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Get the Best From Employees with Learning Disabilities

January 1, 1996
At the Red Lion Hotel in Costa Mesa, California, Robert Suderman is somewhat of a local hero. Friendly, focused and enthusiastic, Suderman is one of those people who just loves his job-so much that he bemoaned all the spare time he had during the end-of-the-year holidays. Suderman's winning streak began in the HR department, where he input personnel file information into the computer. Every day he came in, working steadily and efficiently at a routine task many other employees might have balked at.

Upon finishing that task, he asked for more, this time something extra challenging. Now he assists a payroll professional in the company's accounting department. "Again, the job is a bit routine, but it's something the payroll person was behind on, and it did have some additional steps," says Jan Linville, director of HR. "He's mastered it now and is feeling really good about it. He's performing a necessary function and is helping the staff work more efficiently." But aside from being a tireless employee, Suderman has another quality that distinguishes him: He contributes to the organization despite having a disability that causes him to be a slow learner.

Believe it or not, Suderman's achievement is rare. Even with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many people who have learning disabilities (LDs) remain unaided-mostly because a learning disability isn't as easy to spot as a physical disability. Managers may not be able to identify performance problems as symptoms of an LD, and so may neglect to promote, or even terminate, an employee who's embarrassed to ask for help.

And there are quite a few employees who fall into this category. According to the "Journal of Learning Disabilities," approximately 10% to 15% of employees in any large industry or business have learning disabilities. They need an environment in which they feel comfortable disclosing their disabilities and seeking help. And you need to know how to help them. The much-buzzed-about upcoming labor shortage, a result of baby-boomer retirements, is going to demand you're open to all kinds of workers, including those categorized as slow learners.

Identify and encourage disclosure of learning disabilities.
Do you have any employees with learning disabilities? You may or may not know. Most people with learning disabilities look just like everyone else. A learning disability can come in the form of dyslexia, which makes reading difficult and can affect people of even genius-level intelligence (such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison). Or it may be more severe, such as disabilities that cause a person to be lower-functioning-though, it's important to note, not to the level of low intelligence or retardation. "It's very difficult to identify people with learning disabilities," says Elaine Reisman, assistant professor at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and director of the Threshold Program, a center to aid people with learning disabilities. "People in business can be very aware if someone needs a wheelchair. But if someone is a slow learner because of a learning disability, it's not apparent right away, and you don't know right away what to do about it."

Indeed, with the exception of people whose learning disabilities prohibit them from high functioning, the only way a company would know an employee has an LD is if the employee came forth or if a manager identified certain characteristics as potential links to a learning disability. Of course, the easier of the two would be for the employee to self-identify. This way, any performance issues could be addressed up front before they became problematic. But naturally, many people are reluctant to come forth, afraid they'll be categorized as having inferior intelligence or a lack of education-neither of which is the cause of a learning disability.

How to get around the reluctance? Take a cue from Boston-based John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. The company maintains a casual acceptance of learning disabilities that makes disclosure much easier for employees. But even more than that, the company makes it a point to really help workers who have disclosed their disabilities.

An important part in assisting employees to do their jobs is John Hancock's training unit. The company publishes outlines of courses it offers-everything from English as a business language to statistics. Workers simply sign up for what they want. Employees with learning disabilities can also bring their specific challenges to a trainer for one-on-one help. That way, they receive individualized attention for their LD without having to announce to the world they have a learning disability.

What about employees who may have a learning disability, but refuse to disclose it-or even acknowledge it? "That's a tricky one," says Sandra Colley, corporate director of work force diversity at John Hancock. "When the employee won't admit there's an issue and you see him or her heading down a path of not performing well, you want desperately to help. But sometimes you can't get him or her to trust you enough."

In such a case, Colley suggests tackling the problem from a performance-management viewpoint. Point out the areas in which the employee isn't up to par and work with that person on how to improve his or her performance. "You can't just go to someone and say, 'I know you have a learning disability, and I want to help you,'" says Colley. "That's not fair and it won't work. You need to center the talk around being objective, telling the employee what the job requires and what your expectations are. Tell the employee what resources are available. Continually nudge the person to get assistance."

Steve Zivolich, executive director for Irvine, California-based Integrated Resources Institute, a non-profit organization that helps people who have disabilities find employment, agrees it's more important to identify where employees are having problems than to label the specific learning disabilities. "Find out what the issues are so you can assist them," he suggests. "They may not identify their disability by name, they may just say they have trouble sequencing things. That's the key, though, to improving performance."

Still, if you're going to tackle a learning disability from the performance-management angle, it helps to know whether you're actually dealing with an employee who has a learning disability. For instance, there's a big difference between the worker who misses deadlines because he or she lacks the ability to prioritize effectively-and the worker who misses deadlines because he or she is unwilling to do the work on time.

Although it's unwise to place too much faith on managerial detective skills, there are some behaviors that often are signs of a learning disability. To begin with, a person's social skills often can hint to a learning disability. Says Reisman: "People who have learning disabilities tend to have more difficulty in society on a social level. If they have trouble on the job, it's more for social reasons than for inability to do the job."

