Integrating people with disabilities into regular jobs in Spain

Marina Boz

Dr Marina Boz is Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at our Lord Ashcroft International Business School.

For over two decades, Spanish law has required companies with more than 50 staff to have at least 2% of their workforce composed of people with disabilities. Only recently, however, has the government enforced sanctions to make sure this law is being applied.

Over a four-year period, Dr Marina Boz and a team of researchers examined how people with disabilities socialised and integrated with teams in ordinary job roles, that are not specifically created or intended for a person with a disability. This was not an institutionally driven project. Instead, a group of 13 companies, from small businesses to multinationals, supported this important work, through the Fundacion Focus-Abengoa. Disability support associations were also involved. “This project was unique,” explains Marina. “Rather than being driven by research goals, it was demand from practitioners that made it possible and drove it forward. Participating companies were working towards meeting their legislated targets. Although they were successfully recruiting people with disabilities, they were not retaining them and wanted to know why and how this issue could be addressed.”

Answering this problem took the team into new territory. “Differentiating between the many types of disability and how they might influence an individual’s successful integration in the workplace wasn’t an area that had previously appeared in research,” says Marina. As with existing research, the team found that most company programmes regarded ‘disability’ as a homogeneous thing. As a result, internal programmes designed to integrate and socialise employees with disabilities were broadly the same, regardless of the new employee’s particular circumstances or capabilities. “This presented challenges, both for the new employee and existing workplace teams.”

“In terms of capability, there was often a disconnect between what the employee felt they were capable of doing and what the teams’ and managers’ expectations of the employee were,” continues Marina. “There was a definite theme of low expectation towards the new employee and this also influenced how other team members related to the new employee. Goals and tasks were normally set at a lower level than the new employee expected. This was a demotivating factor and didn’t encourage individuals with a disability to stay with the organisation.”

Understanding or misunderstanding the new employee’s disability also caused barriers to integration and good communications within teams. This was more acute in situations where the individual had a learning disability, or a hearing or oral impairment. “A significant issue here was that existing employees were not being trained in, or briefed on, how to talk to such individuals,” adds Marina. “In the case of hearing impairment, for example, staff were not taught basic sign language or even made aware that they should always face the person when speaking to enable lip reading.”

Interestingly, many of the organisations involved in the study were unaware that these problems around expectations, capability and communication existed. “It was only when speaking to team members and the employees with disabilities that all of this became apparent,” says Marina. “The issue appears to be a system failure. During the hiring process, the HR department and the new employee’s supervisor had worked closely together; all had a clear understanding of the individual’s situation regarding his or her disability. However, everyone neglected to prepare the relevant teams to work with the new recruit. This proved key to the majority of the failings. It was the dynamics within the team – not the supervisor or the organisation as a whole – that was the problem.”

Research matters

What inspired you?

The social relevance of the project, its real and significant impact on the working lives of individuals with disability. Also, the possibility to collaborate with so many partners and make a contribution to each of them.

Any surprises?

I think it was that there was such a complex political landscape to navigate in order to complete the study—between the academic and governmental partnerships as well as the external organisations. At the project’s outset, I wasn’t expecting that we would need to spend so much time in a mediator role, but to observe and participate

in this unanticipated way was a fascinating and positive experience.

Why does this research matter?

Because it shows that workplace teams that gain new employees with disability play a much bigger role in the way those individuals feel at work than they may be aware of.

Research funding

Andalucia Council for Employment

Amount of funding awarded: €18,000

European Social Fund

Amount of funding awarded: €12,000

Focus-Abengoa Foundation

Amount of funding awarded: €6,000

Duration of the funding: 4 years