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Engaging Employers: A Guide for Disability and Workforce Development Service Providers

Learn how disability and workforce development service providers can work with employers to support employment of people with disabilities.

Today, many factors are prompting employers to recognize the importance of incorporating disability into their talent management strategies. But, while many employers understand the value of a disability-inclusive workplace culture, they may not know how to effectively recruit and retain people with disabilities or have the capacity to take proactive steps to do so. Disability and workforce development service providers can be key allies in this regard.

In addition to providing training to meet workforce needs, service providers can help identify and connect employers with job seekers with disabilities that have skills and experience that can benefit their organization. Service providers can also provide ongoing supports to ensure the success of people with disabilities once on the job.

Demonstrating to employers the benefits of partnering with service providers is not always easy. The key is to broaden the definition of who is being served, respecting and responding to the business’s needs in tandem with those of job seekers with disabilities. In other words, service providers must understand that they actually have two customers: people with disabilities and employers. 

This guide was developed to help disability and workforce development service providers understand how to build effective relationships with employers based on this “dual customer approach.” It draws upon employer feedback about their experiences working with service providers as well as lessoned learned by EARN and the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR) National Employment Team (The NET) over more than 10 years of active engagement with employers of all sizes and in all industry sectors.

Shifting the Paradigm: The Dual Customer Approach

The term “dual customer approach” was popularized by CSAVR, a membership organization of the 80 chief administrators of the public vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies that annually serve approximately one million people with disabilities throughout the U.S. These agencies constitute the state partners in the state-federal program of rehabilitation services mandated by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, with the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) serving as the federal partner.

CSAVR developed The NET in response to a discussion with its business customers, understanding that the development of career strategies that result in the hiring, promotion and retention of people with disabilities depends not only on their vocational goals and interests, but also the employment needs and environment of the business. Based on the feedback from business customers, CSAVR structured the NET as cross-state team of business specialists who collaborate, but also function as single points of contact for the VR agency at the state level.

The NET’s infrastructure facilitates a team approach to support individual employers of all sizes. The goal is to develop ongoing relationships with and provide a variety of services, not just job placement, to both public- and private-sector employer customers based on a strong understanding of their business operations and unique workforce needs.

Establishing Relationships: Keys to Successful Communication

As with any relationship, the foundation for success is trust, and the key to trust is effective communication. A dual customer approach necessitates talking with and, most importantly, listening to businesses about their expectations and what talent they need. Businesses have no obligation to understand the VR system or other disability service structures. As a result, successful partnerships require service providers to speak to business interests. Ultimately, a positive cost-benefit ratio is what drives the hiring process, so articulating how service providers can save employers time and money is far more persuasive than describing the rehabilitation process.

“Speaking Business”

A few examples of nuances in the language that most businesses speak include:1

  • Business vs. Employer: While these terms are used interchangeably in this document, businesses do not typically define themselves primarily as an “employer.” Rather, they produce products or services that are sold in the marketplace. That purpose, and not providing employment, is their reason for being. By singularly focusing on employment, service providers may limit opportunities to engage with businesses, overlooking strategic opportunities to support them in other areas, such as staff training, workplace accessibility and attracting people with disabilities as customers.
  • Business Development vs. Job Placement: Historically, service providers, especially workforce development service providers, have focused on the goal of “job placement,” that is, the development of a single job or employment opportunity. In contrast, “business development” focuses on creating and sustaining long-term relationships with businesses to produce multiple outcomes. Job placements are not the only outcomes possible. Moving toward a “business development” perspective sets the stage for sustainable success, for both people with disabilities and employers. Think about the organization as a whole and gain an understanding of its current and future talent needs in order to support education or training that builds a pipeline of skilled candidates with disabilities.
  • Qualified vs. Job Ready: “Employment-ready” or “job-ready” are terms often used in service provision to describe customers who are prepared to begin job searching and obtain employment. But businesses do not typically use or understand these terms. From their perspective, a person is simply qualified or not qualified, and the business determines what knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) are required to perform the essential functions of each job. It is extremely important that providers become familiar with these functions and what KSAs make a candidate “qualified” in the eyes of a particular business.
  • Productivity Enhancement vs. Accommodation.: Another important distinction relates to the term “accommodation.” Some employers may mistakenly think that it costs more to hire an individual with a disability because he or she might require an accommodation. According to some employers, the root of this concern is the word “accommodation” itself, because it can connote a legal context and doesn’t really speak to what accommodations actually do, which is increase productivity. Thus, speaking in these terms—for example, “productivity enhancements” or “productivity tools”—when referring to accommodations may assist in allaying misguided fears. In addition, research from the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) (the leading source of free, expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues) may help assuage these concerns. Annual JAN data consistently shows that the majority (56%) of accommodations cost nothing at all, while the remainder typically cost only $500.