Here are some common symptoms of learning disabilities:

  1. The "unfocused or rude" employee who continually repeats things, speaks at inappropriate times or spends unnecessary time at one task may not be doing so by choice. These characteristics can be signs of perseveration or impulsivity, both learning disabilities.
  2. The employee who "refuses" to follow instructions may not be insubordinate. Many learning disabilities prohibit people from retaining instructions. They simply can't remember the order in which to do things; they can't "sequence."
  3. The employee who has "poor judgment" may just have trouble understanding directions that aren't concrete or specific. For instance, telling these employees they may take a break when they have a reasonable amount of tasks completed won't work-you may have differing definitions of "reasonable."
  4. The employee who can't take a hint may not be overly persistent or aggressive. Reisman says many people with learning disabilities have trouble picking up social cues. For instance, saying "How have you been?" may not be interpreted as a greeting, but rather an actual question to be answered. "These are behavioral issues that can be handled easily once they're addressed," says Reisman. "But they do need to be addressed."

Most accommodations are low effort, high payoff.
A lot of managers hear the word "disability" and automatically think "accommodation." Cynics wonder how much it's going to cost them; idealists wonder where they can get the biggest and brightest. The fact of the matter is, employees with learning disabilities rarely require much in the way of concrete accommodations-not in the sense we're accustomed to at least. "It's not as if you have to build a wheelchair ramp to accommodate people with learning disabilities," says Reisman. "It doesn't really cost an employer anything-just a little creative thinking."

Case in point: John Hancock. Many of the organization's work units have high volumes in terms of record keeping. For employees with learning disabilities in these units, the paperwork can become overwhelming. Enter an extremely low-tech accommodation: color coding. Files are organized by color to help employees keep straight the order in which they should be handled. In addition, both managers and co-workers keep an eye out for employees who may get frazzled. Managers, for instance, have been trained to dole out the workload in manageable chunks, already prioritized. "Also, if co-workers have a sense an individual is becoming overwhelmed, they'll say, 'Hey, let's go grab a cup of coffee,' and get the person to relax," says Colley.

At the Red Lion, one of the company's three LD employees can't read letters or numbers. So managers there gave him a little extra time when he first started the job to memorize the locations of the different banquet rooms in which he works, and they continually give him instructions verbally. Suderman, however, didn't take to verbal instructions as well. When he moved to the payroll department, his job was broken into a series of steps.

For lower-functioning employees, many times, it's behavioral issues that must be addressed. For instance, Reisman mentions a real-life example of an employee labeled as having "poor judgment." The woman was hired as a receptionist because of a good phone voice and clear message-taking. Soon however, a problem arose: She was chatting on the phone an inordinate amount of time. Seems when she was hired, her supervisor had told her it was OK to use the phone "within reason." The woman had no concrete concept of what that meant. The accommodation? The supervisor gave her the translation of "within reason": 10 minutes a day.

It's employees' inability to read social cues that may be one of the biggest problem areas, however. Defined in a general way as perseveration or impulsivity, these characteristics may lead to employees speaking at inappropriate times, repeating things or interrupting. "For instance, you may be having a conversation [with someone else], but if your employee wants to let you know she has a doctor's appointment next week, she'd want to tell you right when she's thinking of it," says Reisman. "She'd interrupt your conversation instead of reading the social cue that you were busy." But again, accommodation is simple: Explain you're busy and should only be interrupted for an emergency. Explain what qualifies as an emergency. Or, if the person tends to perseverate, repeating instructions or questions continually, work out a signal with the employee, such as a wink, that communicates what he or she is doing without embarrassing the employee in front of others (see "Strategies for Handling Specific Problem Behaviors,").

Use common strategies to get the most from these workers.
Whatever accommodations you make, it's important not to ostracize employees who have learning disabilities. Everyone knows the importance of feeling integrated in the workplace. For employees who have LDs, this is often doubly so. They need to feel welcomed, wanted and reassured. At Red Lion, integration begins right away. Employees with learning disabilities, for instance, go through the same orientation as other employees. They're welcomed in the employee newsletter, and supervisors make sure they see this. They're shown around, introduced to co-workers and given lockers (with key locks rather than combinations for employees who can't read numbers).

"Do anything that would make them feel you thought about them and that would help them feel more secure," suggests Reisman. "That should be done for everybody, but particularly for these people who have so much anxiety about whether you really want them there-even though you hired them."

To help its workers with LDs feel integrated, Dallas-based Chili's Grill and Bar chooses not to have too many separate activities for them. Traci Hagan, a regional recruiter, estimates the company currently has approximately 700 employees who have learning disabilities working in the California-Nevada area's 51 restaurants, recruited through the TeamWorks Program. Although these employees come through the special program, that's about the only thing that separates them from co-workers. "We tell the managers to treat them like anyone else," says Hagan. "Don't say, 'They're the TeamWorks employees.' Some companies do little graduation exercises when their employees who have disabilities complete [training]. We don't. We created the program simply as a vehicle to help our managers find good workers."

