Veteran disabilities don’t have to be workplace problem

Employees may be wondering why one of their coworkers is wearing sunglasses at work, or needs to sit in a quiet section of an office.

Sometimes veterans’ disabilities aren’t about a wheelchair, and employers have to figure out how to navigate those for the good of the vet and other employees.

Whether a vet has sensitivity to light, or is dealing with posttraumatic stress, there can be a host of accommodations made that may not be clearly understood by others in the workplace.

Not addressing those in some way can lead to problems.

At the SHRM 2012 Diversity & Inclusion Conference this week, Bill Fenson, a Wounded Warrior career specialist for the National Organization on Disability, held a session titled “How to Successfully Recruit, Hire and Retain Veterans with Disabilities.”

During the session, Fenson used the sunglass example to make a point about how unexpected accommodations are made and their impact on the workplace.

Ken Matos, Families and Work Institute’s Senior Director of Employment Research and Practice, attended the talk and told me the session highlighted for him some key things managers need to think about when it comes to making accommodations for vets.

If a change is made to help a vet perform his or her job well, sometimes coworkers need to be brought on board so they don’t just see the accommodation as some sort of privilege, Matos explained. But there are privacy issues at play here, he pointed out, so a conversation with the vet about how much they want to disclose to others may be helpful.

Employers need to “remove stigma from communicating about accommodations and prepare employees without accommodations to understand that accommodations are not privileges,” he stressed. “Be proactive in discussing disclosure with employees who request accommodations, especially noticeable accommodations without obvious explanations.”

Another issue for vets may be the denial of accommodations, especially those made because of established company policies and not the result of a serious consideration of a workplace adjustment. Since many vets are used to following protocol, they may not be as quick to question a denial as another employee.

“Look out for innocuous complications and invite the employee to speak with you to work them out in advance so the employee doesn’t feel betrayed when accommodation is denied,” he said, such as tinted windows on a company car for an employee with light sensitivity refused as a luxury item.

And when it comes to recruiting vets with disabilities, sometimes hiring managers should consider ramping up vets if they don’t think they have all the skills needed for a particular job.

Companies, he advised, should think about “more phase in programs to help combat the skills gap and provide time and flexibility to adapt to new situations. Training programs, internships, part-time work opportunities and transition to full-time opportunities allows for a rounding out of skills, fine-tuning accommodations, and optimizing work-life fit.”

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