Damaged Goods? Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the Right to Inclusion of Persons with Physical Disabilities

While the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, eyes can be deceiving in their perception of one’s ability, strength and determination. Exclusion of people with physical disabilities throughout history is a testament to the failure of humanity to utilize its many talents. Too often, persons with a physical disability have been barred from the public sphere, pushed to the margins of society, and viewed as ‘damaged goods.’ Disability is still perceived as an individual problem, and not a communal responsibility. As a result, persons with disabilities are isolated from the active participation in the society, and face mounting challenges in the professional sphere. Current low representation of persons with physical disabilities in the workforce is a stark reminder of our failure to include, empower and provide equal opportunity for all. The United Nation’s (UN) conventions, international treaties and European Union’s (EU) directives, speak of equal rights and protections to all people regardless of their ability. However, these ideals are not always emulated in reality. According to several estimates, people with disability (mental and physical) within the EU are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to those who reported no disability (International Labor Organization). In The Netherlands there are estimated 1.7 million people 15-64 years old who are considered disabled (Statistics Netherlands). Less than half of these individuals, 43 percent, participated in the labor market in contrast to 72 percent of people without a disability who were employed.  Women and ethnic minorities with disabilities face additional challenges when joining the labor market. A closer look at the statistics reveals another interesting facet to the discourse. The majority of the people with disability in The Netherlands are employed as clerks, plant and machine operators, or in craft related trades. They are absent from the halls, offices and management suits of large Dutch corporations.

In Praise of the ‘Responsible’ Profit: How CSR Entered the Corporate DNA

A quick scan through the website of large Dutch multinational companies reveal their commitment to sustainable business practices, multiple charitable causes, and human rights ideals. The gospel of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) took off in the business community since it was first introduced in the late seventies. However, the question still remains: what exactly is CSR all about, and do companies always practice what they preach? 

CSR is often interpreted as a commitment by the business community to do good in the world and the local communities in which they operate. It was first formulated as a result of increasing pressure on the companies to reduce the negative impact of their actions, and soothe the criticism of increasingly vocal civil society watchdogs. As part of their CSR strategy, many companies support the local fundraising efforts, partner with non-governmental organizations to spearhead environmental campaigns, and sponsor a variety of educational activities. Companies tend to be very skillful and innovative in communicating their ‘socially responsible’ actions to the customers and the wider public. Skepticism about companies’ CSR runs rampant. Reports of child labor in the factories across the developing world, pollution and lack of safety standards, and financial mishaps are just several practices providing ammunition for the critics. They believe CSR is merely a ‘window-dressing’ for corporations to continue fueling their insatiable appetite for profit. 

Dutch multinational corporations, such as a brewing company Heineken, use catchy slogans like  “Brewing a Better Future” and sleek graphics to promote their CSR campaigns.  Dutch banks ABN-Amro and ASN use the word “sustainability” on numerous occasions  in their annual CSR reports, to emphasize their commitment to the environmental cause. The focus of many CSR efforts by the companies in The Netherlands is external. On its website, Heineken flaunts its commitment to “protecting water resources, reducing CO2 emissions, sourcing sustainably and advocating responsible consumption.” Heineken has also been actively addressing a variety of human rights issues, such as the case of “beer women” in Cambodia. Heineken provided support and training for young women who were sexually and physically harassed while working to promote the Heineken brand. 

Ruud Van der Wel, manager of labor relations and employment law at Heineken spent many years developing Heineken’s global CSR strategy. He took pride in the fact that the strategy was deemed to be  “Ruggie-proof.” The phrase “Ruggie-proof” refers to John Ruggie, a professor in human rights and international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. Ruggie’s framework is widely adopted by the UN and businesses across the world as the global CSR standard. Ruggie’s impact in the CSR field has not gone unnoticed in The Netherlands. In addition to Van der Wel, several people interviewed for this article referenced Ruggie’s work or have personally met with him. While the policy that John Ruggie developed has given more legitimacy to the CSR concept and its main principles, it is up to companies to uphold these standards in their external and internal actions. 

