The Business Case for Hiring Bipolar Workers

July 30, 2009 at 4:42 am | Posted in Work Life | Leave a comment

The company I work for — a large, publicly-held engineering and manufacturing firm — places a huge emphasis on diversity. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve attended a “diversity event” where speakers informed me that hiring people of diverse backgrounds “isn’t just the right thing to do — it makes good business sense.” They then try to nail the argument shut by claiming that workers of different backgrounds bring different perspectives that result in more creative problem-solving, and thus a competitive advantage.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my coworkers and I aren’t totally convinced. After all, when it comes to solving an engineering problem, does it really matter if you’re black, or female, or a Southerner, or disabled? In fact, in my own diversity talk — a 15-minute primer on how to communicate about disabilities — I don’t even try to make a business case.

Recently, though, the head of my program posed a question for me to answer in a 15-minute speech: “Why should we care about diversity? Why hire disabled people when you can hire someone who won’t require accommodations?”

Good question. Naturally I feel like I’m good at my job and deserve to keep it, but it’s a real problem for a manager. Setting aside the fact that it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of ability, why hire a disabled (or, in my case, bipolar) candidate?

Below, find my draft of an answer.

I do believe that disabled people bring, not just a fresh perspective, but skills that their non-disabled counterparts may not have developed as fully.

1. Determination. Disabled people are tough and disciplined. They have to be. They’ve suffered the loss of a major life function — that’s the definition of disability — and gone on to lead rich, rewarding lives. This is an incredible accomplishment, one that takes, among other things, the ability to set goals and achieve them. Clearly this quality is transferable to their working lives.

2. Empathy. This may sound a little too warm and fuzzy, but we all know intuitively that high morale is crucial to the functioning of any business. Because they tend to be fair and humane, people with empathy make better bosses and coworkers. Disabled people often go through a profound grieving process when they become disabled, and this helps them to be more gentle and compassionate when others suffer a loss — the death of a parent, for example, or the slow loss of a parent to Alzheimer’s. This compassion can make all the difference when life gets in the way and people struggle at work.

3. Creativity and problem-solving skills. Some disabilities, like bipolar disorder, are thought to confer some benefits in the form of increased creativity. When you think about it, though, if you’re disabled, you face problems that require solving. My disabled friends at work have had to figure out everything from how to use a wheelchair to negotiate a world designed for people who walk, to contriving ways to ride a bicycle after having had a disabling stroke. It can take remarkable ingenuity to solve these very practical problems. Again, this skill comes in handy in the working world.

4. Needed technical talents. Twenty percent of the population will become disabled before age 65. Meanwhile, high-tech companies are scrambling to find and retain talented, experienced workers with specialty technical skills. They don’t have the luxury of rejecting any portion of that 20% just because they might require accommodations to perform essential job functions. After all, if your company doesn’t hire a gifted and disabled person, then the competition will. This necessity will only accelerate in the future, since once the stock market comes back, millions of skilled baby boomers will retire.

5. People with disabilities are still quite able. People who are not disabled tend to think that a disability such as blindness or being confined to a wheelchair condemns the sufferer to a life of relentless misery, loneliness, and complete incapacity. Secretly or openly, they believe that such a life is worth less, and is ultimately not worth living. In this article from The New York Times, the writer openly argues just that, based on a poll of people without disabilities. In fact, once you’re forced to cope serious limitations, you often begin to value your life and your many remaining abilities more than ever. You cultivate new skills; you savor what you can do rather than pining for what you can’t. And what we still can do often surprises others. People in wheelchairs and with other disabilities marry and have children, and I earned an advanced degree while in the throes of untreated bipolar disorder.

So that’s my initial stab at answering my program manager’s question. Please feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments, or (if you’ve reached this site from my company) to email me.

Advertisements

Leave a Comment »

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: