Supporting Underserved Populations within the Workforce

October 29, 2020

The U.S. workforce is becoming more diverse, and a diverse workplace landscape equates an increasing need for inclusivity and support, especially among underserved populations and individuals with specialized needs. Forward-thinking HR professionals and business leaders must be prepared to meet those needs and help propel the modern workforce into a future that’s free from discrimination.

Youth and Diversity in the Modern Workforce

The national labor force is younger than it’s been in generations. In 2016, millennials became a majority in the U.S. labor force. Despite the skew towards a younger overall labor force, however, modern workers come from a refreshingly diverse set of backgrounds in regards to race, class, creed, religion, and sexual orientation.

According to researchers, diversity is a defining characteristic of the millennial generation. Millennials make up a full 43% of minorities in the overall workforce, and a growing number of U.S. citizens identify as two or more races. As such, fostering inclusivity has evolved from a public relations message into a crucial aspect of every modern business.

As you work to develop more inclusive workplace policies and programs, you need to account for an expansive list of situations. Not to mention, it’s the law. At minimum, your business must operate under the guidelines of various laws that were put in place to protect disabled and marginalized workers, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Diversity of People Means Diversity of Needs

Depending on the individual employee, however, those needs may vary considerably, a fact that HR professionals at every level should keep at the forefront of their mind.

Consider the following examples:

  • An employee with impaired hearing, for example, may require an interpreter and written copies of any verbal agreements.
  • A worker who is also a single parent may want more scheduling flexibility and plenty of opportunities for advancement within the company.

Recognizing these realities, and providing solutions, can go a long way towards cultivating worker happiness.

Training Managers and Executives

Consider providing your high-level employees with management training programs that underscore the need for compassion and open communication when handling sensitive issues and personal matters.

Communication-based training programs can also serve as an investment in your company’s future. The small monetary cost of sensitivity training will pay off in cultural dividends, and may help boost the reputation of your company.

But training is just one aspect of meeting the needs of marginalized workers. You may also need to take an introspective look at the ways you can improve your company’s healthcare, benefits package, and various workplace policies, to better serve every employee.

How Underserved Populations Remain Hidden

Disabled Workers

Under the ADA, discrimination on the basis of disability is prohibited in all areas of public life, including jobs, transportation, and schools. Disabled individuals may have a hearing or vision impairment, impaired motor function, or another condition altogether.  It’s important to note that disabilities are not always apparent, and those living with an invisible disability may choose not to disclose it for fear of discrimination.

LGBTQ+ Workers

Alongside workers living with a disability, another underserved population that may fly under the radar is the LGBTQ community. Long marginalized and discriminated against in nearly all facets of society, including the workforce, the LGBTQ community was finally dealt a major win in mid-2020 when the U.S. Supreme Court determined that discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

"More than half of the LGBTQ community has experienced discrimination when attempting to access healthcare."

Previously, protection against “discrimination based on sex” was not extended to gay, lesbian, and transgender workers. The landmark 6-3 decision, therefore, is likely to pave the way for greater protections for a historically underserved population. Yet, at the individual company level, you can do still more to support your workers who identify as LGBTQ and who also may need some sort of boost, whether financial or emotional.

Along with celebrating Pride month in June, HR departments can support LGBTQ workers in a number of ways. For instance, members of the LGBTQ community may have various special health needs, especially as they age. The sobering reality is that anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination is rampant within the healthcare industry. In fact, more than half of the LGBTQ community has experienced discrimination when attempting to access healthcare.

For this reason, marginalized individuals may avoid discussing their healthcare needs altogether, even as it relates to a company benefits package. As a modern, compassionate HR professional, you must work to break the silence of the hidden underserved within your company and support employees at every level.

How to Better Support the Hidden Underserved

Often, as with the silent few who may have experienced healthcare discrimination, you may not realize that a employee has special needs. Various personal situations can be embarrassing to disclose, especially those involving financial distress, domestic violence, and hidden disabilities. In order to encourage your employees to share personal information that may be impacting their work performance, seek alternative channels that provide anonymity.

Health Fairs and Culture-Boosting Events

Health fairs, healthy workforce initiatives, and similar culture-boosting events can be an ideal platform to talk about more wide-reaching concerns and share different perspectives on life and work.

In whatever ways you can, celebrate the unique human characteristics of individual workers, and make connections between that diversity and your company’s overall mission.

Regular Checkups

In a world forever altered by a viral pandemic, health exams are vital. Yet the sad truth is that about 44% of Americans report skipping their doctors’ appointments. To promote a healthier work environment, HR departments should encourage employees to schedule (and attend) regular appointments with a primary care provider, dentist, optometrist, and mental health professional as appropriate.

Benefits of a Healthy Workforce

The health of your employees is intrinsically connected to the success of your company. Researchers at Oxford University recently determined that happiness boosts workplace productivity by about 13 percent. Consider how that type of productivity boost on a large scale could impact your bottom line.

Keep in mind that employee health and satisfaction are also reflective of your leadership abilities and your company’s reputation as a whole. Healthy workforce initiatives are just the beginning; when your HR department takes a more active role in the decision-making process, your company is more likely to secure and retain top talent. Healthy, happy workers are more likely to recommend you as a place to work.

Dealing with Extreme Situations

In more extreme or serious circumstances, however, you’ll need to intervene more directly. If an employee has a dangerous home life or constantly struggles to make ends meet, your avenues of support will look much different. For example, consider providing employee assistance and bereavement programs designed to support employees through tough transitions and life events, from the death of a loved one to a sudden financial hardship.

While you should always offer whatever support you can, you might not have the resources necessary to deal with each situation. For example, in the case of domestic abuse, you might need to refer an employee for counseling through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or give them the contact information for a local domestic violence support agency.

Celebrating and Supporting Diversity as the Way Forward

In 2020 and beyond, celebrating diversity and improving employee health should be key components of your business strategy. Your overlooked and underserved employees may have unique needs, whether related to a disability or sudden emergency, that are not immediately apparent. In an increasingly diverse and youthful workforce, it’s up to you to bridge the gaps.

Encourage open communication at every level of your company, from upper management to part-time employees living with a disability. By keeping diversity at the forefront of workplace conversations, human resource professionals can help shape business strategy, well into the foreseeable future. In combination with your unwavering support of marginalized employees, your organization could make a big difference in your employees’ day-to-day lives while also elevating your company to elite status within your industry.

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