Practice What You Preach: Linking CSR and Diversity

Embracing diversity as one of many facets of the CSR policy has proved both challenging and controversial for many companies. Diversity is a broad term with no common definition. As a result, companies prioritize and interpret diversity in various ways. Ila Kassem, managing partner at the Van de Bunt Adviseurs highlighted the troubles companies encounter when they attempt to define diversity. Van de Bunt is the oldest consultancy company in The Netherlands, and one of the leading medium size strategy, organization and management firms. Speaking at its headquarters in the business district in Amsterdam, Kassem noted that everyone is ‘diverse.’ He added, “Making diversity too general loses the point.” Instead, Kassem suggested that companies should focus on inclusion of a particular minority groups in order to be effective.

Many companies are starting to think about diversity more seriously. According to Kassem, companies in The Netherlands are becoming more responsive to the changing demographics, cultural and social realities. While diversity inclusion is not part of Van de Bunt’s consultancy portfolio, Kassem noted that diversity does come up often in discussion with the clients. Crucial to diversity inclusion is recognizing the “value added” diversity brings to the company said Kassem. He is convinced that diversity needs to be understood through the business lens, i.e. how it can increase profits in order to be effective. However, he also noted that, “diversity still needs to convince many more people of its importance.” Kassem is highly skeptical of promoting diversity initiatives on the grounds of CSR. He considers CSR to be a charitable initiative, and diversity inclusion, “is not about helping people.” Instead, he suggested that CSR is about empowering individuals while avoiding positive discrimination.

Too often positive discrimination happens on CSR grounds, said Kassem. He shared a fictional example in which a black woman is hired over a white man to fulfill the company’s diversity requirement. The woman ends up leaving the company after a year due to failure to perform. According to Kassem, the take away lesson for companies is “never put your quality standards down just because of diversity.” This example highlights the utilitarian approach to diversity widely held and deeply entrenched in the corporate world. The preconceived notion that a black woman advances in a company mainly due to her gender and race is a troubling assumption. Furthermore the expectation that she will under perform once hired is racist. 

Commitment to diversity can be manifested in different ways. At Ziggo, the biggest cable operator in The Netherlands, part of the “company’s culture is not to discriminate.” According to Arent van der Feltz, vice president of corporate development, legal, regulatory, and public affairs, “this is often easier said than done”. Van der Feltz acknowledged that, “diversity is hard” particularly in the business sector in which Ziggo operates. The discipline of information technology historically attracts more men than women. Therefore, Ziggo’s employee population of 2000 is largely made up of men. According to Van der Feltz, Ziggo is commitment not to “force a certain degree of representation” among its employees. Therefore, the company doesn’t have quotas in place for people with disabilities. Van der Feltz also added, “we are there to be a good cable company, not to change the world.”

Heineken, on the other hand, has strictly defined CSR policy. The company’s Code of Business Conduct consists of eleven concepts aimed at creating an inclusive work environment. According to Van der Wel, among the concepts are the commitments to non-discrimination, respect, and the right to personal development. Heineken is currently the largest brewery in Europe, and third largest in the world. With roughly 100,000 employees in more than 170 countries, it has a large budget at its disposal to support its CSR portfolio. However, diversity is still a challenge even for Heineken. Zita Schellekens, public affairs consultant at Heineken International, expressed the desire to see more diversity within her team. Schellekens has been actively advocating for this cause during her two years at the company.

Smaller companies also recognize the value diversity brings to the company, but struggle to incorporate diverse individuals in their workforce. ASN, a medium size Dutch bank with approximately 100 employees and 600,000 customers is an example of this dilemma. ASN has a history of strong ties with the labor movement, and currently is among the few sustainability-driven banks in The Netherlands. 

Hansje van der Zwaan, senior advisor for sustainability at the ASN Bank said that there is a diversity of backgrounds within ASN. However, she also added, “it could be better.” Currently women make up a greater percentage of ASN employees. In addition, Van der Zwaan also added that it is, “challenging not to hire people who look and think like you, even if you have different policies in place.” 

