Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum tells us the key to winning the talent war.

Findings from FSB’s recent Scaling up Skills report highlight how hard it has become for smaller businesses to attract skilled talent. Some 78 per cent of small businesses who had tried to recruit in the past year said that they had experienced difficulties finding candidates with relevant skills, experience or qualifications. Sixty per cent noted a lower number of applicants generally.

Whilst offering more pay or a better benefits package may be an option for larger organisations struggling to recruit, this is unlikely to be possible for most smaller businesses.

So, then, what is the answer? How can SMEs compete on what appears to be an inherently unlevel playing field?

Drawing on your strengths

Drawing on your strengths is a good place to start. A smaller organisation may not be able to increase its monetary offering but may offer greater flexibility when it comes to the job role itself.

Pre-pandemic, flexible working was the most requested workplace adjustment as shown in our 2019 adjustments survey. Now, flexible working is more widely expected and accepted but is still not universal. In fact, a desire for greater flexibility is one of the key reasons now given for leaving a role.

Having to follow organisational-wide processes can make it harder for larger employers to respond to requests in a tailored and timely way, but, here, SMEs may have the advantage.

The employment rate for disabled people in the UK is well below that of non-disabled people. Only 52.7 per cent of working-age disabled people are in employment compared with 81.1% of their non-disabled counterparts. The biggest employers of disabled people are smaller businesses.

According to further FSB research, 51 per cent of small employers say they have employed someone they know has a disability or health condition in the past three years.

Many disabled people benefit from the flexibility that a smaller employer can offer. Flexibility around hours and location can make it easier to manage a fluctuating or energy-limiting condition, for example.

The proximity of a local business can also make it easier for people who find travel difficult.

Attracting disabled talent

Smaller enterprises may already be the employer of choice for many disabled people but there is more that can be done and your business will benefit. Accenture research shows that a diverse workforce increases productivity.

Disabled people bring new ideas based on their unique life experiences. They are also best placed to understand the needs of disabled customers.

The starting point is to make sure that you are not inadvertently excluding disabled candidates when recruiting. Think about the job description itself. Requiring five years’ experience or ambiguous soft skills may put candidates off.

Disabled candidates may have gaps in their work history and may have had to take a different route. Consider what you really need to be done. Could the role be done flexibly, part-time or from home? If so, putting that in the advert can make a big difference. 

Make sure you are advertising the role in the right places. Some websites and platforms are inaccessible to people who use assistive technology, such as text-to-speech software and magnifiers.

Provide different ways for people to contact you about the role. Think about the language and imagery you use on your own website to describe your business. Would a disabled person feel welcome at your organisation?

Our free SME toolkit provides advice on interviewing disabled candidates. The advice here is to be flexible. Some disabled people find formal interviews difficult even though they may be the ideal candidate for the role. Think about whether this is the best way for the person to demonstrate their skills. Offering a work trial – where someone can show you how they would do the job – can be a much better indicator of whether they have the skills you need.

Retaining disabled experience

It is important to offer adjustments throughout the recruitment stage as well as once the person is in post. Putting the right workplace adjustments in place is also vital for retaining disabled staff, including staff who acquire a disability while working for you.

Contrary to popular belief, most disabled people are not born with their disabilities. Most disabilities – 83 per cent – are acquired and ageing increases the likelihood of becoming disabled. An important point considering we are all now working longer.

You may not always know that an employee has a disability. Their disability may not be immediately obvious and they may not tell you about it or describe themselves as disabled. Offering adjustments as a productivity tool to everyone means that staff aren’t ‘forced’ to identify as disabled in order to get the support that they need.

Not all adjustments can be implemented without a cost, but many can. One SME we know, for example, rearranged their office space using existing furniture and lighting, creating partitions and brighter and lower-lit areas.

They also created a designated quiet space. Different shift patterns, flexible start times or a fixed desk in a hot desk environment are all examples of cost-free adjustments that can make all the difference.

For adjustments which do have a cost, financial support is available via the Government’s Access to Work scheme.

We are aware, however, from conversations with our SME members, that accessing the scheme can be difficult and time-consuming. We also know that the system is currently experiencing huge backlogs.

The Government is also trialling a new service aimed at SMEs to offer advice to employers on sickness absence, talking about disability and offering support. We would encourage all businesses to trial the service and to offer feedback on whether it works for them.

Your business offer

Talented, skilled, and experienced staff are your greatest asset. Playing to your strengths and making your organisation appealing to disabled people will help you recruit and retain valuable staff.

You don’t need a huge team or vast resources to get it right. You just need to be ready to take a fresh look at what your business has to offer.