In this series of three articles for the Bangkok Post authored by Steps With Theera, we'll be outlining how employing a more diverse range of people can benefit business, looking at challenges which might arise, and examples of where in Thailand it is already working well.
For businesses to stand out in the current climate, innovation is the golden word. With the pace of change in tech careering forward, impacting on every aspect of business from product design to the shop floor, innovation is paramount to optimising products and processes.
But what is the key to creating an innovative working environment? It's simple, and hasn't changed since the dawn of humanity. It is innovative minds. In his classic treatise From Good to Great, Jim Collins defines the systematic phases successful businesses go through, with one of its most crucial stages being: 'first who, then what'.
One thing which is becoming increasingly clear about the 'first who' concept is that reaching beyond the pool of potential employees normally targeted, towards differently abled people – for example people with learning differences such as autism – has a host of benefits.
Tapping into overlooked talent
The benefits of hiring with diversity in mind play out in a range of ways. Studies show that neurodivergent people (meaning their brains function differently to the dominant societal standards of "normal") can display higher-than-average abilities. For example, some people with autism or dyslexia have exceptional talent for pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.
A research project in 2018 (by Lindsay et al) reviewed 39 different studies of hiring people with disabilities and found a long list of benefits including improvements in profits and cost-effectiveness, turnover and retention, competitive advantage, customer loyalty and satisfaction, innovation and productivity.
It stands to reason that bringing diverse minds into a working environment can accelerate change, encourage innovative ways of thinking overall, and allow for a better understanding of a wide range of needs within any given customer base.
Steps with Theera is a Thailand-based social enterprise. We give vocational training to young people with learning differences, and build links with local businesses who hire our graduates. One thing we've learned from our business partners is that it's not just the skills and talent of our graduates they appreciate. They tell us over and over again that hiring inclusively (which means people aren't excluded based on disabilities etc.) improves the workplace culture as a whole.
Griselda Gras manages El Mercado, a European style grocery and restaurant based in Bangkok, which employs five Steps graduates. She told us:
"We thought that working with Steps trainees we were helping them… we were absolutely wrong. Working with Steps has helped us instead, to develop the team spirit, to feel we are part of something bigger than ourself (sic), to be more comprehensive, find other ways to communicate, find the best of each individual and ultimately consider the obstacles as an opportunity to grow."
Research suggests the 'team spirit' Griselda mentions is common in other workplaces which employ people with disabilities. A 2007 study looking at inclusive employment at Rimi, a major retail operator in Lithuania, reported employee turnover was 20-30 per cent lower at supermarkets employing people with disabilities. This included turnover of all employees, not just those with disabilities. There was also a rise in sales.
For some people with learning differences, repetition and familiarity are very important, so it makes sense they will commit for the long term to a job they have fully mastered, with colleagues they know well. As Rajat, a Steps graduate who works in one of El Mercado's groceries, says:
"I like everything that I work… (My) hope for the future is to do the same thing."
Disability employment law in Thailand
According to the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Act (1991), public and private organisations in Thailand with more than 100 employees must hire one person with a disability for every 100 'regular employees'. If they do so, they get tax relief. If they don't, they have to pay the minimum wage a disabled worker would have received into the State Fund for Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons.
So have Thai businesses been maximising on the financial and cultural opportunities which come with embracing difference in the workplace? The numbers suggest not. Despite the clear benefits and government requirements, of the two million people with disabilities registered in Thailand, fewer than 25% of them are employed.
There are complex reasons for this. Some say there's not enough information provided by the government. It is certainly an issue that people with disabilities have less access to training and therefore may lack skills. Some hiring managers are unclear about what people with disabilities are capable of. And, in some cases, businesses work out ways around the legislation, perhaps hiring people with disabilities legally, then sending them to work somewhere else.
A great time to make change
It's not all bad news. With so much untapped potential out there, now is the ideal time for businesses to take steps towards hiring a more diverse range of employees. Change is already in the air judging by the range of partners who have approached Steps to work with us and our graduates. We're proud to call prestigious businesses such as The Rembrandt and Hyatt Hotels our partners, along with a host of other forward-thinking organisations around Thailand. We welcome links with any business which wishes to tap into the potential of our talented team of graduates.
One thing all our graduates have in common is they have all gone into employment. And every single one makes us proud – they grow in confidence, they achieve so much, and they transform the workplaces they enter into.
It's never too late for businesses in Thailand, and globally, to be part of a more diverse working community, with all the benefits this brings.
Steps with Theera is a social enterprise set up in 2016. We believe everyone has a right to a sustainable, fulfilling career, so we run vocational training centres for young adults across Thailand. Some of our trainees have come to us because they have learning differences and traditional education doesn't work for them. They might have autism, a condition which means their brain functions differently to what society calls 'normal', or they may have other conditions which mean they struggle with communication, speech or social interactions.
We have a unique model: our training centres include cafes and zero waste shops – open to the public – where our trainees can get hands on experience of serving. We forge links with local businesses to hire our graduates when they finish their training. stepswiththeera.com
Author: Tanya Perdikou, Consultant, Steps with Theera, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Series Editor: Christopher F. Bruton, Executive Director, Dataconsult Ltd, email@example.com. Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to update business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.