The companies that both recognize and value diversity within the workforce usually have very specific interpretation of diversity in mind. The first association for the each corporate representative interviewed for this articles upon hearing the word diversity was: greater inclusion of women and individuals from different ethnic backgrounds. While the inclusion of these historically marginalized and disadvantaged communities in the business world is extremely important, it dominates the discourse about diversity. The topic of disability is pushed into the background in favor of other diversity criteria, and challenges people with disabilities are faced when entering the workforce are minimized. 

Inclusion Challenges 

People with physical disabilities face many challenges entering the corporate world. Rising competition and growing unemployment, access to higher education and training opportunities, and prejudice in the workplace are only several examples. The economic outlook in many European countries, including the Netherlands, is bleak. The statistics show that the employment opportunities are limited for the young, educated and able-bodied. The unemployment rate in the Netherlands, according to the Dutch Statistics Office, currently hovers around eight percent, compared to a historic average of five and half percent. In this climate employment prospects for people with disabilities are stacked against their odds.Imagine entering this troubled economic market, but with a physical disability. Growing up, odds were always stacked against you. Access to education and the amount of aid you receive was limited and constantly changing. Your physical disability complicated ways in which you socialize. You constantly needed to put in additional effort to rival your able-bodied peers, and this trend is not likely to change when you stand at the precipice of the professional world. 

It is undeniable that people with a handicap must overcome additional obstacles the average able-bodied individual is not familiar with. Excluding them from the labor market for a longer period of time also has a negative correlation with self-esteem and self-worth. Access to higher education is instrumental in propelling individuals into corporate careers. There are several support networks for college students with disabilities. However, connecting students with disabilities to the employer market is still problematic. According to some estimates ten to fifteen percent of the Dutch university population are persons with physical and mental disabilities. Students in higher education and universities are protected by their social benefits in the form of financial payments and the right to equal treatment. To support that, universities and vocational institutions are provided with financial support to change their curriculum and facilities so they are accessible for people with disability. Marian de Groot, director of the Handicap+Studie (Handicap+Study), an organization working with universities and vocational schools across The Netherlands, provide support to universities who service those students with disabilities, noted that the “universities are not responsible for giving students a job, that is the responsibility of the students themselves.”

De Groot noted that most higher education studies typically involve an internship or any other kind of pre-professional training experience. However, she also added, “it is more difficult for students with disabilities to get an internship, like it is more difficult for them to get a job.” There are no organizations as far as De Groot was familiar with that assisted people with disabilities in the transition from academia into the professional world. Many employers still cling to the perception of disability as an “inconvenience” which they don’t know how to handle. 

Prejudice is continually one of the main obstacles people with disability are faced with when entering the corporate job market.  Many employers worry about costs hiring a person with disabilities, and prejudice also exist on the part of persons with disabilities who are skeptical to enter the ‘violent’ business culture of the corporate world. Karin van der Haar, policy officer at CAP100, said, it is common to encounter “traditional prejudice” that people with disabilities “are more expensive, need more support and are often sick and less productive.” CAP100 is an organization committed to connecting people with disabilities with Dutch multinational companies, and lobbying on their behalf.  Bianca Prins, independent public affairs consultant lobbying  for equal treatment of people with disabilities, noted in a recently published report that companies must be mindful of the circumstances the persons with disabilities can reach their full potential. They must consider that people with disability will require practical and professional support. However, she added that this support is in no way different from the support companies provide able-bodied employees when illness arises. Van der Haar also noted that prejudice is a two way street. According to her, many people with disabilities find the corporate culture as “tough” and “commercial” and are repelled by the idea of working for a large corporation. For many, the job postings in the corporate world still translate into: weak, needy and disabled need not apply.

