Gerry Crispin talks Diversity with Derek Zeller

We recently published a headline about the experience of a young technical graduate from Rochester Institute of Technology in getting a job. He happened to be deaf. The story in Creating Not Predicting the Future, illustrates that success in overcoming unique challenges faced by people with disabilities are more often than not unrelated to technology, luck of the draw or compliance. Instead, success is shown to depend on individual stakeholders like hiring managers and recruiters who step up when it counts. I’ve been open to making a list of employers with proactive [emphasize proactive] practices for hiring people with disabilities for some time but haven’t seen more than a handful of initiatives.

People making a difference

Two responses among many to my post reinforce the critical importance of the kinds of people who are compelled to work this issue. The first was a link from Shannon Smedstad who shared an emotional video on the work being done at Walgreens to truly mine the added value many people with disabilities bring to any workforce – persistence in overcoming obstacles, high appreciation/engagement for the work, longer retention, focus, all of which result in the record-breaking performance. So cool. Not lost on the story is the ‘Hiring Manager’ who happened to have a disabled family member. Not mentioned (but inferred) is the engagement levels of other workers over their pride in how their company makes a difference. Hopefully many have seen the video.  If not, it’s a must.

The second response was a note from Derek Zeller, one of the stronger recruiting professionals I have the pleasure of knowing, who had an unpublished story in a similar vein as mine and was kind enough to allow me to publish it below as a guest post with a few edits. I also called him and recorded a few minutes of conversation and have included it in our latest podcast.

[powerpress]


Hiring the Sounds of Silence
by Derek Zeller

“Disability is a matter of perception. If you can do just one thing well, you’re needed by someone.” 
Martina Navratilova

Let’s face it; as much as we discuss diversity, few of us go much beyond conversation- especially when it’s at the edge. For awhile Veteran hiring lay fallow. Today disability needs a push.

Management wants placements and what goes on behind the curtain, well shortcuts abound. EEOC and OFFCP are more than acronyms but they baffle and confuse most mid-level managers, especially those recently promoted people with little if any training, interviewing background or understanding of the repercussions of what could happen if lines are crossed.

This story (which is quite a few years ago) is about hiring the right person for the job no matter what your mythos may make you think. Her name is Alice and she is a deaf programmer, and a damn good one. I will not regale you with some fascinating sourcing search tool I used or Boolean string that I wrote since she applied to the role, yes folks sometimes the best prospects you have are right there in front of you.

Let me introduce you to Alice and the wonderland she lives in. Alice was born deaf and was taught at a school for the deaf. Like people who are disabled, she never knew she was. Having never done something does not make you miss it as you never knew it existed, sort of like my dating life. She went to a school for the deaf, learned sign language and how to read lips. She was self-taught, coding skills with a Microsoft background and that was exactly what I needed for an overly needy Government client in Cleveland. This was a permanent position and it required a SECRET clearance. This was not normally a problem in DC as everyone wanted to get a clearance since 85% of the IT work in DC requires one. NOT so much in Cleveland. In fact, I was told by a number of programmers that they preferred contract work because that was the standard market.

Alice was living in Dayton, OH and was looking for a role that was more telecommuting as she preferred working from home. She felt safer there than in workplaces where she had to constantly explain herself. We spoke mainly by email but not knowing that she was deaf I asked why it was we could not have a conversation on the phone, my preferred method of communication. She said that there was a service that we could use after telling me that she was, well deaf, and would be unable to hear me. The service translates what the person to the person unable to hear in text and then speaks the words of that person back to you the hearing enabled. It was a somewhat surreal experience but one I truly learned from. She passed all my questions then an odd occurrence happened.

Salary came up and although she had previously been a strong and confident competitor, the floor fell out from under her feet. She said that she would be ecstatic if she could make at least $40,000 a year. My jaw dropped. The position we had budgeted this role for was twice that. My manager and boss at the time could have been dancing in the hallway with the money back he could get towards other roles on the back of this young lady who just wanted a job and was willing to toss her experience and skill because she thought she was worthless due to her loss of hearing and all the things she would need to do the job. But he didn’t.

Seriously.

Remember, this was a few years ago. After all that has come out about gender pay discrepancy especially within IT where talent is scarce having someone would classify themselves in this way was perplexing but I have to say this is one of the few things that I feel the OFCCP gets right. When I spoke with my boss he unequivocally agreed with me that we were going to offer her, if she got the job, $80,000 with all the benefits.

We chatted with the client and they, having a hard time to fill this internally were totally fine with her working offsite, in fact, the whole team did telecommuting. I remember berating my manager (boss) for not telling me this in the first place. The client was not even remotely apprehensive that she was deaf; in fact, they were positively giddy as this would fulfill a number of boxes they themselves would like to check off. Win; win in a truly distasteful fashion of government regulations but one that I learned was actually useful. She got the job and when I told her the salary we were offering my heart sank. Normally I am able to hear that voice on the other side of the line telling me yes and how excited they were, however, this was over email.

God, I hate email sometimes. Then, the next day I turned on the computer and opened my email and just like Christmas morning for many; there was my present…a signed copy of my offer letter. But that was not what floored me. It was the note that she sent me that did it. It was not long. Just these words that have stayed with me all these years.

Thank you for believing in me…


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