July 26, 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. While the ADA and related legislation have contributed to significant progress in access and inclusion, job seekers with disabilities are still twice as likely to be unemployed. Research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) finds that top obstacles to hiring workers with disabilities include concern that the work cannot be done by those with disabilities; lack of awareness as to the cost of accommodation; and lack of buy-in from leadership. Success stories can help address these concerns by illustrating what is possible, and Pearl Interactive Network, which provides comprehensive contact center services as well as beneficiary and care navigation support solutions, founded by social-worker-turned-businesswoman Merry Korn, certainly qualifies.
Korn founded Pearl after some soul-searching during a successful career in medical management. “Even though I looked successful on the outside, I didn't feel it because I asked myself at the end of the day, what had I really done?” Korn found some answers—and other questions--in Pearl’s early days.
“The first contracts I had were with associations, because almost all of them have two challenges—more memberships and more non-dues revenue. I was hiring people to make outbound calls to sponsors and for member acquisition, but I couldn’t get anyone to stay long.” A conversation with her husband on how to solve this stubborn problem led Korn to an epiphany that shaped her company’s future and sharpened her commitment to inclusive practices. “He encouraged me to hire a woman who was quadriplegic, and she raised the kind of money that the association had never seen before,” she recalls.
The success garnered more association clients, and Pearl’s growth enabled Korn to hire more people with disabilities. Suddenly, she had found her purpose in marrying a for-profit enterprise with social good—but more work needed to be done. “We found a technology company that customized a telephone system for people with blindness or paraplegia, which fully enabled these employees to work from home,” Korn says. “They were so successful and stayed with us for so long, but what I found is that most of the contracts were short-term, and I wanted long-term contracts, which is why I pivoted to state and federal contracts—I wanted to give benefits and training and great jobs.”
More than Willing: Bringing Opportunity to Economically Distressed Areas
Tarah Ziogas is Pearl’s VP of Human Resources. She says that Pearl is also committed to bringing employment opportunity to economically distressed urban and rural communities designated by the US government. “We are HUBZone certified—it stands for Historically Underutilized Business Zones,” she says. We range between 35 to 38% of the people we employ who live in these distressed areas, and that’s the goal. Our talent acquisition team is tasked with finding people in these markets. Not only do we keep our certification—we want to be current and compliant—but it connects with who we are and what we’re doing with our social mission to increase employment in these areas.”
Ziogas says that a commitment to inclusivity starts at the top and, like CX, requires a solid strategy and sound tactics that every employee understands.
"First and foremost, we make sure that the recruitment professionals who are on our team know that this is a priority and a passion, and is something that we really want to instill into our processes in ways that go beyond traditional job postings,” she says.
In addition to cultivating strong relationships with community organizations such as associations and non-profits that have built relationships with those they are seeking to attract—people with disabilities, veterans, military spouses, and those living in economically distressed areas—Ziogas and her team meet these prospective employees where they are.
"We utilize social media by going out to niche groups that are specific to our audience and sharing our information with them," she says. "Rather than take an approach of saying 'This is our job, and we're trying to sell you on getting into our database,’ we try to actively engage with them and just let them know who we are as an organization from a culture standpoint."
These efforts have paid off—employees who have experienced Pearl’s culture of inclusivity generate considerable referrals and serve as key components of the recruitment ecosystem.
“It’s a trickle-down effect,” Ziogas says.
More than Ready: Inclusion Strategy Pays Off With New Opportunities
COVID-19 has opened doors of opportunity for Pearl and its employees that have historically remained closed.
“When we first started this business, I only wanted to be virtual,” Korn says. “Because I knew the greatest barrier for people with challenges is transportation.” But there was a major problem in overcoming that barrier—federal contracts required brick and mortar employment.
The global pandemic has changed that.
“For the first time, federal contracts enable us to hire agents in 28 states. We've created so many jobs, and we're getting back to where we started, which is giving a lot of people—veterans, single moms and people with disabilities--jobs at home,” Korn says.
Ziogas shares this sentiment. “At the end of the day, people want to feel good about what they do and how they do it,” she says. “Bestowal is huge. If you can bestow someone the opportunity of work, that's a gift.”
Interested in learning more about hiring employees with disabilities? Check out these resources from SHRM: https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/disability-employment-resource-page.aspx