Survey of State Workers Yields Useful Tips for Disability Recruiting, Hiring, Retention

/ October 18, 2022

By Sundi Wright

As National Disability Employment Awareness Month is in full swing, it is a perfect time to highlight the strides that the State as a Model Employer Program is making.  As previously mentioned in the State Kicks Off ‘Model Employer’ Effort With ‘This is Me’ Campaign, our first goal at the state was to gather information related to current employees with disabilities.  We updated our Human Resources Information System to allow for a more secure method of voluntarily disclosing disability status.  We also launched an employee experience survey related to employees with disabilities to identify barriers throughout the employment cycle.  Those initial efforts led to an abundance of information.

Things that I, as a human resources administrator for Diversity Programs for the state of Tennessee, was pleasantly surprised by:

  1. The Employee Experience Survey was completed by more than 9,400 employees, that is a 23% response rate.
  2. State employees with disabilities make up at least 8% of our workforce. This is one percent above the federal benchmark of 7%, an aspirational utilization goal created to give employers a benchmark against which they can measure the success of their efforts in outreach to and recruitment of individuals with disabilities.
  3. Of the employees with disabilities, more than 87% (2,920) of respondents felt that having a disability or requesting a workplace accommodation has not prevented them from gaining work opportunities or advancements within the state government workforce.
  4. The “This is Me” Campaign increased voluntary disclosure of disability status in the Human Resources Information System from 3,500 to more than 7,500 individuals.

This is good, but we want to be great.  There is still much work to be done.  We want to become the model for other businesses in our state to follow.  The vision of the Department of Human Resources is for the state of Tennessee to be the best place to work in the Southeast.  This requires us to be inclusive in our recruiting, hiring, advancement, and retention efforts.

On the survey we asked respondents the reason they did not want to voluntarily disclose their disability status the No. 1 reason was privacy, but the following were examples of other responses:

  • “I don’t consider my condition a disability.”
  • “I didn’t realize that my condition could be a disability.”
  • “There is no need to disclose if I do not need an accommodation.”
  • “It does not impact my work.”

We are continuing our communications efforts surrounding voluntary disclosure in order to ensure employees know 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 surrounding the State as a Model Employer Program.

To move us from good to great and – dare I say – the best place to work in the Southeast, we have already begun working on improvements recommended by state employees with disabilities in the areas of training, work flexibility, and recruitment and retention.

In the area of training, we launched disability etiquette training to ensure our employees and managers know how to promote an inclusive work culture.  We marketed and hosted sessions of the nationally recognized Windmills training to increase disability awareness.  We are developing a training that focuses specifically on mental health awareness and how to best support employees and co-workers in this area.

When it comes to workplace flexibility, the state has a very robust Alternative Workplace Solutions Program (remote work options) that we recently updated to include variable work schedules.  We are encouraging state agencies to highlight positions eligible for Alternative Workplace Solutions in their job postings. State employees who are veterans with a service-connected disability of 30% or more are provided 36 hours of leave each year that can be used to attend appointments related to the service-connected disability.

Recommendations that we received about recruiting and hiring were significant and resulted in several initiatives to improve our processes.  The recruiting division is piloting the new Careers page that will be more accessible and work better with adaptive/assistive technology.  We developed a Hiring Process Guide for managers that creates a more standardized approach and provides guidance on reasonable accommodations and disability awareness during the interview and hiring process.

I am so proud of all our accomplishments, but there is a long road ahead.  The employment gap for Tennessee, meaning the difference between the employment rate for persons with disabilities and persons with no disabilities, was 39% as of 2020.  As we work to become a model employer for people with disabilities, we can assist in closing the gap.

Stevie Wonder said it best: “We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability,” and this includes competitive employment.

My thanks to Sundi for sharing with us the ways her department is working to use the results of this survey to improve the state’s hiring and employment practices. As many of us know, the lived experiences of people with disabilities are vital to making our society more accessible and equitable. I also appreciate Sundi and her department for the work they are doing to make the state of Tennessee a model employer of those with disabilities! If you have questions, please email me at

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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