Unlocking Talent Through Inclusive Hiring: Podcast Interview

Listen to Greater Vancouver Board of Trade President and CEO, Bridgitte Anderson, and Lisa Beecroft, Presidents Group Co-Chair, Co-Owner of the award-winning bakery Gabi & Jules Handmade Pies and Baked Goodness and Caffe Divano, discuss the benefits of embracing inclusive hiring practices.


Transcript for the Podcast Episode:

Bridgitte: Welcome to GVPOD, Greater Vancouver’s business podcast, unpacking the challenges and opportunities facing our region. I’m Bridgitte Anderson, President and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. We are doing a series of episodes addressing the labor shortage in our region and calling on experts in various sectors to share their perspective on how we can address it.

Today, we’re going to discuss a demographic that doesn’t nearly get the attention it deserves; most people don’t know that nearly 15% of B.C. residents over the age of 15 identify as having a disability. That’s more than half a million individuals, despite ongoing efforts to address the issue, Statistics Canada reports the employment rate for people with disabilities is 18% points lower than for people without a disability. Employment is more than just a paycheck. It also fosters personal growth, a sense of belonging, and the opportunity to contribute to the community. As we look to address the labour shortage in our region, it’s the perfect opportunity to highlight groups who are under-represented in the labor force, and the obstacles they face.

Joining me for more on this is Lisa Beecroft, co-chair of Presidents Group, an organization dedicated to promoting accessible workplaces. Lisa is co-owner of the award-winning bakery, Gabi and Jules Handmade Pies and Baked Goodness, as well as Caffe Divano with locations in Coquitlam, Port-Moody and Burnaby. Lisa, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

Lisa: Thanks for having me.

Bridgitte: So how did you get involved in the President’s Group? And I’d like to hear more about your passion for promoting inclusive employment. Where does that stem from?

Lisa: So, it’s definitely a personal journey for me- having a daughter with autism is what sparked this interest, and actually it was a chance encounter with the customer at Divano actually where it started initially from, he was telling me about his employer, which is SAP- a massive employer, as we know. They had a program called autism at work, and their objective was to have 10% of their global workforce be represented by people on the autism spectrum, which is such an ambitious goal and… I was like, wow, that’s incredible and like, well, if a company like that can do that then why can’t WE set a goal to have employment opportunities created at the bakery and it worked.

We were just in the process of building our bakery and it was named after our daughters, and Juliana has autism, and we saw that… as you mentioned at the top. People with disabilities are under-represented in the workforce, and it’s like, how can we help address that, and so it kind of came from that, that forged the idea, and then we just, with intention, when we opened the bakery and we said we were going to be an inclusive employer, and that started a very winding road of learnings that we’ve had over the years.

And then as far as the Presidents Group came about, Craig Richmond was the co-chair and he was the CEO of YVR at the time, and I’m not sure how he heard about us, but he made his way out to Port Moody and we had a chat, and the Presidents Group had primarily large businesses that were at the table and discussing how to increase employment for people with disabilities, and what they were recognizing is the fact that small businesses are the big employer in the province. I think it’s like 98% of employment is created by small businesses, so it was important that small businesses were at that table, because it’s such a different reality as far as how you navigate being an inclusive employer, and I think that often it can seem more overwhelming from a small business perspective, so they were really trying to broaden the perspectives at the Presidents Group, and so I was the first small business owner that was invited to sit at a very intimidating table, but it’s definitely been quite the journey being there and just seeing how there are definitely advantages being a large business as far as the resources that you can access, but I think what we also see from a small business perspective is that you’re more agile and you can adapt your business as you see fit, you don’t have to go through every step along the way to make change, and so it’s definitely been a great journey at being part of the Presidents Group and seeing collectively how we’re able to fully change and hopefully get to our goal as far as being the province with the highest rate of employment for people with disabilities.