Additional Business Terms to Understand and Use

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI): Diversity is any dimension that can be used to differentiate groups and people from one another, but it also implies respect for and appreciation of differences in ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, education and religion. Equity is defined as “the state, quality or ideal of being just, impartial and fair.”  In a workplace context, equity means everyone receives fair treatment. An inclusive workplace values and provides equal opportunity to all employees, regardless of differences, to achieve their maximum potential at work without discrimination. Some larger companies have D&I offices or departments, typically within their larger human resource functions, that work to recruit and retain diverse employees and foster an inclusive workplace culture.

Employee Resource Group (ERG) or Business Resource Group (BRG): ERGs and BRGs, also known as affinity groups, are groups of employees who join together in their workplace based on shared characteristics, life experiences or interests. They are voluntary and typically employee-led, though many have senior executive sponsors. These groups serve as a resource for members, other employees and the organization by fostering a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with the organizational mission, values, goals, business practices and objectives. 

Return on Investment (ROI): ROI is usually expressed as a percentage and is typically used for making financial decisions, to compare a company’s profitability to its investments or to compare the efficiency of different investments. The ROI formula is: ROI = (Net Profit/Cost of Investment) x 100. In this context, service providers might be expected to demonstrate that hiring people with disabilities provides a positive ROI to the company. 

Talent: As used by businesses, talent means persons of marked aptitude or specific training for a certain field or occupation. For a business, attracting and retaining talent is key to ROI.

Understanding the Business Customer’s Needs

In addition to using business-oriented language, employers have identified a set of key principles for “doing business with business” that can guide employment service providers in creating a track record of success in building strong relationships with employers and thus positioning themselves as a valuable partner in the business services arena. These principles include2:

  • Viewing businesses as customers.
  • Taking steps to understand their needs.
  • Understanding that businesses make decisions based on business needs, not rehabilitation needs.
  • Adjusting the products and services delivered to meet those business needs.

Additional keys to success in fostering good communication with business customers include:

  • Establishing one point of contact at the company, whether in the Human Resources or the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) function at a large company, or owner or manager at a smaller one.
  • Meeting in-person at the start of the relationship (but keeping meetings short), and maintaining ongoing communication in whatever way the employer representative prefers.
  • Asking what the business seeks from the relationship, as opposed to focusing on the service provider’s goals.
  • Anticipating questions ahead of time and providing examples to address concerns.
  • Avoiding acronyms and jargon related to service provision (conversely, it is important that service providers develop fluency in commonly used terms related to employment in a particular business’s industry).

Adjusting Services Delivered to Meet Business Needs

Service providers can often assist companies in becoming disability inclusive on a deeper level by adjusting the services provided and/or presenting core services in ways that employers can recognize an immediate benefit. Services that offer obvious employer benefits and are most likely within the capability/realm of most service providers include:

  • Delivering disability awareness trainings;
  • Consulting on accommodations;
  • Developing stay-at-work or return-to-work plans for employees with disabilities, including those who experience injury or illness;
  • Providing job coaching and other onsite support services;
  • Advising on workplace accessibility, both physical and computer-based;
  • Supporting compliance with disability non-discrimination laws and, for certain employers, affirmative action laws;
  • Advising federal contractors on how to conduct a campaign to encourage self-identification in order to achieve their disability inclusion goals;
  • Assisting with applying for disability employment and accessibility-related tax incentives and wage subsidies;
  • Consulting on marketing to people with disabilities and ensuring the accessibility of company products or services;
  • Helping establish a disability-related ERG or affinity group; and
  • Assisting in implementing mentoring or job shadowing programs for youth with disabilities.

Through all of this, it is critical to keep in mind that businesses seek to hire people with disabilities who meet the requirements of available job openings, as opposed to create jobs for people who service providers may be seeking to place. Employers may be frustrated with such a “mismatch in thinking” when working with service providers.

