Can and able

The attrition-ridden retail sector is hiring disabled people — and finding better returns
Photo credit: Soumik Kar

In a country of a billion people, a vast majority of them youngsters, how hard can it be to find — and retain — qualified workers for modern retail outlets? Quite hard, as chains are increasingly finding out. Thanks to skyrocketing attrition figures, retailers are looking to ensure that resources spent in training employees translate into higher productivity and retention, instead of workers abandoning the brand for better opportunities in no time. And they are receiving help from an unexpected quarter — the persons with disability (PwD) talent pool. From retail chains such as Hypercity, Lifestyle, Croma, Shoppers Stop, Reliance and Tanishq, to quick-service restaurants (QSRs) such as KFC, Domino’s and Café Coffee Day, big brands have taken an inclusive turn when it comes to HR and, studies show, the returns have been well worth the change.

A recently released white paper by Accenture India, which surveyed 15 retail chains employing PwDs, observes that 70% of respondents in the $500-billion Indian retail sector said hiring PwDs reduced attrition rates by about half (3.3% attrition for PwDs compared with the industry standard of 6.8%). Apart from serving as an inspiration for other employees, PwDs also helped generate positive word of mouth for the organisation. Sixty per cent of the respondents noted that PwDs were more productive than other employees. Says Vineet Ahuja, principal, management consulting, Accenture India, “Apart from helping PwDs socially and financially, these hires help save money for retailers, as the government funds their EPS and ESI for the first three years.” For the company, this translates to about 8% savings on a monthly salary of ₹10,000 for every PwD employee. And with India having the world’s largest population of PwDs — 70 million — there is a growing pool for retailers to choose from.

Helping hand

For companies, a common worry while employing PwDs in customer-facing roles is people’s attitude towards disability. For instance, will some customers be impatient while interacting with hearing impaired employees? In such a case, would the company be willing to risk alienating these customers? But, with the rise of organisations that train and groom PwDs especially for the retail sector, the positives of hiring differently abled people far outweigh the negatives.

In the past few years, specialised institutions such as the Ability Foundation, Pankh, Accessibility, the Samarthanam Trust and Enable India have been working to identify, educate and train PwDs to bridge the gap between them and employers. Pankh, started in May 2011 by BS Nagesh, vice-chairman at Shoppers Stop, and Meera Shenoy, founder of skilling NGO Youth4Jobs, trains youth with hearing and locomotor disabilities specifically for roles in the retail sector. It sources its expertise from the Trust for Retailers & Retail Associates of India (Trrain), a retail group founded by Nagesh. Though most of these organisations run job fairs to bring PwDs to the notice of potential employers, many retailers also hire PwDs through referrals and walk-ins.

A case in point is the Café Coffee Day chain, which has been hiring PwDs for the past decade and even has an outlet in Sion, Mumbai, completely staffed by them. At CCD, HR policies for PwDs remain the same, as do growth prospects — some have gone on to become café managers. “Till date, we have recruited more than 150 PwDs — most of them hearing impaired. These ‘silent brewmasters’ tend to have a heightened sense of smell and vision, ensuring appealing presentation of our coffees through latte art. There is no difference in recruitment and training except for the presence of a sign language interpreter,” says Balachandar Natarajan, group director, human resources, Coffee Day Group. 

Natarajan says that apart from stringent quality control, CCD’s PwD workers are also committed and focused — leading to gains through productivity. “Some are so good at their brews that customers ask for them on repeat visits,” he adds. The role of brewmasters fits PwDs well as there is limited customer interaction and less scope for confusion in orders.   

A good fit

QSRs apart, PwDs are also finding a niche in the retail industry. Out of a possible 110 roles in retail, PwDs can be successfully assimilated into some 30 roles such as manning cash counters, loading, shelving and inventory management, data entry, backroom operations and as customer service associates. Most of these require minimal interaction with customers and less intervention from the employer. At clothing chain Lifestyle, there are no tags to distinguish PwDs and, in case a customer needs clarifications, other workers step in. “Some chains provide us with a list of personnel requirements and qualifications. We tailor the batches at Pankh accordingly, ensuring that every trainee graduates with a job,” says Nagesh.

For retailers, the investment in hiring PwDs is minimal. Most retail outlets already have disabled-friendly infrastructure, such as ramps and special restrooms, to make the store accessible for customers with locomotor disabilities. “As we match roles closely to an individual’s capability, workplace changes have been minimal.

For example, a cashier with a lower limb disability may need a stool or hydraulic chair. But that’s all,” says Mark Ashman, CEO, Hypercity. And the returns, in the form of brand loyalty, positive word of mouth among customers and a 50% reduction in attrition rates among recent hires more than make up for these alterations, says the Accenture report. Ashman can vouch for this. Hypercity, which began hiring PwDs two years ago, now has 35 employees and is looking to take this to 100 across its 15 stores. “We have seen tangible benefits from this move, not just as reduced employee turnover but also in terms of great customer service. Though it is tough to quantify productivity gains so soon, PwDs routinely surpass our own standards, winning ‘employee of the month’ and attendance awards,” he says. 

Changing tide

Of course, the going is not always that smooth, in customer reaction or in terms of retail chains’ own attitude towards disability. Pankh, which trains PwDs for posts at nearly 40 retail majors, has met with opposition from some chains, which do not understand disability and shy away from hiring PwDs, fearing it will be expensive. Most of them do not even have an inclusion policy. Shenoy cites the example of a qualified candidate who was rejected because he had only one hand, whereas the job required only the use of his eyes and voice. “So, we began doing sensitisation workshops with CEOs and supervisors. And slowly but steadily, each company came back to us for more candidates,” she adds.  


Of 15 retail chains, 60% found PwDs more productive than other workers

The lack of career progression options in the limited roles open to them also leads to PwDs getting disillusioned about their future prospects in the industry. It doesn’t help that only 1% of Indian PwDs actually have quality jobs. To make the recruitment process more rewarding for both companies and the disabled, Pankh and other NGOs are working to train the latter in varied roles across IT, hospitality and manufacturing sectors. “We aim to help rehabilitate 1,200 PwDs in the next 12 months, up from the 600 who graduated from our six centres in the past three years,” says Nagesh. 

Atul Sakhre is one such graduate. The 20-something from Jalna is hearing impaired and participated in Pankh’s residential programme, which includes English language, computers and retail skills training. Now working as a cashier at Lifestyle, which has a total of 65 PwD employees, Sakhre sportingly explains how his job has helped instil a sense of discipline within him and helped him gain the self-assurance to approach people confidently. Lifestyle plans to hire 1,000 PwDs going forward, says R Venkatramana, president, HR, at the Landmark Group, which owns Lifestyle. It may be a small start, but the spike in returns is at least making retailers sit up and take notice of the specially abled.


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