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How Microsoft Wins with Accessible Recruiting

February 7 2011 | by

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Hiring a diverse workforce has many benefits, such as giving a company a more multicultural perspective that can enhance their product offerings. When hiring a candidate with a disability, however, there are a few extra steps a company can take to make sure the experience is accessible – and successful — for everyone.

The Sierra Group led an online seminar last week to give hiring mangers and job seekers with disabilities some solid counsel on how to facilitate accessible recruiting and hiring. In part one of a two-part series, Accessible Recruiting – Disability & Compliance, The Sierra Group helped lay out the landscape for disability recruiting and hiring, and how to help companies navigate issues that might arise, such as ensuring a candidate has the right accommodations to perform their job.

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“Businesses tell me they don’t want to offend. Sometimes it’s more of the fear of offending than the fear that they’re going to cross the line,” says Janet Fiore, CEO of The Sierra Group, who moderated the seminar. She brought in Loren Mikola, a disability inclusion project manager at Microsoft, to tell the audience how Microsoft handles accessible recruiting.

Mikola discussed how the Redmond, Wash.-based technology giant views hiring for diversity and disability. “We want to mirror the world’s population, and in return, be able to better create products that cater to diverse markets.”

On Microsoft’s website, the careers section features disability as a dimension of diversity, and applicants can choose to identify as having a disability (called disclosure). Upon receiving a job offer, Mikola will be called in to help assess the situation. An employee can also use an online assessment tool to determine what type of accommodation they might need for the job.

The nice part about the self-identification process, Mikola says, is that it does not have to happen on an employee’s first day at Microsoft. “This form doesn’t expire, because situations can change,” he says.

When a disability is apparent, usually no medical documentation is needed, Mikola says. But with a non-apparent disability, such as epilepsy or bi-polar disorder, it usually is required — to protect both the applicant and the company. Funds for assistive technology and accommodations come from a centralized accommodation budget, which also pays for programs like sign language interpreters and disability awareness training, so that an individual team’s budget won’t be adversely impacted.

Microsoft is no stranger to assistive technology. In its own business of making software and systems, Microsoft partners with more than 100 assistive technology vendors to make sure that products made for people with disabilities sync well with Microsoft’s. The company also has designed a number of built-in accessibility products, including screen magnifiers for people with low vision, and a basic screen reader for the blind called Narrator. These features can be found in the Ease of Access Center in the control panel of Windows Vista and Windows 7.

And around the company’s sprawling headquarters, Mikola says the company tries to adhere to the principles of universal design, where a physical building is created to be accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. For example, on campus sliding doors have levered handles, and everyone at the company is treated to a large monitor and adjustable desk. “This provides cost savings in the long run,” he adds.

Microsoft serves as a strong example of how accessible recruiting and accommodations are done right, says Michael Fiore, a project manager for Sierra Group Compliance. He says that companies that start at the beginning –- when a person is applying for a job — will set the best example. “If your website isn’t compliant, you can run the risk of isolating or limiting the pool of qualified candidates you’re trying to reach,” Fiore says.

Fiore gives some good advice that he calls “practical accessibility,” which includes making sure a company’s website can be easily navigated by screen readers for those who are blind; and that the font size and colors can be changed to accommodate those with low vision. One frequent problem on job applications are those that are timed to end after a certain number of minutes – perhaps to evaluate a person’s writing skills or other strength – but end up leaving people who need assistance without a way to access an alternative way to fill out the form, which might disqualify them for the job.

To make sites more accessible, Fiore says companies should remove confusing architecture, timed functions, and stay away from Flash boxes, which are inaccessible to many screen readers. “There should also be a phone number or e-mail address that an applicant can use if he or she needs help,” he adds. Finally, Fiore recommends having a website evaluated for accessibility, which can be done through the World Wide Web Consortium. “There are many people looking at website compliance,” Fiore says. “From the government’s Office of Federal Contract and Compliance, to Vocational Rehabilitation specialists, to other diversity managers,” which is why companies should take the time to make sure they’re doing it right, he says.

Mikola agrees. “We want to focus on the qualifications of the candidate and get right to the root of the matter,” he says. “That’s why we start at the beginning.”

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