Bridgitte: And I want to hear more about the journey that you’ve been on, but just let’s take a step back and talk about the term disability. It is such a broad term, and I was really surprised to learn that nearly 15% of B.C. residents over the age of 15 identify as having a disability, so what does that really mean? And having a disability, it can take many shapes and forms…

Lisa: Absolutely, and I think that we’ve had this conversation about how to define it because we’re also in the process at the Presidents Group of actually measuring our employment for people with disabilities in our businesses, and so it helped us really look at that definition, and so understanding that and look and recognizing the fact there’s invisible disabilities as well as physical disabilities, and so how do we define it, and you definitely have the mental health component, you have physical disabilities, you have learning disabilities, and you have neuro-developmental disabilities, so I think it can encompass so many different things, and I think that that’s where recognizing that and acknowledging those disabilities and really, it broadens, I think for me, an understanding of what people are living with, and as we’ve started to measure and talk about disability more and as our culture has evolved here, I think it’s really getting a sense of how many people really have lived with disabilities and didn’t feel comfortable disclosing it and so I think that being able to feel comfortable with being honest about what you’re dealing with is just, they can be their true self. So that’s been be a big part of our journey as far as understanding and recognizing and just creating a safe space where they can disclose that and feel supported and however they need to be supported with that disability.

Bridgitte: Well, the pandemic has really shone a light on mental health issues in people’s homes and certainly at the workplace, and there’s much more open conversation about it now, so as you say, maybe that leads to more open conversation about disabilities. We have a labour shortage issue in our region, and we are all looking at ways to be able to fill the gaps and to make sure that our region can thrive, so through your experience at the Presidents Group, how difficult has it been and does it continue to be for people with disabilities to find employment?

Lisa: Yeah, I think that’s certainly people with disabilities are under-represented in the workforce, and you can see that from the statistics, and I think that part of that, from what we’re seeing and hearing, I think is that a large part of that is because people have given up and they’re no longer seeking out employment actively, and so I think that’s part of the story there too, as far as how do you address this issue early on, and that’s something that we’ve been talking about quite a bit as far as our business that work with local high schools, as far as, how do you bridge opportunities from high school for when people graduate so that hopefully that people with disabilities don’t get disillusioned with the process.

Right, because I think that when you hear a “no” or doors are not open for you, it’s hard to continue to seek out opportunities, rejection is a tough thing for anybody. And so I think that if that is the experience and as we work to have more employers open to the opportunities that are there by employing people disabilities, hopefully that happens less and less, but I think that’s part of the story that’s important to recognize and understand.

Bridgitte: So, what was your journey like in hiring individuals with disabilities and what learnings can you pass on to employers who might be considering going the same route as you?

Lisa: There’s been so many things that we’ve learned and involved how we go about trying to be an inclusive employer. Initially, they talk about labour shortage, this is what kind of was also motivating our inclusive employment because we would be posting for a dishwasher and no one was applying, it was impossible to hire a dishwasher, that something was generally one of the least sought-after jobs in the service sector, certainly.

And so, by exploring opportunities to hire inclusively, we found some amazing employees, and one of my greatest sort of success stories, I would say is our dishwasher, Nico, and he’s been with us for over four years, which… That’s incredible retention for a dishwasher, and not only had he brought so much to us as far as just being incredible at his job and a fantastic employee, he’s just this awesome presence that you just… You cheer on… He just brings such joy when he comes into the building, when he’s not here, he’s certainly missed, and he has taught us so much as far as how do we continue to work with individuals have challenged them and where he started, and that his story kind of ties into our journey, we started with intention as far as we were going to employ people with disabilities specifically, really looking to hire people with autism, and the team that we had originally when we opened the bakery, I didn’t necessarily understand what that meant, I didn’t necessarily understand how to really be inclusive. It was almost like it became more of a tokenism sort of scenario, I was like, okay, I have to deal with this person, I’m just going to put them over in the corner and they’re not really part of the team, and it was through my own journey with my role evolved and I was able to take control of the whole operation.

And I saw that and I was like, this is not what we want to do. And we really shifted gears there where it’s like, no, it’s a team, everyone’s part of the team, everyone is a valued member of the team, we really started to change our culture as far as how we approached it.

