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On Hiring Marginalised Folk

Posted at 15:00 on 19 Jan 2021 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: business ethics, business strategy, equality, leadership, oppression, social justice, work

I saw a Tweet recently that caught my eye:

"One day I want to run a business big enough to hire disabled/marginalized folks. I want to create a business model designed to be flexible enough to accommodate accessibility needs, schedules, etc [...] So many disabled folks could work if they really got the accommodations they actually needed. And we should be able to get that without all the animosity and disdain that usually comes from employers when asking to be accommodated."

- @hedonish 

“Hey!”, I thought. “That’s my business!”

I’m not an employer, exactly; everyone who works “for” me is actually freelance, and I’m their client as much as their boss. But the point stands: all the contractors I regularly collaborate with belong to groups which are often discriminated again.

This decision wasn’t a deliberate strategy; more of a gut preference. One way or another the team I’ve assembled is a diverse one, a majority of us are LGBTQ, and there's a range of mental and physical disabilities represented, as well as a wide variety of neurodiversities. Not all of us are able to maintain full-time jobs for various reasons, and I suspect none of us thrive in a traditional office environment. We all have different preferences, different needs and different working hours. Now that I’ve tried running things like this, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

For one thing, I include myself in this. I have yet to pursue a formal diagnosis (there’s sort of an apocalypse on, and all that), but I've known for a few years now that I'm ADHD, and the more I learn about it, the more I suspect I may also be autistic. It would explain a lot about my history, my childhood, my personality, and the things I struggle with on a daily basis. I live in a creative and stressful tension between my desire for structure and clarity, and my impulsive enthusiasms, the ideas and fascinations that come to me in a flash and can carry me away for days if I let them. I feel lucky to have put together a group of people who can roll with those two contradictory modes, who can handle new ideas and sudden changes of plan while also managing to maintain an ongoing schedule. Some of our best work has come out of being able to maintain flexibility within that framework.

This flexibility obviously doesn’t only work one way. I’m proud to provide a working environment in which we can accommodate each other’s needs. Sometimes people need to take a mental health day or even a mental health week, and they can’t always give a lot of notice when that happens. Chronic health conditions can fluctuate at unexpected times, and make working difficult with little forewarning. Not to mention the constraints of parenting and childcare. I make an effort to regularly check in with everyone on the team to find out where they’re at, what they need and how they’re feeling about the work. It’s a bit like what I do when I’m in charge on set; as the “director” it’s my job to make sure that everyone is as safe and happy as possible, and that we’re all on the same page about what’s going on.

I guess it’s kind of natural that I’d run my business this way. I’m neurodivergent myself, my mental health hasn’t always been exactly pristine, and I’ve never thrived on doing things the way the proverbial “everyone else” does them. But what it’s taught me is that almost any organisation could benefit from adopting some of these practices - if only they’d see past their preconceived ideas of what a working environment should be like.

We rarely have face-to-face meetings at a preassigned time; almost all of our communication takes place over Asana and Slack. This means we can accommodate everyone’s working hours no matter what they are - one person can start at 6am, another can stick with a standard 9-5 structure, and our night owls can turn things in at three in the morning, all without anyone being either judged or inconvenienced. 

This in turn has been good for my own working practices, as it encourages me to plan ahead - something that reduces my stress levels significantly. It’s also helped me to get better at documenting processes and condensing things into clear requests, as I know I won’t always be available to answer questions at the precise time someone needs to ask them. I’ve been more organised and better able to maintain my own boundaries as a result.

We’re trying to establish a working culture in which we can be honest about how we’re feeling, where we’re at and what’s going on for us. This not cultivates respect and empathy, and helps me stay connected to my collaborators as human beings, it also means I can plan around life stuff when it comes up. It means that if someone meets an unexpected trigger (which is always a possibility, given that I’m making kinky porn and writing about deeply emotive politics) they can just tell me it’s not the right day for them to be working on that content, or that they need someone else to take over on a particular project so they can step away. The work still gets done, I’m not left in the dark as to why something is delayed, and nobody is putting themselves through unnecessary stress.

Making a conscious effort to hire people who are on benefits, too sick to get a "normal" job, and from groups often discriminated against in the workplace - such as trans people, migrants and people of colour - isn't just a positive social contribution. It's better for my business too. 

Should you find yourself in a position to hire people or subcontract work, this approach has a lot to recommend it. Working with marginalised, neurodiverse and disabled people hasn’t just been “as good as” for me: it’s been better. The resulting working culture of adaptability and empathy means that my own needs get accommodated just as I accommodate theirs, and I’m able to access the considerable talents and creativity of people who might otherwise be underestimated and overlooked. Some of those skills are more valuable now than ever before - many of my team have been freelance and working from home for some time, something they have in common with a lot of disabled and otherwise underprivileged folk, and that means they were skilled in remote working, self-motivation and doing everything online long before COVID-19 made those things a necessity for a huge chunk of the working population.

And hey, if you’re interested, my own team of neurodiverse queers is very much for hire! Check out their websites and hit them up if you have anything needing doing - I wholeheartedly recommend each and every one of them.
    •    Eilidh, admin support, content management and social media - Sex Worker Assistant
    •    Abi Brown, freelance writer - Telling You Stories 
    •    DJ Singh, marketing and analytics - Rainbow Dragon Digital


In fact, this is an even more honest way of interaction between the employer and the employee than the one that is considered to be correct.

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