In the ideal world Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) would be about companies conducting their business in such a way that they made a positive contribution to society; in the real world it is about doing something philanthropic (and usually completely unrelated to the way business is done) that can easily be identified as a positive contribution to society. Motivated by political and media pressure to do some good in society organisations typically carry out their CSR making the false assumption that it is an activity that will not contribute to their ‘bottom line’. One area where organisations could change the way they conduct their business so that they both improved their effectiveness and made a positive contribution to society is in the management of hidden talent; i.e. the management of high ability individuals whose talents have not been realised because of either invisible disabilities or gender divide issues that have compromised very capable females.
Invisible Disabilities and Hidden Talent
Adult dyslexics constitute the largest distinct group of disabled people in the workforce; even the most conservative estimates of incidence suggest it is 10%, while business psychologists like myself who have expertise in identifying dyslexia in organisations place the figure closer to 15%. This means at least and probably more than 1 in 10 people in employment are dyslexic – a substantial minority!
With so many dyslexics in the workforce the question is why don’t they stand out more than they do? The answer is that dyslexia is not just an invisible disability it’s a disability that is actively kept hidden by the people who have the condition. Dyslexics are very aware of how they are likely to experience unfair discrimination in the workplace and they quite understandably tend not to declare their disability. The consequence of this decision in terms of employment is that, in general, the employer cannot provide any targeted support for the dyslexic employee who in turn (at best) simply survives but cannot realise their full potential or (at worse) is sacked for incompetence.
Legally employers are obligated to support dyslexics by making appropriate workplace adjustments but there is no obligation to make adjustments for those dyslexics (by far the majority) who have decided to keep their invisible disability just that – invisible! This is where an appropriate CSR policy on managing hidden talent would make all the difference; creating dyslexia-friendly workplaces would not only support and empower a significant minority of employees, whose talents could then be fully utilised, but it would also contribute to the creation of a more inclusive society. What happens in workplaces invariably influences what happens in society generally; if what are currently viewed as ‘special arrangements’ for people with dyslexia stop being special arrangements and become the norm then attitudes in society change with the obvious outcome of greater social inclusion, i.e. less discrimination and more acceptance.
The practical steps that need to be taken to create dyslexia friendly work places vary but most of the key components are staggeringly simple to realise; small and easy to implement changes to physical environments, policies and procedures can produce significant improvements, not just for the target group, but for the whole workforce. For example, introducing rules on how meetings are conducted (e.g. agendas distributed in advance and frequent summaries through the meetings) can make life much easier for dyslexics and everyone else attending the meetings. The benefits in terms of productivity are obvious, e.g. improved individual effectiveness and reduced levels of stress and anxiety.
Although supporting a charity for adult dyslexics might seem an obvious way to deploy a CSR policy, organisations would in fact gain more by turning the spotlight on their own dyslexic population. If such action became common place in the world of work there would eventually be significantly less demand for charitable support groups for dyslexic adults; furthermore, in our social media dominated society, word would spread fast and so there would be no loss of the Public Relations benefits.
Gender Issues and Hidden Talent
If organisations are shooting themselves in the foot by failing to develop their dyslexic employees (10% of the population), they are shooting themselves in the head by failing to develop their female employees (50% of the population). The Sex Discrimination Act has had some positive impact on women’s progress in the workplace but it has clearly failed to create a gender balance at the top. The most significant way in which women are failed by their employers is not through direct or indirect sex discrimination, which is addressed by anti-discrimination legislation, but rather it is by subtle psychological processes that function at an unconscious level and for which legal remedies do not exist. For example, in my experience it is not unusual to meet very talented women in organisations who have experienced some occupational success but have ‘decided’ that they don’t want to go any higher; they typically explain that they don’t have the motivation or drive to seek promotion. But in many cases the decision to not go for a top job is not one that they have made freely but rather it is one that has been forced on them – very subtlety forced on them, but nevertheless forced.
Some very bright and able women genuinely do not have any ambition to increase their power and influence in the world of work and it would clearly be inappropriate to interfere in their decisions to not seek promotion. In contrast there are many women who set out to reach the top; they have the abilities and skills, the drive and the motivation to be leaders, yet they give up. An understanding of what has happened can be gained by looking at a phenomenon psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’. In spite of the intimidating label, it is a very easy process to understand. Whenever possible people unconsciously change their thoughts and beliefs to eliminate mental conflict; for example, if I passionately want a particular job but I discover that the selectors don’t accept people like me then I experience a type of mental conflict in the form of wanting something that I can’t have. One resolution to this unpleasant mental state is to start believing that I no longer want the job – this in essence is cognitive dissonance and it is a process that derails many women on their journey to the top.
A CSR policy that focused on tackling women’s self defeating behaviours would have a very positive long term impact on women’s representation in the board room and leadership positions generally, with obvious benefits for both the employing organisation and society generally. One option for realising such a policy is specialised executive coaching designed to raise awareness of and neutralise the key unconscious processes and self defeating behaviours that undermine women’s progress. Although some organisations already operate various initiatives to tackle the gender imbalance they are in general not well known (even inside the organisations where they operate); one of the key benefits of addressing the issue of developing female talent under the banner of CSR is that it would gain wider interest, another is that it would be perceived differently – not an initiative but a responsibility.
By Gary Fitzgibbon, Chartered Occupational Psychologist