Meeting Employers Where They Are: Customer Segmentation

It is also essential that service providers recognize that different businesses and their representatives have different styles and backgrounds that affect their interactions with service providers, and their behavior when it comes to hiring decisions. This can be due to several factors beyond just those that are business-related, such as varying levels of experience with and exposure to people with disabilities. When an employer’s first reaction to the idea of working together is negative, for whatever reason, don’t argue. Be patient and “meet them where they are.” Asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions can help service providers understand their frame of reference, experience and exposure to people with disabilities, both in general and in their workforce. Be in “listen mode.” This will help forge a relationship and begin to build trust from the ground up.

To assist with this, service providers may benefit from thinking about employers in terms of three categories: “Choir,” “Inclusive” and “Uninitiated.” These categories were first coined by a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business led by Dr. Peter Cappelli and charged by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) with identifying strategies for making the argument for disability inclusion more persuasive to employers.

  • Choir refers to companies with existing programs and a workplace culture that supports the recruitment, hiring, retention and advancement of people with disabilities.
  • Inclusive refers to companies that may take proactive steps to ensure a diverse workforce, but have not explicitly included people with disabilities in this context.
  • Uninitiated refers to companies with no engagement on the issue.

The premise behind these categories is that hiring practices can often be influenced through persistent and persuasive messaging. However, to be effective, messaging must be targeted to these different employer populations. By understanding where an employer is regarding disability inclusion, service providers can be more realistic about where they can go. The goal is to continually move the relationship forward. Messages—and services—need to be tailored based on the readiness of business leaders to support disability inclusion.

Working Together: Best Practices in Action

With an understanding of where a business falls on the inclusion continuum, as well as their workforce needs, service providers are in a good position to nurture a long-lasting relationship. These relationships may be formal (for instance, through signed agreements outlining expectations from both parties) or informal (for instance, through meetings, exchange of contact information and data on staffing needs, and ongoing contact regarding job openings and candidates). Regardless of what shape they may take, service providers’ relationships with businesses both large and small illustrate that the investment can be well worth the effort for both parties, and ultimately help the business to develop the workforce of tomorrow. 

Reaping the Benefits of Collaboration in Agriculture

To meet the staffing needs of its farmland investments, financial services firm TIAA forged a partnership with the Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE) to encourage and facilitate the recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities to work on custom-farmed properties. Through the collaboration called the “Fruits of Employment” initiative, APSE helps farm managers engage with local disability service providers to source, hire, prepare and support people with disabilities to perform a variety of job duties. Since its inception in 2009 at one of TIAA’s apple properties in Washington State, the program has expanded to six locations. Today, it provides competitive, integrated employment to more than 30 full-time workers with a range of disabilities in an environment where there have traditionally been limited work opportunities available, all while helping meet a regional industry’s unique workforce needs.

A Wise Bet in Connecticut

Mohegan Sun, a Native American-owned casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, has found a partnership with a local disability service provider to be an effective way to fill its diverse staffing needs. Working together, the casino and Community Enterprises, Inc. (a regional non-profit community rehabilitation program that provides supported employment, education and living services to people with disabilities) developed the Mohegan Sun Inclusion Academy to train job seekers for specific in-demand jobs, ranging from cashiers to cooks to valet dispatchers. Community Enterprises screens the applicants, many of whom are referred from the state’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, and conducts three or four weeks of training in a classroom setting provided by the casino. Successful trainees then receive on-the-job support from a job coach for six weeks to ensure a smooth transition. More than 100 employees have come on board through the program.

Fueling Inclusion in New England

Residents of Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire are likely familiar with the businesses that comprise VERC Enterprises—a family-owned chain of convenience stores, gasoline stations and carwashes that prides itself on customer service and a commitment to community. Reflecting this, the company maintains an impressive goal: to have 20% of its workforce be comprised of people with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities. To work toward this goal, VERC partners with a range of service providers that assist in ensuring on-the-job success through appropriate accommodations and other supports. As a result, people with disabilities serve in a number of positions, ranging from administration to landscapers to carwash attendants. 

