Sunday, August 7, 2011

Take our money - please!

Here is a presentation I gave on July 19, 2011 at the Department of  Labor's meeting for the Financial Sector.

Before I give my talk, you should be aware that for a few minutes you’re probably not going to understand what the hell I’m saying. I grew up in New York. Between my NY accent and my Cerebral Palsy slurring, I don’t even understand myself.

Undoubtedly, you have heard a great deal about reasonable accommodations and assistive technology. I want to point out that one of the most important assistive technologies I use was actually developed by the financial sector. Does anyone know what this is? It is the credit card! Where ever I go, people may or may not understand my speech, but when I take out my credit card, they always know what I want!

I recently retired from Wells Fargo after 29 years. I started my career at Wells Fargo as a
COBOL / Assembler language programmer. I worked my way up the corporate semi-accessible ladder. I ended my career there as a Senior Vice President in their IT area where I had hundreds of people in my area in 5 states as well as India. I spent at least 7 hours every day in meetings. I truly felt listened to.  I must admit, throughout my career at the Bank, I enjoyed going to large meetings where few people knew me. It was great seeing the tension in the room rise as people looked at me. They squirmed in their seats avoiding looking at me. As we began talking about the topic of the meeting or the problem of the day, it was fun watching the tension go away. There was always someone in the room who I could watch and gauge how well I was being understood by their expression. More often than not, they would automatically and naturally say, ‘Neil, did you say…’ My point here is that people will listen and understand if you give them the reason and the opportunity to do so.

Another example of this is being on call. Working in IT for a Bank is a 24/7 commitment. When a computer system crashes in the middle of the night and the Bank is losing literally thousands of dollars per minute, you would be amazed at how quickly computer personnel learn to listen and adapt. For me they quickly learned to give yes and no and multiple choice questions when they called me at odd hours.

Working for the Bank was truly wonderful. I really got that if you work hard and do a good job, it really didn’t matter what you look like, where you’re from or what you sound like. Focusing on the bottom line is a great equalizer! The same is true when it comes to reasonable accommodations. Managing IT developers, you quickly learn that every IT developer always wants the latest and greatest gadget or software or access to a website etc. As a manager, you decide who gets what by how much more productive that person will be if they had that new tool. Same with reasonable accommodations – they are productivity tools.

So, where’s the problem? Why is the unemployment rate for people with disabilities so dramatically high?  In the financial sector, it’s because people don’t believe that people with disabilities have money.

As a manager at Wells Fargo, and a member of the Diversity Committee, every quarter I would carefully review the Human Capital Report. I knew how many people of each diverse segment of the population I had in my area and the Group. How many were hired, how many were promoted, how many were in management, etc. Part of my annual bonus was based on how well I did on my ‘diversity MBOs’ (management by objectives). We understood how important it was that our staff reflected the makeup of our customers. We learned how each diverse segment contributed to the Bank’s bottom line. To my dismay, people with disabilities were never in any of these reports. When asked why, I was told the numbers were so low as not to be significant. When I asked why the numbers were so low, the answer was that many people have invisible disabilities and many do not want to disclose.

Let’s look at that. Members of other diverse segments are often ‘invisible’ meaning that self-disclosure is required. In the past, many members of diverse segments also did not want to disclose. So what is the difference? For one thing, businesses often make it difficult for people with disabilities to disclose. For sex, we have a male or female box to check. For race and ethnicity we have 5 to 10 categories to choose from. For GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and Transgender) we have 4 choices or sometimes a simpler yes or no box to check. However, for disability, the question is usually something like, ‘Do you have a physical or mental disability that may affect your ability to perform your work’. Heck, even I have trouble saying ‘yes’ to that!

More importantly, members of other diverse segments have come to be proud of being members of their community. They have come to realize that businesses, including financial institutions, actually like their money; Businesses will often target market to them. Businesses will do what it takes to earn their trust, including hiring people from the diverse segments and ensuring their success. It is common business sense that the more successful your customers are, the more successful you will be. For too long, people with disabilities have been seen more as a charity than as a market. For too long, the focus has been ‘hire people with disabilities because it is the right thing to do’.  Now is the time to realize that people with disabilities do have money and represents a real market. When you factor in their extended community of friends and family, it becomes clear how huge this market truly is. Now is the time to change the question to be ‘what can we do to ensure that the diverse segment of people with disabilities continue to prosper so that our company’s prosperity grows with them?’

I am very happy to tell you that in the past few months, Wells Fargo has added a marketing team for people with disabilities to their Diverse Segment Group. They promoted a person with a disability who was in a Wells Fargo intern program 5 years ago to be a member of that team! I sincerely hope this is the beginning of a trend and that the trend virally grows. After all, I still have stock options in that Bank!

Thank you!