Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Decentralization of the Corporate Structure Is Key for Workers with Disabilities

Firms can best accommodate employees with disabilities by delegating authority to their immediate supervisors and providing clear instructions in the HR manual on how to handle workers’ individual needs.

Bottom Line: Firms can best accommodate employees with disabilities by delegating authority to their immediate supervisors and providing clear instructions in the HR manual on how to handle workers’ individual needs.

In an era when the workplace continues to diversify, one demographic has been consistently overlooked by analysts and researchers who study issues surrounding job satisfaction: employees with disabilities. The World Health Organization defines disability as “the umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions,” and it estimates that more than a billion people — roughly 15 percent of the global population — fall into that category. That makes people with disabilities the world’s largest minority, according to the United Nations.

But despite a flurry of legal and sociological research brought on by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, studies exploring the impact of workplace conditions on employees with disabilities have been sorely lacking. Aiming to fill that gap, scholars at the Center for Disability and Integration at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland have released a new study that weighs the differences in on-the-job satisfaction among employees with and without disabilities, and determines the aspects of corporate structure that help those with impairments attain higher performance levels.

The authors surveyed more than 4,100 employees at 110 firms in the services, manufacturing, finance, and insurance industries. About 3 percent of the participants reported that they had a disability, an approximate representation of the known proportion of people with disabilities in the labor pool. All respondents described their organizational hierarchy and setup and assessed their job satisfaction — recognized as one of the most important barometers of workplace culture and a key determinant of employee productivity — in five different areas: their workload, relationship with coworkers, level of supervision, chances for promotion, and pay grade.

The analysis revealed no significant differences in the overall satisfaction among employees with and without disabilities, which was a positive finding for firms in that personnel with disabilities don’t necessarily feel displeased about their working conditions or less fulfilled in their jobs.

However, the authors did find that at firms with higher degrees of centralization — where decision-making authority is concentrated among a few powerful people at the top — employees with disabilities were much less satisfied than their colleagues. That’s probably because lower-rung supervisors at centralized companies have less autonomy to implement specific HR practices tailored to their subordinates with disabilities, the authors reason. Gaining approval from higher up the corporate ladder takes time, and the lack of contact between senior executives and rank-and-file employees means that direct supervisors are often frustrated in their attempts to accommodate the needs of individual workers.

At highly centralized firms, employees with disabilities were less satisfied than their colleagues.

On the flip side, employees with disabilities who worked at companies with a decentralized power structure were much happier than their co-workers, presumably because their direct bosses had more freedom to introduce policies on issues such as flexible schedules or adaptable work environments that suited their specific needs. “Low levels of centralization are positive for everybody’s job satisfaction,” the authors note, “but are more important for employees with disabilities.”

Unexpectedly, the analysis showed that formalization (the extent to which written rules, procedures, and communication channels inform managers’ decision-making processes) was also a positive aspect of corporate structure for employees with disabilities. The authors had anticipated that a more rigid organizational setup would prohibit supervisors from providing quick and easy solutions to the problems faced by employees with disabilities, but the opposite proved true. Indeed, formalized HR practices that spelled out managers’ responsibilities and provided unambiguous guidelines for dealing with employees’ concerns seemed to foster improved coordination and efficiency. Having a systematic way of handling employees’ requests for accommodation could also cause minority workers — including those with disabilities — to feel more comfortable in asserting their rights, the authors posit.

The trick, then, seems to be providing immediate supervisors with enough leeway to handle their employees’ needs without getting bogged down in red tape, while also having an HR handbook that provides clear instructions on how to process workers’ requests for modifications to the usual routine.

As the authors point out, many firms around the world face a shortage of skilled workers, and the competition for talent has been heating up in recent years. The ability and willingness of firms to accommodate employees with disabilities, therefore, can provide an advantage in recruiting and retaining a diverse and motivated workforce. Delegating more clout to supervisors who are lower in the corporate hierarchy is a start, and their ability to respond effectively to employees with specialized needs — such as older workers, those with young children, and those with disabilities — can improve employees’ attitudes about their work.

“If organizations succeed in providing decentralized organizational structures, they will have satisfied employees and will reap multiple advantages — both for themselves in terms of qualified personnel as well as for the public by relieving the burden on social security systems and fostering an inclusive society,” the authors conclude.

Source:Job Satisfaction of Employees with Disabilities: The Role of Perceived Structural Flexibility,” by Miriam K. Baumgärtner, David J.G. Dwertmann, Stephan A. Boehm, and Heike Bruch (all of the University of St. Gallen), Human Resource Management, Mar./Apr. 2015, vol. 54, no. 2

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.