The Competitive Edge | GUEST OPINION

Attention employers! Are you looking for better margins, higher productivity, and employees who really care about their work? Then you need to meet Randy Lewis and hear what he has to say about what happened when his company began hiring people with disabilities. We're talking about Walgreens, the largest drugstore chain in the United States with annual sales of $72 billion and the razor-thin margins characteristic of most retail business.

What is Walgreens doing to improve those margins? Among other things,under an innovative program led by Mr. Lewis, Senior Vice President in charge of product distribution to 7,773 stores, Walgreens is intentionally hiring people with disabilities and including them fully in the work of the company. Not as part-time courtesy clerks wrangling shopping carts in the parking lot, but as critical components of one of the largest most sophisticated distribution operations in North America.

How does Walgreens do it? With high productivity standards that are the same for all employees "Everyone can do the job," says Mr. Lewis flatly, "there is no difference. Full time, side by side, same standards, same pay." Yet over 40 percent of the employees of the distribution center that served as the pilot project for Walgreen's inclusion campaign have a disability of some sort – autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, physical disability, deaf-blind, you name it.

Mr. Lewis reports two surprising insights from what started as an economic experiment and is now spreading throughout the Walgreens organization and beyond to other corporations like Proctor & Gamble, Glaxo Smith Kline, and IBM.

First, although Walgreens made significant investments in assistive technology and workflow design in their integrated distribution center, what they learned is that "it's not about the technology, it's about making the decision to go forward." Because in the end, the biggest barrier to employment most people with disabilities face isn't their particular condition or special need, but the attitude of everyone else around them.

As Mr. Lewis points out, people with disabilities die a death of a thousand cuts. The system is designed for everyone else and is rigged against them – from transportation to the interview process to the fact that they may talk and look different from what people are used to. But in Mr. Lewis's view the unkindest cut of all is that most people think people with disabilities can't do the job.

Everyone at Walgreens can do the job. Mr. Lewis tells us about Darrell, a 52-year-old man with mental retardation who had never worked before but has become number one in productivity on the receiving dock. Or Harrison, 19-years-old with autism and no employment prospects, who performs at 150 percent of standard on the receiving dock managing Walgreen's 25,000 different products but doesn't know how to perform simple arithmetic. Or Angie, a young woman with cerebral palsy who after receiving straight A's all through college and graduate school, sent out 400 resumes, had 30 interviews, and did not receive one single job offer until she came to Walgreens where she does a fantastic job.

The second even more surprising insight was about who benefits from inclusion. Of course the  employees with disabilities benefit enormously. People with disabilities often face isolation with few  social relationships. But on the job, Mr. Lewis reports, "everyone becomes a chatty Cathy" and develops  a new sense of belonging and contribution. The real surprise, though, was the effect on people without  disabilities. In Walgreens operations that have embraced diversity and inclusion, the cooperation is  better, the teamwork is better, and the sense of shared purpose is stronger.

The result? Of the 14 distribution centers operated by Walgreens, the inclusion pilot has the highest productivity and the best economic performance of them all. As Mr. Lewis puts it, employing people with disabilities isn't just as good as your current workforce, "this is better." Walgreens is not a charity helping the poor. It is a highly competitive business that earns only 3 cents on the dollar.

But Walgreens has discovered a competitive advantage by tapping into what might be called a secret reservoir of talent, ability, passion, and commitment were it not so obviously sitting right in front of usthe whole time. "We know this works," Mr. Lewis says. "This is the best thing we have ever done."

Are you interested? My direct line is 206 378 6377. Let's talk.

Tom Everill is President & CEO of Northwest Center. Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org.

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