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A Disability Evangelist for the Workplace

May 11 2009 | by

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It’s easy to call Lori Golden one of the most passionate disability advocates in Corporate America. At Ernst & Young, she helps embed a culture of disability inclusiveness among the accounting firm’s 38,000 employees in the Americas region, starting with AccessAbilities, the employee network she heads up. She also guides clients and other corporations on making their workplace more disability-friendly. For these efforts, DiversityInc just named Ernst & Young No. 2 in its 2009 Top 10 Companies for People With Disabilities list.

Q: Lori, congrats on helping Ernst & Young win the No. 2 spot. The company didn’t make the cut last year; what’s changed?
A:
Well, last year we began auditing some of our U.S. offices and revamping them for design accessibility — beyond what the Americans with Disabilities Act requires. We now have automatic doors that stay open long enough for a wheelchair to roll through and do a turn-around. Our reception desks are low enough for someone who is of small stature or in a wheelchair to comfortably make eye contact with the receptionist. We’ve placed frequently used items, like coffee and paper supplies, on shelves that are easily reachable by all of our employees. We’ve taken what we’ve learned and made it part of our standards for new construction and processes going forward. We’re also working on a new global, online accessibility strategy, and we’d like to get to 100 percent accessibility in all of our online tools, like time and expense forms and our Intranet.

Q: DiversityInc calls your disabilities employee network, AccessAbilities, “world-class.” How many people are in this group and what would a typical meeting look like?
A:
There are some 300 members of our network. There is no typical event, but one that’s been very well received is a “lunch and learn” around disabilities issues. We also recruit Abilities Champions, who are our on-the-ground advocates. They look for ways to incorporate disabilities educational content into communications, meetings, training, and activities. Our meetings might start with a disability awareness quiz, an interactive, game show-like activity that draws people in and demonstrates that understanding what to do and say isn’t always intuitive. It covers disabilities-friendly language, etiquette and even inclusive work habits – like introducing yourself on a conference call before speaking so that people who are hard-of-hearing or are deaf and may be using an interpreter can identify the speaker.

Q: What about initiatives outside of the network?
A:
We try to weave disabilities-specific education into as many contexts as possible, so that people hear it around the company in different places, at different times, and in different ways. We may play an AccessAbilities video during breaks at a large meeting of tax practitioners, or include tips for conducting inclusive conference calls into project management training. In the Americas region, we’re setting up inclusiveness steering committees in each of our geographies. We include images of people with disabilities in Ernst & Young materials, and our top leaders include disabilities examples whenever they speak about inclusiveness. People see and hear messaging at the top and at all levels at the firm, both internally and externally.

Q: Wth the softer economy, how are you able to get the support of management to develop and roll out a disability-centric strategy?
A:
I’m proud to say that inclusiveness is one of Ernst & Young’s top three global strategic priorities, and disability inclusiveness is woven into our overall business strategy. We’re strongly committed to educating our people around inclusiveness and why it’s critical to our firm. In fact, despite the negative economic climate and cutbacks in all kinds of discretionary activities, we’re rolling out a customized inclusiveness training program across the Americas region, which combines a day or more of live classroom experiences combined with Web-based learning, conference calls and peer mentoring. All of our people are evaluated on their contributions to building an inclusive culture, and every group and leader in our organization is rated by our people on that dimension as well.

Q: As a B2B company, are you doing anything on the client side to demonstrate your commitment in the disability space?
A:
We share a lot of our ideas with clients, potential clients and the marketplace so that others can benefit from what we’re learning and from the tools we’ve created. We frequently speak at external events and meetings, we share all our materials quite freely, and we even have a line at the bottom of our printed materials giving permission to reproduce as long as there’s attribution to Ernst & Young. I’ve developed a large mailing list of external contacts, and whenever we create anything new I highlight it in an e-mail. It’s gratifying when I run into a client at a disability or diversity event and he or she tells me that they’re using an Ernst & Young guide as a teaching tool. In fact, when we were named Employer of the Year by CAREERS & the disABLED Magazine this spring, five of the other six companies who were recognized were Ernst & Young clients.

Q: Tell me about your involvement in the well-regarded Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV), which takes place at select business schools throughout the country.
A:
Entrepreneurship is one of the best avenues for veterans with disabilities to succeed in the marketplace; veterans have a strong track record of success at starting and running new businesses. We believe that we can make our biggest contribution by helping vets build their businesses, and setting them up for long-term success. So we’re sharing our financial knowledge and helping vets to address their financial needs and build their skills. We recently hosted a breakfast for EBV at the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year award to introduce the program to leading entrepreneurs [such as Matthew Szulik, chairman of Red Hat] who could serve as mentors, lecturers and sponsors of the program.

Q: What advice would you give someone with a disability who would like to work at a Big Four accounting firm?
A:
Disabilities may be a practical issue in how we accommodate, but they’re not an obstacle. We’re anxious to hire the best talent we can find — in whatever bodysuit it comes in. We hire for abilities, including technical skills, the ability to work with global clients and teams, and with an eye toward a potential job candidate’s volunteer or community work. Do your homework on our firm and the profession, know what interests you and why, and position what you have to offer, including your successful track record in other jobs or in school and your volunteer or community work. What we’re looking for in a candidate isn’t any different for someone with disabilities as for someone with typical abilities.

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