Sephora: Enabling a Workforce with Disabilities
Cosmetics company Sephora says its mission is to “inspire fearlessness”—and it applies this spirit to not only its personal care and beauty products, but also its employment policies and practices, which include a commitment to a diverse workforce inclusive of people with disabilities. As a way to address difficulties staffing distribution centers due to low unemployment rates, in 2017, Sephora began a large-scale hiring initiative at the company’s Olive Branch, Mississippi distribution center. As part of this effort, the company implemented a pilot program with the goal of having at least 30 percent of the center’s workforce be people with disabilities. Sephora’s strategies for success in this endeavor included connecting with state and local advocacy groups and vocational rehabilitation agencies to develop a pipeline of job seekers with disabilities; using an “equal pay for equal work model”; and implementing a long‑term, on-the-job training program to create a pathway to full‑time employment. The initiative proved to be so successful—improving both workplace culture and employee engagement rates, while reducing turnover and absenteeism—that the company is currently replicating it at two additional distribution centers.
Driven by a need to address difficulties staffing distribution centers due to historically low unemployment rates, and inspired by a similar initiative implemented by Walgreens, Sephora began a disability employment pilot program in 2017, in preparation for the opening of its Southeast Regional Distribution center in Olive Branch, Mississippi.
The center, which opened in 2018, employs about 400 people, and Sephora is quickly approaching its goal of having 30 percent of that workforce be people with disabilities. The initiative is the largest private effort to hire Mississippians with disabilities in the state’s history, earning Sephora “Employer of the Year” honors from the state. In fact, the effort has been so successful that the company has launched similar programs at its Las Vegas and Salt Lake City distribution centers.
Ryan Hitsman is a senior human resources manager for Sephora and a champion of the company’s disability employment initiatives. He provided insight into the “Enabling a Workforce with Disabilities” program during an August 2019 nTIDE Lunch & Learn webinar, highlighting the three critical components that have led to the program’s success. The first step the company took was to connect with state and local advocacy groups and vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies, such as the Rehabilitation Association of Mississippi, to create a pipeline of job candidates with disabilities. As Sephora expands this initiative into new states, this continues to be the first and most critical step, according to Mr. Hitsman. “You don’t have an initiative or a program like this without a pipeline,” he said, reiterating that, “Partnering with our local VR in each state is critical to create that pipeline, as well as partnering with local advocacy groups.”
After building the pipeline, the next step was to implement an “equal work for equal pay” model. At the distribution center, supervisors focus on what employees can do, not what they can’t do. As such, they measure all employees using the same company standards. Employees, with or without disabilities, must meet set company productivity rates to remain employed with Sephora. Company data has found that all of the Olive Branch center’s employees with disabilities continually meet or exceed these standards, and are some of the highest performing employees at the facility. Using this model also helped Sephora establish credibility with their employees; the company saw a marked increase in employee engagement rates as a result. In fact, the Olive Branch facility has led the company in positive employee engagement scores for two years in a row.
The third step in Sephora’s plan was to develop a long‑term, on-the-job training program that creates a pathway to full‑time employment. The company has found that continuous training programs decrease turnover rates, and this has certainly proven to be true at the Olive Branch center, where the voluntary turnover rate at the center is less than 2 percent, compared to the industry standard of 15 to 40 percent. In addition, the absenteeism rate for the center’s employees with disabilities is only 1 percent, compared to the company-wide rate of 5-15 percent. Mr. Hitsman indicated that tracking this type of data has helped illustrate to corporate leadership the return on investment of the company’s disability inclusion efforts.
According to Mr. Hitsman, the biggest overall improvement the company has seen is the significant positive change in workplace culture. Data collected related to the initiative show improvements across all levels, including among managers. Despite initial reservations from some supervisors at the Olive Branch center, focus groups and studies conducted by Sephora found that supervisors who participated in the pilot program improved their leadership skills. Managers who worked with employees with disabilities reported they became more patient and made fewer assumptions about employees’ abilities. In addition, because employees both with and without disabilities are working together day-to-day, they have formed supportive and positive working relationships and friendships that have transcended any initial reservations or barriers, resulting in a more inclusive workplace. As one example, employees who are deaf have been teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to coworkers. Supervisors have also observed that some workers who were initially shy or withdrawn have become more open and engaged with their coworkers and gained confidence in themselves and their abilities.
In addition, the company has found that people with disabilities make loyal employees. “One of the coolest things about this initiative is we have realized how much loyalty there is from our individuals with disabilities. Those who come to work for Sephora…they feel like they have finally found a home, they feel like they’re part of a family, and we certainly treat them that way. It creates just a resounding feeling of loyalty where they wouldn’t even want to test the waters outside of the Sephora doors because they kind of found what we call a ‘destination employer,’ and that’s what we strive to be,” said Mr. Hitsman.