help.

There is a case for example, of a company. We don’t mention it, but it’s called EmployAbility. EmployAbility is a company that helps students that are finishing the university here in the UK to find jobs, so students with disabilities, to find jobs in the companies that other students are recruiting. And in fact, most of the work they have to do with the companies because they have to teach the companies how to recruit and what type of interviews they have to do, so they can access all this talent that is available out there.

ALISON BEARD: So, if I am a company leader and I want to set up a program in which I start hiring more people with disabilities, is that the first step, to reach out to an organization like that, or should I work internally first with my HR department?

LUISA ALEMANY: Well, probably you can check with your HR department because in many companies, in fact, there are people with disabilities and sometimes we don’t even know. So, probably it will be good to start with HR, but if there is no company or somebody that can help you with the recruiting, I would say just reach out to your local organization and have a chat with them and with HR and see what they propose. Because of course, the companies or foundations that are helping people with disabilities to get their skills to access a job, they have this pool of talent available and they are really happy to get in contact with companies that are looking for employees.

ALISON BEARD: And you talked about practical training, but what other steps should managers take to integrate new team members with disabilities, make sure that everyone does feel like a cohesive tea, and also that you’re managing them appropriately?

LUISA ALEMANY: We did some interviews on that, but there is a specific people and a specific organization that help with that because it’s not… For example, they need a special space sometimes to rest, or they might need to be in areas where there is… For example, people with autism, they need to be in areas where there is less noise or where there is less people passing by. So, there are really a specific things that you need to know, but there are association, as I said, or organizations that can help you on that.

So, I will say it’s just a question of looking for experts. The same way that if you are starting a new division or you are getting into a new business, you will get advice; this is something that you also need to get advice at the beginning. And I think it’s just a question of starting. And something that you can see also in the organization is that the moment they start hiring people with disabilities, this came also in the interviews, they basically want to hire more because they see that, actually, the employees are very good and that it’s helping with the culture. So, they say, well… And once you have some people with disabilities, these people will be in contact with other people. So, that’s also something that helps a lot.

ALISON BEARD: One point that Amy and Ben also made when I spoke with them was the idea that because society at large isn’t really set up well for people with disabilities, they’re hidden and also perceived as a small percentage of the population. But it is such a big part of the population when you think about all the different types of disabilities that people might have, hearing impairment, mental illness, developmental delays, physical ailments.

And so, they also make the point that there’s congenital issues, but then there are also people who become disabled. They are paralyzed and then become wheelchair-bound when they were a typically abled person the year before. And so, this idea that it could be any of us at any point, I think if we could get organizational leaders to think more expansively about this population, it isn’t a small number of people. It’s a really big one.

LUISA ALEMANY: Yeah, I know, totally, totally. Actually, it’s around 20% of the people of the working age population. So, it’s a lot of people. It’s two out of 10. But what you’re saying that it could be any of us is really the case. And this was the example of this shopping mall in Colombia, in Bogota. That the son of the owner of the shopping mall was doing some sports, and basically, next day, he was in a wheelchair. And so, this is when he realized that, actually, my son is capable as yesterday. Just has a mobility challenge, but he could be working and now, he’s not going to be… People are not going to look at him as they were looking at him the day before. And so, this is why he started looking at this, and he was hiring people at all levels with disabilities because he really saw what you were mentioning, that it could be any of us.

ALISON BEARD: And in other aspects of your work, you work with entrepreneurs, you said. So, like Amy and Ben who started Bitty & Beau’s, like this owner of the shopping mall, is that where this is starting and then it’s filtering into large organizations? Or do you see two tracks of development where large organizations are implementing these programs because they’re prioritizing diversity, and then it’s also happening at the small scale?

LUISA ALEMANY: I think it’s both. There are startups or entrepreneurs that are starting companies because they have disabilities or because they are serving the people with disabilities, and normally, they have somebody very close by with a disability. And then there are companies that maybe start hiring people with disabilities because they have to do it, and then they realize that actually makes a lot of sense.

So, I think the large multinationals, for example, companies that we were in touch with, they started because it was part of their corporate social responsibility and ESG and this type of things. But then they saw that it was a good idea, and then they started getting more and more. So, I think both ways is coming. And of course, people that have somebody with a disability at home or nearby, they will be more willing and they will be probably the champions in the business world.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, it is so interesting on the ESG front that you’re talking about because there is so much focus right now on purpose and mission and how important that is, doing well by doing good, et cetera. But this feels like a niche area of that whole movement that it still doesn’t quite get a lot of attention. Do you see that changing?

LUISA ALEMANY:  I hope so. I mean it’s totally untapped. There is so much potential. It’s not only that it’s good as we are saying. It’s really it’s good for the business and it’s good for the other employees, which again, is good for the business. So, it’s all positive. It just creates a virtuous circle. And I hope that companies that they are trying to differentiate and as you say, purpose is there in the CEO agenda right now. They will find ways of getting to impact in different ways. And hopefully, it’s not only about climate change, but also thinking about being more integrative and bringing the people with disability on board.

ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Well, Luisa, it’s been wonderful speaking with you about this. I know you feel passionately about it, and I certainly felt that way after visiting Bitty & Beau’s. So, hopefully, more organizations will take your message to heart. Thanks so much for being with me.

LUISA ALEMANY: Thank you, Alison. It has been a pleasure, and I really hope that companies realize that this is a source of competitive advantage for them.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Luisa Alemany, associate professor at London Business School and co-author of the HBR article, “Disability as a Source of Competitive Advantage.” You can learn more about the Bitty & Beau’s story with the HBR article, “The Founders of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee on Building a Business around Employees with Disabilities.”

We have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at or search HBR and Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.

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