Monday, April 25, 2005

The Key to Long-Term Job Success

This past week, I had the opportunity to host several tours of customized and supported employment sites developed in support of people with significant disabilities. Each business visit was selected to showcase our work as part of an accreditation review process by CARF–The Accreditation Commission. I was accompanied to each business location by a CARF peer reviewer who came along to determine if my agency was applying nationally accepted standards for quality in our employment planning and service practices. During one of my stops, I had the opportunity to share a reflective moment with Michelle Rimmer, one of our tenured employment consultants. We had a ten minute chat when the CARF surveyor spent private time interviewing a supported employee who works at this job site. Before I share a nugget of Michelle’s wisdom, first let me tell you a little bit about her work.
Michelle is an Occupational Communication Specialist (OCS) who works for the Minnesota Employment Center (MEC) for People who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing. MEC is funded by Minnesota Rehabilitation Services and co-managed by my agency, Rise, Incorporated, and Lifetrack Resources, a supported employment provider located in St. Paul, Minnesota. More than ten years ago, MEC introduced the concept of using an "OCS" as a specialized employment consultant to support people with significant hearing loss. An OCS is competent in American Sign Language (ASL) communications, knowledgeable about deaf culture and hearing loss issues, trained in the use of assistive technology devices, skilled in planning job accommodations, and competent in supported employment strategies including ongoing communication and job consultation for employers and their employees with significant hearing loss. By job design, Michelle is not an "interpreter" but an employment consultant who is skilled in ASL communications and delivery of job support services for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.
With a glisten in her eye and confidence in her voice, Michelle shared a simple, but fundamental truth with me:
"Don, I have been providing employment services for deaf and hard of hearing persons now for seven years. The job may be complex or simple, the employer can be big or small, and the worker can be skilled or still learning the job. No matter how you size it up, it always gets down to relationships. The people we place into supported employment need to have skills but ultimately they succeed or fail because of the interest and relationships employers form with each worker and our staff. "
Michelle went on to explain that her job training and work experience have indeed helped to build valuable tools in support of people who are placed in supported employment. However, no policy, training technique, or specialized equipment or device can trump the basic ingredient of "trust." Without trust in hand, supported employment professionals are in no position to customize work opportunities for people who are traditionally underrepresented in the workforce. "When an employer believes in our purpose and develops a growing trust in our relationship, many job obstacles can be overcome," Michelle continued.
I asked Michelle a central question concerning her thesis: "How do we find the right employers to match opportunities for people who require a significant level of customization in their job functions or support services?" According to Michelle, it is important to carefully observe how employers talk about and treat their existing employees. "When a business is not genuinely interested in the training, supervision, or support of its existing workforce, then chances are unlikely they will extend themselves to support someone with a significant disability. At least this is my experience," she explained.
During this visit, the CARF surveyor and I had a firsthand opportunity to place Michelle Rimmer’s theory under a microscope. She introduced us to "Tan" a deaf young man who is presently active with MEC. Tan’s job duties consisted of handling and processing postal mail-in rebates for a business located in a suburban area of the Twin Cities. Tan presented an interesting job placement challenge because his sign abilities were in his native Vietnamese language. He is now learning ASL communication and gradually becoming more proficient in new signing techniques that are the standard for culturally deaf persons in America.
From the onset, Michelle worked closely with the employer to assist with workplace orientation, helping Tan to understand the company's policies, and learning job skills through direct instruction. She helped introduce Tan to his co-workers and with his overall assimilation to this new work environment. Michelle offered technical consultation to his employer to help customize signs and communication methods so they could talk directly with Tan about his job performance. Today, Michelle visits the business site approximately once a week to help iron out mutual concerns between Tan and his supervisors.
It was very clear from our discussions that this employer met the selection screening standards proposed earlier by Michelle. The workplace was bright, clean, and featured many positive amenities for the company’s workforce. The business representatives spoke honestly about their employee and had a clear understanding of their role as Tan’s supervisors. It was also clear that the supervisors recognized when it was necessary to engage the technical support of Michelle. It was teamwork with clearly defined lines of labor and expertise.
Without prompting, the business representatives shared how they routinely use interpreters to insure that Tan was included in all business and social activities sponsored by the company. Two of the company’s supervisors even expressed an interest in attending a community education class so they could learn basic ASL signs and communicate more effectively with Tan. Yes, this employer was firmly committed to the idea of inclusion and making its workforce more accessible to people with cultural and communication differences. There was little question about it.
You know, I think Michelle hit the nail right on the head. As an OCS, she uses many important tools of her trade to help deaf and hard of hearing individuals gain entry to their community’s workforce. Yet, nothing in Michelle’s tool box is more powerful and obvious than her customer relations skills. This experienced OCS understands that assisting many people with significant disabilities to get a job is only a beginning. Ultimately, a majority of the people we place will only grow and achieve long-term job success because of relationships and commitments made by their employers.
Michelle Rimmer’s wisdom has important implications in the recruitment and training preparation of personnel who are charged with providing customized and supported employment services. First, our profession needs to do a much better job of recruiting people who are comfortable with and capable of marketing concepts of customization to employers. Second, we need to teach our job developers how to identify external business practices and dynamics that are conducive to embracing a culture of diversity. And finally, we need to incorporate better training about customer service practices that build long-term relationships of trust, competence, and commitment by employers.
The secret of Michelle Rimmer’s job success is now out of the bag. In my judgment, both managers and direct service practitioners of supported employment programs would be well served by taking heed to Michelle's sage advice.

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