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2011 WINNER: Vision—Disability Group Inc.

For its foresight in tackling a difficult human resources challenge, Disability Group Inc. is the 2011 winner of the Optimas Award for Vision.

December 1, 2011

Los Angeles-based Disability Group Inc. had a problem. The nontraditional law firm was getting trounced by its closest competitor in the business of helping people get their Social Security disability benefits. Disability Group couldn't raise its rates—those were set by the government—so it could not afford to hire hard-charging pros like those working for a major competitor.

The solution was to hire a different kind of employee. In fact, Disability Group might as well have run an ad stating, "Wanted: Bleeding Hearts."

Although about 300 consulting lawyers perform the legal work necessary for each case, Disability Group needed employees who could interact well with clients. The necessary ingredients for success: a caring heart and the spirit needed to champion disabled people, most of whom had fallen on hard times. The decision was made to target fresh college graduates whose college major (humanities or social sciences) and previous work experience indicated an interest in helping people.

In particular, the firm wanted employees who had experience with disabilities, either personally or through a friend or relative. But how do you ask such a personal question?

"We don't even have to ask," says Jeff Schlosser, Disability Group's chief talent officer, "because one of the things we ask is: 'What interested you in this job?' And they always bring it up. Most people somehow have been affected."

Disability Group offered its young recruits low pay and stressful work. Yet most of the new hires were referred by employees. "Over 50 percent of our hires are from employee referrals," Schlosser says, "which tells you a little bit about how happy our employees are and how engaged they are."

Having an employee referral bonus program doesn't hurt, as well as such perks as a free gym membership, free bus passes, a housing stipend after two years, and tuition reimbursement after one year. Then there's the game room, where employees can let off steam by playing pingpong or Wii games.

Ongoing training keeps employees engaged, as well. And the twice-weekly Lunch & Learn sessions include free lunch.

Disability Group has seen its employee retention rate jump from 50 to 75 percent. As the company has grown, so have its revenue and the percentage of cases won, according to the firm. "If you train people right, they're going to be happier and they're going to win more cases," Schlosser says. "And winning cases is what keeps our employees happy."

For its foresight in tackling a difficult human resources challenge, Disability Group is the 2011 winner of the Optimas Award for Vision.