At the Red Lion, Linville tries to lead by example. She makes a point of sitting down with employees who have learning disabilities and chatting with them on breaks or in the lunchroom. She encourages Suderman, for example, to bring in the photos he takes as a hobby. "It's important to model that it's OK to talk normally to these employees so others won't be afraid or cautious of approaching them. It's important to let coworkers know these are good people to know."

Speaking of which, do co-workers need training or education about people who have learning disabilities, just as they receive in other areas of diversity? For higher-functioning people with well-managed LDs, most employees would never know or even guess, so the point is moot. Even for lower functioning employees, Zivolich believes specific training could be unintentionally stigmatizing. What he does recommend is explaining to co-workers why certain employees may receive an extra hand.

"Most experts will tell you managing employees with learning disabilities is just like managing any other workers-just more intense."

Reisman agrees the way you handle people who have LDs makes all the difference in how they're accepted in the workplace. "It can work two ways. Co-workers can be resentful, or co-workers can think, 'Wow! This is a place that cares about other people, and if I ever have a need, they'd be considerate of me as well.' It all depends on how the organization approaches it. If it's in a way in which everyone feels their needs are being addressed, the person receiving special attention won't be resented."

Having an accepting workplace sets the groundwork for building on these employees' skills. Once they feel they're truly wanted, they can focus on the task at hand. The best place to begin in encouraging performance is to start the employee with the tasks he or she is best at. Sounds simple, but it's often overlooked in the zeal to push these workers to be their best-and there's nothing more disheartening than over-challenging an employee at the start and later having to demote him or her. "Start off with things they do well and then increase the challenges," says Reisman. "If you're going to hire people who have limitations, then try to fit the job to them or have them do the jobs they can do."

At John Hancock, many employees who have noticeable learning disabilities start out doing administrative tasks and customer-service work. From there, they can move on to do whatever they're capable of doing. "It runs a range," says Colley. "We don't put a cap on achievement."

Looking at Suderman's rise in task work shows how effective give-and-take performance management can be. In his very first days, Suderman was stuffing employee-information packets for the HR department-a task Suderman made short shrift of, proving he could handle more complicated jobs. "He found it frustrating because he was beyond that kind of task mentally," says Linville. After that, Suderman took on increased responsibility.

Most experts will tell you managing employees who have learning disabilities is just like managing any other employee-just a little more intense. For instance, don't make a goal be: "To package error-free letters." Identify each step along the way: Place stamps neatly, seal envelope, double-check address.

In addition, performance reviews should be conducted more frequently-up to once a week when focusing on specific behavioral issues, says Reisman. These performance reviews should be handled as objectively as possible, focusing specifically on the actions to be improved. Hagan says, for instance, that many of the employees who have LDs at Chili's are a little battle-scarred, having been turned down or fired from positions in the past. In fact, 75% of TeamWorks employees had not had a job in the six months prior to coming to Chili's-so they may be more sensitive to criticism.

Linville herself has encountered this problem. She remembers when an employee with a learning disability was reprimanded by his supervisor for something fairly minor. The man came into her office positive he was going to be fired. "So I brought in his supervisor and we all chatted until Paul understood his job wasn't threatened in any way."

Effective management of these employees pays off.
All in all, managing employees who have LDs isn't too tricky a task. But a little extra hand for these employees will take you a long way. At Chili's, where employees who have learning disabilities originally were recruited simply to fight the labor gap, Hagan says plenty of unexpected side benefits have resulted. For one thing, this group's turnover rate is 25% to 30%, a virtual miracle in an industry that usually sports 200% to 300% turnover. "We get valuable employees who are on time, who want to work, who are very loyal and excited to prove themselves," says Hagan.

Hagan adds the arrangement also has unexpectedly benefited managers, maintaining that managers who've worked extensively with employees who have LDs tend to be better at the coaching aspects of managing-important in today's workplace. "Managers need a lot of tools in their toolbox when managing and developing their employees. Working with employees who have LDs helps develop their patience and their motivational and training skills," says Hagan.

Zivolich believes employers will continue to hire people who have LDs to ease the work burden in an effective way. "The more difficult it is for companies to get employees, the more creative they'll become in looking at a wider range of people. But I'd encourage companies to get into this not because they have to but for the positive reasons. With the employers we've worked with, these employees tend to perform as well if not better than their co-workers."

Whether it be to ensure the employees you do have function to the best of their ability or hiring people who have LDs makes good recruiting sense, managing employees who have learning disabilities will take on increased importance. It may take a little extra elbow grease, but it's effort that pays off. Just look at what Suderman has done for his company. "Because of his work, others in the department can focus on their main jobs," says Linville. "He's a high quality employee because-quite simply-he values doing his work well."

Personnel Journal, January 1996, Vol. 75. No. 1, pp. 76-84.