Every day, Sodexo Canada employee Sean Callaghan and his team of 35 help nourish close to 4,000 workers at the Loblaw head office in Brampton, Ontario.
Sean relies on his employees, who must work hard and possess both attention to detail and a cheerful attitude.
Luckily for Sean, he stumbled on a secret pool of extraordinary talent a few years ago.
These extraordinary employees make up about 20 per cent of Sean’s overall team, and their statistics are impressive:
- While his other employees, on average, miss 17 per cent of their work shifts, the members of Sean’s extraordinary staff didn’t miss a single shift over the same period.
- Compared with the 15 accidents recorded by the other employees, the extraordinary staff members only recorded a single accident – a minor head bump.
Eight years ago, the first of these employees joined Sean’s team. His name is Anthony.
“He’s never called in sick, he’s never hurt himself, he’s never had a conflict with any other employees,” says Sean. “He does the opposite. He creates that gel that makes the team, the team.”
So what makes Anthony so extraordinary?
Anthony has a disability.
Years before Anthony joined the team, Sean considered hiring people with disabilities, but wasn’t sure how. How would he accommodate their needs? Would there be an added risk to safety in the kitchen?
Then, he got a phone call.
“Someone contacted me and said, ‘Hey would you be interested in hiring someone with a disability?’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, it would be nice to give to the community, I’m interested in that.’”
That someone was Anthony, and Sean quickly learned that hiring Anthony wasn’t only about giving back – it was a sound business decision. So he kept hiring people with disabilities (PWD) – including employees who are blind, deaf, on the autism spectrum or who are learning disabled – and the impact has been irrefutable.
“Our successes range from improved staff morale, reduced turnover, improved attendance, reduced accidents and improved customer loyalty,” says Sean.
Those successes mirror trends that have been captured on a larger scale:
- People with disabilities have a 72% higher retention rate at work.
- 90% of people with disabilities rated average or better on job performance.
- A study done by American retail pharmacy chain Walgreens found that their employees with disabilities had a 40% lower safety incident rate, a 63% lower rate of absence due to accidents and 78% lower overall costs associated with accidents.
“By having a diverse workforce, we have better business results,” explains Katherine Power, Sodexo Canada’s Vice President of Communications and Corporate Affairs.
Sodexo is a global food and facilities management company. Through their many service-based offerings, including food service, cleaning service and landscaping, a large proportion of the company’s employees regularly interact with customers.
Sodexo’s reach is huge: Its global operations serve more people every day than McDonald’s. In Canada, 90 per cent of the Sodexo workforce is on the front line, interacting with 1.2 million Canadians every day.
Four years ago, the company committed to setting annual targets for hiring more people with disabilities. With such a long reach, it is uniquely positioned to make a huge impact with their commitment.
That commitment, however, was not meant to be all unicorns and gumdrops.
“As much as it is a nice thing to do, the reason we’re doing it is because the marketplace demands it,” explains Katherine. “People like to see that we’re the kind of company that hires all kinds of people from all backgrounds and all walks of life.”
In fact, the more people with disabilities that Sodexo hires, the better customer satisfaction they have.
“You hire someone with a disability who has never been able to get employment before and they are thrilled to have that job,” Katherine says. “And they stay in the job. They might grow in the organization as well.”
Last year, that’s what many did: more than a quarter of Sodexo’s PWD employees earned a promotion.
And it isn’t just on the front lines where PWD employees are hired. In fact, Sodexo has a larger percentage of people with disabilities in upper management than on the front lines.
“There are a lot of people out there with disabilities who are very qualified to take on management roles, whether they’re in IT, HR, Finance,” says Katherine. “They’re highly educated. They’re just under-hired.”
Sodexo was recently featured in Talent Untapped, a documentary that explores the underemployment of people with disabilities. Host Anna-Karina Tabunar visited Sean Callaghan and his team to see how his team works.
“Before seeing it in action, the phrase diversity and inclusion was just a phrase – it was like fairy dust and rainbows. Until I went into [Sean’s] business unit and I actually saw it at work,” she says.
A few years ago, Anna-Karina was a corporate spokesperson for a national organization. But when she experienced a sudden onset of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), she had to stop working to focus on recovery. Her fine motor skills and optical nerves were badly damaged. She couldn’t use her fingers to type, and eye sensitivities meant she couldn’t look at a computer screen or read fine print.
Anna-Karina’s health progressed, but slowly. Her employer held her job for her, but was also desperate to get her back to work. Anna-Karina knew she had new needs as an employee, and was concerned about her employer’s ability to meet them.
“Disability, accommodation and flexibility was never anything [the company] talked about,” she explains. “I know of people who had gone off on stress leave, but no one came back and talked about stress and mental health.”
Anna-Karina made the decision to leave the position and work for someone who best knew how to accommodate her needs – herself.
But she had seen some disturbing trends: the lack of diversity and inclusion in many workplaces, as well as the dearth of career opportunities for PWD, led her to create Talent Untapped.
“There were a lot of companies at the time that were talking about inclusion and diversity and wanting to do the right thing, but I couldn’t find any organizations that could show me how they were doing it – except for Sodexo,” she says.
Through the development of the film, Anna-Karina got to know the organization and its people well, including Katherine.
When an opening appeared on Katherine’s team, she approached Anna-Karina to work at Sodexo. Now, Anna-Karina had to re-think her plan to continue working for herself.
“I had absolutely no career aspirations of working in the food and building maintenance services. Absolutely none,” she says. But Sodexo’s inclusive and team-oriented culture changed her mind.
“What I do want to do is make a difference,” says Anna-Karina. “And I get to do it with this global organization.”
“I am proof that when you cultivate an inclusive workplace, you get the right people.”
Katherine says many employers are still intimidated because they don’t understand how simple accommodating a PWD can be. But concern about high priced accommodations is largely unfounded: Almost 60 per cent of employers report that the accommodations needed by employees cost nothing.
And for employees who do need accommodating, most employers report that the typical one-time cost of accommodation is $500.
In Anna-Karina’s case, the damage to her eyes makes her susceptible to eye strain and fatigue. She wears sunglasses outside and shaded prescription lenses indoors. During her first few weeks at Sodexo, a colleague inquired about her glasses. She explained that she needs them to help “tone everything down”.
“He said to me, ‘Well, if it’s the lights in the office that are causing you strain, what if I look into different temperatures of a light bulb?’’ And I thought to myself: Changing a light bulb. That’s my accommodation – the cost of a light bulb.”
“The thing is, it’s not the light bulb. It’s the fact that someone offered to do it. And I didn’t ask for it – he proactively came up with that solution,” she says.
She believes that Sodexo’s open culture emboldened her colleague to ask what she needed and empowered him to prescribe a solution.
“I’ve been in the workforce for a long time,” says Anna-Karina. “This is the first time I can honestly say that I’m at an organization with colleagues who are not merely workers, but we take care of one another.”
The business case is clear. The impact on workplaces and team morale is proven. But there is one last hurdle.
“The biggest challenge is that people don’t know where to look for employees,” explains Katherine. “You can’t just say I want to hire a diverse workforce and think they are all on Workopolis. You have to look for the right connections to be able to find those candidates.”
Katherine recently helped launch this website by speaking about Sodexo’s experience.
“If a company is not seeing the benefit of [hiring PWDs], they‘re missing the boat,” says Katherine.
The Discover Ability Network was developed to connect employers to the many skilled and qualified people with disabilities who are looking for a job.
 Statistics Canada survey, 2001.
 Statistics Canada survey, 2001.