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Friday, March 21, 2014

Walgreen proves the business case for hiring 'disabled' staff

In 2006 Randy Lewis changed the way Walgreen Co. does business.

As senior vice-president of supply chain and logistics for the U.S. drug store chain, Lewis oversaw 10,000 employees and up to a thousand new hires each year. As a father to Austin, who has autism, he knew the difference a job could make in the lives of young people with disabilities.

In No Greatness Without Goodness Lewis explains how he brought his corporate and personal worlds together, transforming Walgreen's distribution centres into inclusive workplaces where people with all kinds of physical and mental disabilities, many deemed unemployable, work to the same standards and earn the same pay as other staff.

The company's new mindset is proclaimed in a giant sign when you enter the building with the words "No 'them'" in a circle and a line drawn through it.

BLOOM: What is the message of your new book?

Randy Lewis: It’s the story of how I got involved with disability hiring, why we did it as a company and how we were able to go from essentially zero to 10 per cent of the workforce in five years.

The reason I wrote it was one, so that people could understand that people with disabilities could work effectively and have a positive impact on the work environment. It wasn’t just as good, it was better.

And two, that we all tend to underestimate our power to effect change and that everyone, I think, at their core really does want to change the world. As leaders, if we can tap into that in ourselves, that we want to do good things, we can unleash that in others.

BLOOM: How did you get the idea to hire people with disabilities?

Randy Lewis: I have a son with autism and so watching him grow up, I shared the same dream of other parents like me—to live one day longer than my child because you wonder what will happen to them after you’re gone. We’d go to these IEP conferences at school and I realized disability plays no favourites. It strikes traditional and non-traditional families, rich and poor. I got to thinking: 'What is going to happen to all of these other kids and parents?' If we’re hiring over here at Walgreen and there’s a need over there, why can’t we bring those two worlds together?

BLOOM: How did you sell the idea to the company?

Randy Lewis:
I said we’re not going to lower any of our performance standards, we’re a business, not a charity, and if it didn’t work out, we wouldn’t do it. What I discovered as an employer was we had lots of invisible walls around us—systems that we thought were giving us the best performers, but weren’t.

We were screening out a whole class of people who would never get through the Internet job application, or interview well, or look and talk like everyone else, or have all of their limbs. That was a huge turning point.

BLOOM: How did you get buy-in from existing staff?

Randy Lewis: We'd had some experience with enclaves, where we contract with another company and they bring people in with disabilities, typically to do janitorial or ancillary tasks, and they supervise them. All our employees liked it, management liked it. Here we are helping these people, but they weren't integrated.

One day a team member told the group about how important this work was to her and she showed a picture of these people with disabilities. They were all wearing the same shirts and she was in the picture with them, also wearing the same shirt. She made a point of telling me she was not 'one of them,' but their sponsor. I knew that was a problem. We had not embraced people with disabilities as equals.

After that we hired a young man with Asperger's to work on the line at one of our centres and he did a fantastic job. We had two women he worked with and I talked to them and asked 'How are things working with Chuck? Are people accepting him?' They said: 'If they don't, they have to deal with us,' and I thought now we're making progress.

Each of our buildings has different coloured plastic totes for shipping, and in this building they were grey. A couple of times every day a purple tote would get mixed up and come down the line and Chuck loved those purple totes. He would dance every time he saw one. At one point we said 'Is that appropriate behaviour for the workplace?' But then we got to thinking 'Why not?' We'd rather have him dancing than complaining.

So we started learning about inclusion and we were about to build a new generation of building. We had experience with the enclaves, we knew Chuck could work on the line, so I thought maybe this is time. Why don't we develop our automation with people with disabilities in mind.

BLOOM: How did you decide on what proportion of staff would have disabilities?

Randy Lewis: When it came time to plan a new-generation distribution centre 10 years ago to handle our growing business, I believed it was an opportunity to 'go big' with disability hiring in an intentional manner. We were designing new equipment and we thought let's make it effective for people with disabilities if we can do that with negligible cost.

We talked to a fellow who worked with people with autism. We knew we couldn't afford a lot of job coaches and we asked him how many typically abled people would we initially need to provide support to a person with autism, thinking the person with autism might be the most difficult to employ. He said maybe two people. So we decided one-third of the workforce is going to be a person with a disability.

No one had ever done this anywhere in the world in a production environment. If we don't get orders shipped accurately we're not in business. This was a clear and elevating goal. We would hire 200 people with disabilities out of 600 to staff this new-generation centre we were building in South Carolina.

Two years later we opened up a similar centre with the same goals near Hartford, Conn.

BLOOM: What did you learn?