A Healthy Partnership Nationwide

Rhode Island-based CVS Health has operations across the country, including its retail operations, pharmacies, health care clinics and in-home services. For many years, it has actively incorporated disability into its diversity and inclusion strategy, understanding that its workforce must reflect its wide customer base. Supporting this strategy nationwide is a long-standing relationship with the VR system and CSAVR's The NET). This partnership has worked to build a talent pipeline for the company through training of people with disabilities for specific jobs, from retail hires, to distribution clerks to pharmacy technicians, as well as supports to ensure their success once on the job.

Meeting Manufacturing Demand in Michigan

In 2015, Haworth, Inc., a furniture manufacturer headquartered in Holland, Michigan, had a significant increase in orders. When attempting to build a team to meet this demand, however, it faced stiff competition in hiring skilled workers. “We experienced a technical talent drought,” said the company’s Recruitment Manager Cassandra Volkers. To tackle that challenge, Haworth tapped the state VR program’s technical training center, Michigan Career and Training Institute (MCTI), located in nearby Plainwell. MCTI prepares young people with disabilities for a host of jobs. The two organizations formed a close collaborative team based on aligned values and objectives, resulting in the filling of 11 machine operator positions to date. “All of our MCTI trainees are well prepared,” said plant manager Eric Eldridge.

Improving Warehouse and Workforce Efficiency in the Northwest

In 2011, four community colleges in Washington State’s Pierce County consolidated duplicative functions to more efficiently respond to regional workforce needs. The result was Invista Performance Solutions, which today serves as a single point of contact to many of the state’s private employers, among them online retail giant Amazon, that are seeking customized training services. Invista works with its employer customers to identify and fill skills gaps, sometimes serving as a bridge to employment or disability service providers. As one example, Goodwill Industries partnered with Invista to create a training program for the state’s warehousing and logistics sector. With grant support, they established three training sites and developed several credentials mapped to specific jobs, including general warehouse clerk, customer service and forklift operation. More than 200 of the initial 850 participants—60% of whom were employed within 90 days of program completion—were people with disabilities.

Creating Partnerships: Resources for Ongoing Exploration and Improvement

In addition to reaching out to individual employers, providers of employment services can focus on ways to position themselves as resources for the local business community. Essential networking strategies include:

  • Participating in business-to-business groups focused on disability employment, such as a state or local Disability:IN affiliate, the National Business and Disability Council (NBDC) or the National Organization on Disability’s (NOD) Corporate Leadership Council.
  • Joining other employer-focused groups, such as state or local Chambers of Commerce or human resources (HR) organizations (such as Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapters, Industry Liaison Groups or DEI organizations) or service organizations (such as Rotary, Kiwanis or Lions).
  • Working with (if not serving on) workforce development boards.
  • For service providers not specifically focused on people with disabilities, reaching out to Centers for Independent Living (CILs) to discuss ways to collaborate to better serve people with disabilities both during pre-employment and once on the job.
  • Ensuring inclusion in the Disability and Veterans Community Resources Directory. Although developed to assist federal contractors in meeting their requirements for disability and veteran inclusion, this directory is available to any employer seeking to form partnerships to increase disability inclusion.
  • Contacting the The NET which uses a team approach to help individual employers, both public- and private-sector, meet their workforce needs through a variety of services.
  • For service providers not specifically focused on employment, contacting local American Job Centers (AJCs), which are located in communities throughout the country and offer centralized employment and training services to help people both with and without disabilities prepare for and obtain employment. Services for people with disabilities may be coordinated through “Disability Resource Coordinates” located in some AJCs.
  • Contacting Diversity Partners, which offers online toolboxes for leadership and frontline staff, supported by on-demand technical assistance and training. Diversity Partners can also be contacted email at

These resources all point to the necessity of service providers thinking—and speaking—locally when building relationships with employers. Employers need service providers who understand the realities of the local economy and the businesses driving it. Large companies with facilities in many states may prefer working with national organizations with local chapters or allowing regional or district offices to develop their own partnerships with service providers. Sometimes, this may even mean referring an employer to another organization that can serve the employer better. Although this may seem counterintuitive, it is ultimately what is best for the business customer—which, after all, is how a service provider should view a business. A good employer/service provider relationship can facilitate more than better job placements. It can foster greater employee retention and success, ultimately meeting everyone’s goals.

1 32nd Institute on Rehabilitation Issues. The VR-Business Network: Charting Your Course. 2006. See

2 Ibid

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