State Kicks Off ‘Model Employer’ Effort With ‘This is Me’ Campaign

/ June 21, 2022

By Sundi Wright

When the State as A Model Employer (SAME) bill passed in May 2021, the Department of Human Resources was placed in charge of putting the program into effect. Since I was new to state government, having just started in April 2021, I had to become familiar with the bill and what it aimed to do, as well as learn the state’s employment policies and practices. The purpose of the SAME bill, for those of you who may not know, is to make sure that state agencies and departments design and implement best practices related to the recruitment, hiring, promotion, and retention of qualified individuals with disabilities. With this goal in mind, I began the process of learning how many people with disabilities were currently working as state employees.

One of my early discoveries was that we did not collect an employee’s disability status in our human resources information system. We only got this information on an annual survey for Equal Employment Opportunity planning purposes. Without the ability to see the data on disability, we would be limited to know the baseline of how many state employees reported having a disability, to monitor progress, and set goals to increase hiring for the program.

The first step we took was an update of the state’s human resources information system, which was completed in February 2022. We then saw the need to let state workers know about this information system update. Tanika Arms, the director of the State as a Model Employer program, developed a plan that began with the Department of Human Resources sending a request to all state employees asking them to go into the system and voluntarily disclose their disability status.  That initial request resulted in about 3,500 employees disclosing their disability status. Tanika then created the “This is Me” campaign. The campaign is focused on creating a sense of belonging. It highlights aspects of our identities that make us who we are and encourages voluntary disclosure of disability status. We are hoping to reduce any possible stigma about disabilities. Voluntarily sharing different aspects of our diversity will help us gain a better understanding of the state’s workforce and help us better align programs and benefits to meet the needs of our employees. Seeing and hearing people share their stories can encourage other employees to tell their own, and we hope will foster a more open and supportive culture that benefits all of us.

That leads us to the “This is Me” campaign kick-off event, held in mid-May. The goal was to have state Sen. Becky Massey, sponsor of the SAME bill, and Commissioner Brad Turner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities share their views on the importance of the State as a Model Employer program and of people being willing to disclose their disability status. We had state employees sharing their “This is Me” stories and highlighting that we are more than our disabilities and that together we are “One Tennessee” supporting all Tennesseans.

In a recent employee experience survey for the state workforce related to disability, the primary reason given for not disclosing disability status was a concern about privacy. This concern was followed closely by a fear of the stigmas attached to people with disabilities. The update to the system, which now allows for disclosure through a secure log-in, addresses some of the privacy concerns. This disability information will only be used to make sure we are moving in the right direction in our recruitment, hiring, advancement and retention efforts. The “This is Me” campaign, we hope, will help reduce the stigmas that are sometimes related to having a disability, particularly those regarding mental health issues.

The famous artist Pablo Picasso said, “There is only one way to see things, until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes.”

Through this campaign we want to show everyone how to look at people with disabilities with different eyes, viewing them for their abilities and not their disabilities.

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As I have written previously, I am delighted that Tennessee has adopted the State as A Model Employer legislation, and I appreciate Sundi’s and Tanika’s efforts to encourage those who are already part of our state’s government workforce to voluntarily let colleagues know about their disabilities as an initial step in building a more diverse and welcoming workplace for those with disabilities. I look forward to hearing more as Tennessee truly becomes a Model Employer for people with disabilities. As always, if you have questions, you can contact me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thank you for reading!

Sundi Wright serves as a human resources administrator for Diversity Programs for the state of Tennessee.  She’s retired from the U.S. Army and has worked in the diversity field for more than 10 years.  She uses her human resources experience to ensure policies and practices support attracting, hiring, and retaining a diverse workforce that reflects the populations in Tennessee.

 

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