Randy Lewis: We discovered that people with disabilities could do all of the jobs, not just the jobs we'd designed the equipment in mind for. The automation we put in helped everyone, not just the people with disabilities. We brought in managers from our other centres to show them that it wasn't about the automation. That they didn't have to have specialized equipment that we had in the new centre to be successful at this. They liked what they saw and were ready to try it out in their less automated buildings. And I asked them to set a clear and elevating goal and they said let's hire 1,000 people by the year 2010.

BLOOM: Why were the staff with disabilities so effective?

Randy Lewis: We underestimated them, it's as simple as that. When we measure performance, the people with disabilities perform as well statistically as the others. The standard is not that they have to be Superman or Jackie Robinson. But the employees with disabilities also have fewer accidents, better retention, less absenteeism and they make people better managers and create greater teamwork.

BLOOM: So it sounds like overall there were definite advantages.

Randy Lewis: Yes.

BLOOM: Did the culture in these environments change for the better.

Randy Lewis: I asked people in our South Carolina and Connecticut centres who'd worked in other buildings without disability hiring, 'How did you rank engagement when you were there?' And they'd say probably a seven or eight out of 10. Then I asked them to compare that level of engagement with what they saw in the building they were in now. They said the eight would drop to a two.

'We didn't know what engagement was until we got here,' they said. 'We didn't know what teamwork was like.'

If you ask managers in the buildings with a large percentage of people with disabilities what is their number one job, they'll say 'My job is to make everybody who works for me successful.' When you have that kind of attitude the workforce notices and they respond to it.

BLOOM: How has the experience created better managers?

Randy Lewis: We've learned to 'manage in the grey' and by that I mean we want to manage with values or principles, not rules. People like rules, bosses like rules because they're easier to administer. For some of our supervisors that was uncomfortable at first, but I said if it's just about administering rules I can get my own children to come in and run this place. We asked people to look at the purpose of rules and apply what were the principles of the rule, rather than the rule itself. This caused us to look at a lot of our policies.

We changed the way we hire and recruit because a lot of people can't get through the Internet application system or need help applying. If there's a discipline problem, we let the employee bring in a parent or advocate because we want to make sure they understand and we understand.

Sometimes we make exceptions to a rule. For example, I remember a situation where a young man became frustrated because he had to work overtime and he was going to miss a doctor's appointment. He punched a computer screen and broke it.

The rule is that if you break something intentionally, you're fired forever and forever banned from the company. We got to thinking: 'Is that a good rule? Is there ever an exception?' Even Aristotle way back when noted that human behaviour is not mathematics, it's not finite reasoning, there are exceptions to all things.

So we went back and had to look at that policy as it applied to all of our staff. We needed a framework. And it was: 'Is there an extenuating circumstance? Is there a reason to expect the person won't do it again? And what's the likelihood that they'll be able to find employment elsewhere?' We don't decide in favour of the employee in every case, but we did in that one.

Our managers say this idea of managing in the grey is the most powerful thing that's made them better managers.

BLOOM: It sounds like they feel empowered in a new way.

Randy Lewis: The change is huge. They talk about managing with love, a word we've never used in the workplace.

A few years back we had the president of a Best Buy division come through for a tour and afterwards he sat down with our managers to ask questions. 'I've heard all the good things about this place,' he said. 'What's a bad day like?'

And essentially the supervisors said: 'A bad day is when I come in with my own problems and I'm not focused on my staff and the work. You know that saying 'You come home and you want to kick the dog?' If I do that at work my staff will either shut down or start acting out or they'll confront me and tell me why I'm being a jerk. Or they'll come up and give me a hug. One thing I've learned is that when I'm here, it's about them, not me.'

BLOOM: How costly is it to train people with disabilities?

Randy Lewis: It was negligible. What we did was go out in the community and get partners. We demanded that disability agencies in the community form a coalition and work together with us. We built a training room in a community-rented space and for a year the community screened and trained people and taught them how to use our equipment. Now we have training rooms within our buildings.

Typically a new employee has 60 days' probation and by 60 days they have to be up to full productivity. We anticipated that people with disabilities might need longer because out training might not be right for everyone. So we created an alternative pipeline into the company. If you have a disability and want to come in that route you are paid as a temporary employee, with no benefits, and you can stay in that group as long as you're progressing towards full productivity. It might take 60 days or less, some may take 90. One person took a year. Once they're at full productivity they're hired as permanent staff.

BLOOM: In a news story I saw you talked about an accommodation where you name, as well as number, stations. Can you explain that?

Randy Lewis: For someone who has difficulty with numbers and directions, we've named stations as a group of animals in a zoo. So we might say 'You'll be working at rhinoceros in zoo.' We also have a race-cart alley and a hamburger alley. So perhaps you'll be working at the hot dog station in hamburger alley. These are simple things that help some people. Most of our accommodations cost less than $20 and most are paper and pencil.