Bridgitte: So, when you say you hired with intention, maybe speak a little bit more about that. About inclusive hiring practices. What does that look like? In theory, I can think about some things that would make it more welcoming in the office culture, etcetera, or the workplace culture, but what is it like what are some other policies and practices that could really help employers and also these employees when they come into a new workplace.

Lisa: Yeah, there’s several things I could speak to, and I think it’s some of them when you go back to your previous question about tips for employers who want to do this, I could tie this together, but from just even the outside, I think this is one of the key examples as far as making those shifts is how we changed how we did interviews, for example, we don’t do typical interviews at all anymore, and it started with wanting for people that were autistic to feel comfortable in the process and not having them sit down and had to answer questions and feel they’re on the spot. They weren’t going to thrive, most of them anyway, weren’t going to thrive in that sort of conventional interview process, and so we just skip that all together and we just have a quick meet and greet, and then we just do a working interview, which is just an opportunity to work alongside the team, really get to see what was involved in the job, and we’ve pretty much scrapped interviews across the board because we found that most people really didn’t want to be sitting there and asked these questions, and it didn’t help with our hiring process, and it didn’t really bring out the best in the applicants, either so by shifting that, we kind of saw that these accommodations or adaptations that we’re making not only serve the people with disabilities, but actually made for a better experience for everybody, and that’s kind of been our learnings throughout this journey is the fact that you think you’re making these changes to accommodate, but it’s actually like most people appreciate those changes that we’ve made.

And then as far as the intention goes, as far as hiring, a big part of our success has been aligning with key agencies in our community that support individuals with disabilities to gain employment, and as a small business, the biggest impediment or a challenge for us is the fact that we don’t have the resources to support the training in an intensive way as we’ve discovered some folks need as far as that getting through the learning curve and really having that one-to-one support and we didn’t have the resources, we didn’t have the personnel in order, We didn’t have the financial resources to be able to do that.

But what’s amazing is there’s so many great agencies out there that you can partner with to have job coaches that are there with you through that whole journey, as far as the training journey, but also the whole duration of the employee’s time with us, and so we’ve had… some folks that get through the training and sometimes maybe the training took a couple of months longer, but we can… We have that one-to-one support with a job coach, they phase out and some months later we’re like, Okay, we’re struggling with this and this job coaches right back with us and working through those challenges and ironing out any of the issues that we have, and so it’s been such a phenomenal resource and we’ve been lucky to partner with some great agencies.

And so I think that’s my big tip for employers, especially small businesses, is to find agencies that align with your goals and take the time to get to know your business and how they can support you in your business and are really committed to finding that right fit, not just trying to place someone, they’re really trying to see who’s going to be the right fit for your business and so it ultimately is a win-win for both the employer and the employee.

Bridgitte: And I’m really glad you brought up the point around small businesses, many of our members of the Board of Trade come from small and medium businesses, and attracting and retaining talent is tough for some of these small businesses, especially through the pandemic, and they may have thought until listening to you just now that because they have such limited resources and ability to work with their teams that they might not be willing to think about alternative routes for hiring practices, for example, or for onboarding, but it sounds like even from a small business perspective, that it has been a fantastic avenue for you.

Lisa: Oh, absolutely, and I mean retention is a huge piece of that, like I was mentioning with Nico, to have a dishwasher that’s been with you for over four years, that’s a… I don’t know like how many people could say that in the restaurant industry that you have a dispatcher that’s like not only hanging around, but also…

Bridgitte: pretty rare..

Lisa: ..Yeah, exactly. So, retention is huge. I think the statistics support that, I think they say it makes a huge difference and then it goes to the next piece of this journey for us is the fact that we started with this intention of being inclusive and how it’s evolved and changed our whole culture and I’m always hesitant to say culture, because I find it such an often used term, and I think that culture is something that you have to work so hard to preserve and to maintain, but we’ve seen that because of our hiring practices, that we’ve attracted people that really look for that an employer. And they want to be part of that environment. And so it’s attracted a lot of like-minded individuals, and we’ve just really cultivated this group of amazing people that are really… it’s rooted in kindness and the support that they have for one another, and its created this fantastic environment where people are staying here, and we’re seeing our turnover, relative to industry standards, to be so low across the board, not only just for people with disabilities.