Support Systems in Place

The Dutch government has been proactive in securing basic rights for the people with disabilities. Several laws are in place to protect discrimination in education and at work. Recently, there was also an initiative to enforce quota on how many people with disabilities private companies should hire. One aspect of the support system is the social security benefits. In 2012, over 226,500 people with a disability had a social benefit agreement in the Netherlands. Two thirds of people who receive these payments had a developmental disturbance, and only a relatively small group had a physical disability. All of them are expected to actively seek employment, and can tap into the support network to assist with the application process. The National Social Security organization educates and supports people with disabilities by organizing job-fairs, conferences and campaigns that emphasize ability and potential of people with disabilities, and providing them with a job coach when they enter the workforce. If a disabled person that receives social payments enters the labor market, the social payments are cut. In many cases, this discourages people with disabilities to look for employment. Currently only 0.2 percent of the people who receive social benefits go straight to a job and are no longer receiving governmental assistance. The Dutch government has also recently spearheaded an initiative to establish quota to get more people with disabilities out of the social security system. The proposed quota would require companies with more than twenty five employees to have at least five percent of their workforce be people with disabilities. However, the workers unions and employers organization failed to agree on the final text of the law, because of large doubts of the practicality (who to include? How to count and check?) Instead, they suspended the measure for three years with the condition that companies had to make an effort to hire people with disabilities. 

Bernard Wientjes, director of VNO-NCW, the national employers organization,  said in magazine interview in April that scraping the quota initiative was a big relief for him and his member organizations. The employers organization represents corporate companies in The Netherlands and is the counterpart of the worker unions in the social dialogue with the government. Wientjes believes that, “a quota is always an unworkable measure” because it increases the bureaucracy. Companies will be forced to count “how many disabled they have and whom to count as disabled.”  Wientjes believes this would result in a “stigmatization” of employees.  However, he is also critical of the “unacceptable fast growth of disabled people who receive social benefits.” Wientjes argues, “something has to be done about that, because we need all people on the labor market.” 

Alternative Approaches to Inclusion

In lieu of failed quota initiative, a number of alternative approaches were created to connect people with disabilities and the employers in the corporate world. An alternative to the quota system is an initiative like CAP100 organization or BKB’s Ican campaign. CAP100 was established by the Lucille Werner Foundation in 2010. The organization’s main goal is to make the labor market accessible to people with a physical disability. In addition, the organization motivates and empowers candidates to think about their own strengths and talents, by organizing career workshops. CAP100 annually recognizes participants professional achievements within the companies. 

Laurens Homann is an IT security officer and ambassador for the people with disabilities at the ABN-Amro bank, and a beneficiary of the CAP100 program.  Homann is in his second year at the bank, and he enjoys his work. As a CAP100 employee he was first given a yearlong contract to test whether he is a right fit for the company. After the year was completed, his contract was extended and switched positions. Homann recommended all people with a physical disability should become a part of the CAP100 if they are trying to break into the corporate world.

BKB, a creative campaign agency, recently spearheaded the campaign with similar goals in mind. The campaign was sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment to assist in the promotion of the inclusion of people with disabilities and older people in the workforce. Under the banner of “Everyone Takes Part,” BKB collected stories of people with disabilities and employers who hired those with disabilities about their experiences in the workforce. These stories were produced and recorded by people with disabilities themselves, and shared on the online platform.Maarten van Heems, BKB director, noted that he was proud that the campaign “boosted self esteem of people with disabilities, who never worked in a professional setting before.” The campaign was not only a great experience for them to obtain practical experience in producing media content, but some of them established contacts that eventually led to a job.

Companies as Part of the Solution

Large corporations are in positions of power and influence many decisions and social trends. For this reason it is necessary that they start looking at how their current procedures and policies affect certain individuals and groups of people. Companies have the ability to move society forward in a positive direction but they also can stunt growth and maintain the status quo. People with disabilities have been marginalized from society and the labor market for too long. These are people with personalities, talents and ambitions just like anyone else. The fact that they have fallen on the misfortune of being disabled should not make it difficult to enter the labor market and exclude them to the human right to work.