BLOOM: What's been the greatest challenge in implementing this model?

Randy Lewis: The biggest impediment to overcome is fear.

BLOOM: How did you manage that?

Randy Lewis: To outsiders in the organization I said: 'We're here to make money, we're here to make it work. If people with disabilities can't to the job, they won't be working here.'

To those who reported to me I said 'Our standard is to give it our very best, so if it doesn't work, we can tell the world this is not possible. Give it your very best, and if it doesn't work, we know no one else could have done it better than us.' That was very freeing for everyone.

We also said 'We don't have all the answers. There are going to be problems we can't anticipate, so let's not worry about those. If you anticipate a problem, let's figure out a way around it. And you can't bring a What if? unless you've thought of a way around it. Most of the problems we anticipated never happened.'

BLOOM: What was a problem you didn't anticipate?

Randy Lewis: We thought all of our systems were great for getting us the best employees. We thought we'd build this and as soon as we put an ad in the paper all of the people with disabilities would come flocking to us. We didn't think about the fact that this is a group that doesn't read the paper every morning looking for places to work. It's not a group that trusts employers. It's a group that may have difficulty in even getting to the job site for the interview. We didn't realize we had so many invisible walls.

It took some work for us to say gee whiz, we're going to have to do something different. We worked with community agencies. We've had to teach them to understand our jobs and send us people that they believe will be successful.

BLOOM: What are common myths about hiring people with disabilities?

Randy Lewis: That they can't do the job, it's going to cost me more to make them effective and when they fail I will get punished.

BLOOM: Has Walgreen hired people who were considered unemployable?

Randy Lewis: Lots of them. For most of them it's their first job.

BLOOM: What does the average person get paid?

Randy Lewis: They make close to US$30,000 on the production line.

BLOOM: I heard that in a couple of your distribution centres as many as half of all employees have disabilities.

Randy Lewis: In our original centre in South Carolina, 40 per cent have disabilities. In our newer centre in Connecticut, 50 per cent have disabilities. In 2011 we achieved our goal of having 10 per cent of the workforce made up by people with disabilities. Before I retired 14 months ago, the centre managers from across the country met and set a new goal to reach 20 per cent.

BLOOM: What kind of impact do these jobs have on people with disabilities?

Randy Lewis: For many a world of possibility, opportunity and responsibility is opened to them for the first time. They have relationships they've never had before. They have money they never had before. And there are some unanticipated consequences, too. For instance, some become like teenagers: they stay up too late at night playing video games because they can afford them now. It's a whole village of people working together that's expanded everyone's way of thinking.

BLOOM: What advice would you give a parent who's concerned that their child won't be able to get a job due to disabilities?

Randy Lewis: The words we hear as parents of a child with a disability are 'always' and 'never.' We have found that that's not necessarily true. I was in Canada yesterday with a new organization of employers called SensAbility. They're going to look for employers in Canada who will help spread this model. Ontario's Lieutenant Governor David Onley has taken employers to visit our site and is very active in helping Canada advance on this front. So I'm very hopeful about Canada.

BLOOM: What about your son. What are his dreams?

Randy Lewis: I wish I knew. I wish he could tell me. He's 25 and he works about 12 hours a week in a Walgreens store. There's a Michigan company building a distribution centre about an hour from here in Chicago and the owner has talked about how one day he wants Austin to be their employee. So we're going to go up and see it.

BLOOM: What impact do you hope your book will have?

Randy Lewis: I hope people read it and believe it's possible and try it. There are enough models out there to do it. We make only three cents on the dollar, so our margins are razor thin. If Walgreen could do it—and we didn't have any models to work from—anyone can do it.


  1. WOW, how inspiring, Louise! Thank you for a wonderful article. I am going to share with a UK (but Canadian) friend who is founder and CEO of The Employers' Forum on Disability - and of course, I'll share on my Caregivers' Living Room Facebook page too. All parents want their child with a disability to have hope of employment. This man has given that to a whole generation of families of and business owners.

  2. This is making me so hopeful for the future! If more companies follow Walgreen's example then our kids will be truly integrated into the world.

  3. Amazing story, thanks Louise

  4. This is inspiring information. One of my son's is an assistant manager of a Walgreen's store where we live. I think they are a great company.

  5. My 18yo daughter with moderate cerebral palsy participates in a work study program at our local Walgreens. She does cleaning and straightening tasks for a few hours one day a week. She absolutely loves it!! It's made a huge difference in her life. Bravo Walgreens!!
    (Visiting from Love That Max LinkUp!)