And then going to back to our original conversation about the breadth of disabilities that we’re talking about, we have the opportunity to do this Pledge to Measure, and we did it last year, so it was kind of like you’re into the pandemic, and our business operations changed quite a bit at the beginning of COVID, we used to have a cafe at the bakery and we had to eliminate that, which unfortunately did result in the elimination of a few roles and the individuals that had been employed were on the spectrum, and so it was disheartening that we lost that employment opportunity at the bakery and have to rebuild and so I was like… We were on this pledge to measure, I wasn’t sure where it was going to go, I figured we would be representing less individuals with disabilities, and we did that survey, and we ended up higher…

We ended up at 42% of our folks who work here self-disclosing that they have a disability, which was like, I was really blown away by that, and that’s… I wouldn’t know who those people are, and those are some of those invisible disabilities that we talked about, because that’s definitely not representative of people with autism that work here, but we’ve seen in the conversations with some of our senior staff that we’ve just said they feel comfortable disclosing and they also felt like they wanted to work somewhere where they could be honest about their disability and feel supported with whatever they needed, so… Sorry, that was a bit of a…

Bridgitte: No, this is a fantastic conversation that it offers, I think, different kinds of opportunities for employers to be able to solve what is an acute labor shortage in our region. You work with the Presidents Group as a co-President, maybe you could talk a little bit about what that relationship is like for employers, if they’re looking for information to go down this path, how can the Presidents Group help employers?

Lisa: Yeah, there are so many resources that are available through the Presidents Group website, accessibleemployers.ca. The team that of consultants that we work with have done a phenomenal job with the website, there’s great resources, there’s some e-learning tools as well as far as just to really broaden your skill set as far as, how do you embark on this journey.

And again, the other tool that’s there is just being able to navigate the world of employment agencies and see the ones that are in your community that you can reach out to, because I find that they’re such a great resource, not only to support that process, but also just really being able to assess your workplace as far as areas that you might need to address in order to make it more inclusive, but also being able to access grants and subsidies that are out there as well, if that does aid in that journey.

Currently, there’s grants available from Small Business BC to help make adjustments to your workplace, and then again, the agencies are there to help with if there’s subsidies that can be accessed that can help, and right now with all businesses are feeling the pinch on all sides, so being able to access subsidies to help is definitely another good tool to help in that journey.

Bridgitte: So Lisa taking this conversation into action for any employers who are listening to this, what would be the very first steps that you would recommend to an employer who is considering a more inclusive hiring practice at their workplace.

Lisa: I think that, again, setting an intention and committing to that, say that we really want to go down this journey, and having those conversations, depending on the size of your business, but having those conversations with your team so that they’re on board with that too, and they’re part of that journey, and I think that we’ve had some wonderful conversations where we just can be really open about some of the awkwardness initially we were with some folks we were not sure how do you have conversations about… Some people you have to give them more space, one individual we cannot whistle around because that’s a big trigger, and so we started to just bring everybody in, so we felt they were part of this creating this environment that was welcoming and that was… creating opportunity.

So I think that that, again, engaging those conversations and then making those connections with agencies in the community to again, from my experience, that was invaluable, and not all agencies are created equal in that sense, and not all them are going to be the right fit, and so for me, it was really about saying, this is the support that I’m going to need in order to be successful and from the training, the job coaching support is a big piece of it, and so finding agencies that really have those resources available and really are committed to finding the right fit for you and taking the time to ensure that they’re not just going to send anybody your way, they really are going to say, What do you need, like how are you going to be assessing the success of this individual, and I’m trying to find the right fit, and so those are the best key steps, and again, all of this, and it can be found on the Presidents Group website where there’s lots of resources there to start on that journey.

Bridgitte: Well, Lisa, thank you. And again, you know the website and you’re, I think the steps to successful inclusive workplace communication, assessing your workplace and resources and support, all very good tips Lisa, we’re going to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate the conversation.

Lisa: Thank you very much for having me.