The idea behind CSR is for corporations to use all available talents, and give each person a chance to succeed in a professional setting. By including diversity in their CSR policies companies could change their stereotype as greedy profit tycoons, and gain respect amongst their customers and the local community. Hiring people with disabilities does not mean a decrease in profit and productivity. Diversity is an essential element for companies’ success. Particularly, the inclusion of people with disabilities can be extremely beneficial for the company. Their circumstances and continuous struggles have fostered unique traits and talents. An opportunity to utilize these talents in the corporate business world would allow them to demonstrate their resilience, creativity, and determination to succeed in the professional environment.  If someone is resilient they can change with the tides of new management, merging departments, and difficult coworkers. Those who do not share this characteristic often quit or are less productive during this time.

People with disabilities are constantly forced to think in creative ways to overcome obstacles they face. This creative mentality can translate into direct benefits for companies when it comes to specific project initiatives. Creativity is a quality that is very hard to teach and is highly beneficial for companies to edge on their competitors. Also, studies show that people with disabilities have a lower turnover rate in the workplace. When individuals have determination they are eager to learn grow and attain higher achievements. While most companies have to continuously motivate their employees to perform and achieve people with disabilities are self motivated and driven. Despite some of the Dutch government’s support system that discourage discrimination of people with physical disability in the workforce, large companies must make an effort to recruit and retain people with disabilities. 

Companies are not the problem. On the contrary, they must be part of the solution. Widely adopted CSR strategies provide a fertile ground to begin conversation about diversity and inclusion. Diversity is an essential element for companies’ success. Particularly, the inclusion of people with disabilities can be extremely beneficial for the company. People with disabilities should no longer be seen as ‘damaged goods,’ but as valuable members of the team eager to contribute to the company and society at large. 

 

References

Personal Interview

Bianca Prins, Independent Public Affairs Consultant.  Amsterdam, Netherlands.  June 22, 2013.

Karin van der Haar, Policy Officer, CAP100. Amsterdam, Netherlands.  June 22, 2013.

Laurens Homann, IT Security Officer and CAP100 Ambassador, ABN-Amro Bank. Amsterdam, Netherlands.  June 20, 2013.

Marian de Groot, Director, Studie+Handicap Organization. Utrecht, Netherlands.  June 19, 2013.

Zita Schellekens, Public Affairs Consultant, Heineken International. Amsterdam, Netherlands.  June 21, 2013

Maarten van Heems, Director, BKB. Amsterdam, Netherlands.  June 21, 2013.

Lecture

Arent Van der Feltz, Vice President of Corporate Development, Legal, Regulatory, and Public Affairs, Ziggo. Amsterdam, Netherlands.  June 21, 2013.

Hansje van der Zwaan, Senior Advisor for Sustainability, ASN Bank. Amsterdam, Netherlands.  June 21, 2013.

Ruud van der Wel, Manager of Labor Relations and Employment Law, Heineken International. Amsterdam, Netherlands.  June 21, 2013.

Ila Kassem, Managing Partner, Van de Bunt Adviseurs. Amsterdam, Netherlands.  June 21, 2013.

Website

Dutch Statistics Office. http://www.tradingeconomics.com/netherlands/unemployment-rate

International Labor Organization Global Disability Program. http://www.ilo.org/public/english/employment/skills/disability/index.htm

Statistics Netherlands. http://www.cbs.nl/en-GB/menu/themas/arbeid-sociale-zekerheid/publicaties/artikelen/archief/2010/2010-3243-wm.htm

Newspaper and Magazine Articles

Bojorge, Karin. “Wientjes over sociaal akkoord: 'Ik ken geen land waar dit kan’,” VNO NCW, April 25, 2013. http://www.vno-ncw.nl/publicaties/Forum/Pages/Wientjes_over_sociaal_akkoord_Ik_ken_geen_land_waar_dit_kan_18125.aspx#.UccbKPkwdXa

 

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