August 14, 2023

Disabled at the Front: Dealing with Customer Service Personnel with Disabilities


Sarah was always aware that doing what she loves was always going to come with some challenges. Serving customers and making them happy was all she had always wanted to do. But she knew that was not going to be easy. For instance, she knows she is not as agile as her other colleagues. Having a physical impairment that limits her movement, Sarah falls into the category of a person living with a disability.

For someone who had problems with her knees ever since she could recall, she has never been oblivious to the fact that she was not going to have it easy in life. She has seen her fair share of orthopaedic surgeons and physical therapists. Over the years, she has gotten used to getting by with her knee braces, although she still has to grapple with the occasional terribly painful episodes. However, in spite of all her physical challenges, Sarah knows, deep down, that she has all it takes to be a customer service superstar.

Unfortunately for Sarah, many of the organisations she has applied to for employment as a front office personnel seem not too eager to give her a chance. This is not too surprising since there is evidence that many business owners and managers have apprehensions about hiring persons with disabilities. Sarah is therefore not alone in her predicament. According to a 2010 publication by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], “working-age people with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed than people without disabilities, globally.”

That same publication stated that even for those who manage to get some sort of employment, “the global employment rate for people with disabilities was only 44% compared with the 75% rate for people without disabilities.” In short, less than 5 out of 10 disabled people got work compared to more than 7 out of 10 abled-bodied people. And if figures are anything to go by, it seems the trend of discrimination towards employees with disabilities will only seem to grow.

One of the reasons found for the less than impressive employment rates of person with disabilities was a concern of business owners, managers and leaders about the cost of accommodating such individuals. When businesses factor in the special arrangements they might have to make just to ensure that the disabled employee is comfortable, it tends to put these businesses off. The mere thought of having to spend just a little extra to accommodate a person with disability can put many business owners and managers off. We are all well aware of the many challenges the physically challenged face sometimes just to access certain buildings. There are still many buildings that have no access ramps to allow individuals in wheelchairs to gain easy access into the facility.

Another challenge employees with disabilities have, especially for those who have to deal with customers, is that customer evaluations of their performance also comes to play. In other words, customer service employees with disabilities are fighting on two fronts. They are having to deal with their managers’ negative evaluations while they are also having to deal with the negative perceptions of their customers. It has been found that these perceptions mainly stem from negative stereotypes.

There are studies that show that customers have lower evaluations for service employees with disabilities than they do for service employees without disabilities. This was, at least, the verdict of a study published in an October 2019 online edition of the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly. The title of the article was “Customer Service Evaluations of Employees with Disabilities: The Roles of Perceived Competence and Service Failure”. It must however be noted that this particular study concentrated on customer evaluation of service employees with disabilities within the hospitality industry. This is an important observation because it is entirely possible that this conclusion might not hold true in other industries.

Workplace discrimination is one big challenge individuals living with disabilities face. According to the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly research article, one of the reasons for the discrimination against customer service employees with disabilities is that there is a perception that persons with disabilities were less competent than their able-bodied colleagues.

It is as if people are unable to distinguish between the several different types of disabilities around. It is as if our minds are unable to tell the difference between someone in a wheelchair and someone suffering from some sort of mental disorders. Even if the disability is a missing limb, we seem to equate that to a lowering of the one’s mental faculties. It looks like we see all disabled people as people with mental difficulties. This is most unfortunate.

In the case of Sarah, her physical disability was not going to have any negative effect on her performance as a front line employee. She had the skills, attitude and emotional intelligence to handle the job. Her natural disposition was just perfect for the job. It was therefore unfortunate that she was being evaluated as if the job she had been applying for involved more physical exertion than emotional exertion.

In discriminating against employees with disabilities, it has also been found that customers also use the characteristics of the job to evaluate the performance of the employee in question. For instance, employees with mobility-type disabilities are thought to be incompetent when it comes to jobs that require some sort of physical ability. Jobs which require some mental work would be perceived as out of the range of people suffering some sort of mental disability.

The Cornell Hospitality Quarterly study went further to claim that this discrimination became more apparent when there is a service failure. In other words, when things do not go according to plan, customers were more likely to blame the issue on the disabled customer service employee. It is as if the service failure is seen as a justification of the perceived low level of the disabled employee’s competence. This can be so unfair on the employee. Even in cases where the fault is the customer’s, it is easier to blame the disabled employee.

Thankfully, there are some organisations that have no problems with hiring and placing person with disabilities at the front line. One of such businesses in Ghana is Masco Foods, the franchise holders for the KFC brand in the country. According to sources within the organisation, the company consciously reserves a certain number of job places for people with disabilities. It forms part of the organisation’s corporate social responsibility. There are many other businesses around the country that deliberately employ the disabled. These organisations might know something their competitors do not know. Because there is proof that there are benefits to having persons with disabilities within the workforce.

One of the key implications of having frontline employees with disabilities, according to a 2023 study, was that it gave the organisation a higher corporate reputation in the eyes of customers. Published in the February 2023 edition of the Academy of Management Journal, the study was titled “Receiving Service from a Person with a Disability: Stereotypes, Perceptions of Corporate Social Responsibility, and the Opportunity for Increased Corporate Reputation.” The researchers used employees with two kinds of disabilities—one with a hearing disability and another in a wheelchair. Carried out among customers of a large supermarket chain in Lithuania, the study found that customers saw the employment of persons with disabilities as an organisation living up to its corporate social responsibility. Customers respect such organisations—organisations that seem to be giving back to society. With that increase in respect comes an increase in the reputation of the organisation in the eyes of customers.

The on-going discussion proves that although managers might have issues with placing persons with disabilities at the front line, there is also some benefit that can come out of such an initiative. Much of the fears of managers regarding customers’ perceptions of being served by people with disabilities might actually be unfounded.

However, in the case where customers truly have these warped perceptions about customer-handling employees, it behoves on the business to do something about that. Perceptions can be changed and thus, it is important that the business tries to do that. For instance, customers who have a problem being served by employees with disabilities must be spoken to and educated on the falsehood of their perceptions. Some customers are just ignorant of issues like that and therefore the business must see it as a responsibility to educate such customers.

Additionally, when customers discriminate against these employees, it is important that the business stands by its employees. Under no circumstance should a business throw a disabled employee in favour of a customer. Doing something like that would be wrong on so many fronts.

It is important to note that the employment and deployment of persons with disabilities is not to be done because it makes the organisation look good. It must be done because it is just the right thing to do. Ethically, it cannot be right that anyone would be excluded from society just because the one is challenged in one way or another. It has been proven, time without number, that disability is not inability. Maybe, just maybe, your customer service superstar might be that disabled person you are keeping from serving customers.

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