Hiring and retaining talent in a startup culture

David C. Onley Initiative at Carleton University
Students and hiring managers meet to discuss opportunities informally at Career Networking Café sessions. (Photo by Mike Pender)
Editor's Note

This article, which is sponsored by the David C. Onley Initiative at Carleton University, originally appeared in the spring edition of OBJ's HR Update. Click here to read more practical workplace solutions for Ottawa employers.

The traditional startup environment, with its fast pace and long hours, can alienate employees living with visible and non-visible disabilities – robbing entrepreneurs of a rich source of untapped talent.

But when given the opportunity to discuss the assistive tools or resources that enable their professional success, these individuals can be powerful assets for startups looking to scale up. 

Early-stage companies are uniquely positioned to establish positive business practices from day one, says Julie Caldwell, assistant director of the David C. Onley Initiative (DCOI) at Carleton University. This can create a strong foundation for a sustainable business.

“What's appealing for startups is the chance to increase awareness about creating accessible and inclusive work environments, as they are able to design their HR practices and their culture from the ground up,” she says. 

David C. Onley Initiative
Graduating students from regional post secondary institutions participate in an interactive learning workshop. (Photo by Mike Pender)

With the assistance and collaboration of organizations such as the DCOI, United Way East Ontario’s EARN and Ottawa Employment Hub, startups have access to an array of advice and tools to create accessible workplaces for all employees, setting them up for future success.

A new approach to hiring

Finding the right employees was a top priority for Wassim Najibeddine, chief operating officer at PharmaXilia, a local pharmaceutical and supplements startup that worked closely with the team at DCOI to identify employee candidates. 

“We are open to giving every qualified person a chance and seeing how they perform in a particular position, regardless of their physical ability,” he says. He notes that, in his experience, many startups intend to be inclusive in their hiring practices, but often lack the time or knowledge to shift their approach.

This is where the DCOI came in to work with PharmaXilia.

One of the biggest recruitment lessons for startups is that accessibility starts with the job description, says Caldwell.

Simply adjusting the wording to highlight the work environment, how employees are supported, as well as the tools and resources available, can let potential employees know that your workplace is accessible.

It’s also beneficial to mention if the workplace has a unique physical setup common to startup companies such as standup desks, open concept floor plans or virtual work, which will further help job seekers know if they are a good fit.

Retaining the talent 

Another common issue affecting startups is talent attrition, which can severely hinder growth. 

Ensuring new hires grow into long-term employees is a priority for Najibeddine, who understands the challenge of building a new team.

“We work with a diverse global community, and we're interested in reflecting that diversity and maintaining that within our company,” he says. “That’s one of our main goals with our new prospects.” 

Creating an atmosphere in which employees – regardless of their ability – feel comfortable asking for help on a project or discussing their accommodation needs is paramount in ensuring that goal, says Caldwell, adding that focusing on accessibility rather than disability can be a great first step.

There are also certain misconceptions employers should be aware of when hiring a person with a disability, such as the assumption that everyone with a disability has the same needs. For example, it can elevate workplace stress for an employee with a non-visible disability who feels their personal requirements aren’t as important to their employer as, say, an employee who needs accommodations for mobility issues.

While it may be tempting to rely solely on various guidelines and tools on how to support an employee with a disability, that’s only part of the puzzle. Caldwell emphasizes that it’s essential to speak to your staff directly and ask how you, as an employer, can support them.

“It’s really important to understand the needs of your employee regardless of their ability,” she adds. “Find out what access to tools and resources they require to succeed on the job – not just at the beginning of their employment, but on a continuing basis.”

Make your startup welcoming for everyone

  • Remove physical barriers: Ensure there are no boxes, furniture or obstacles impeding mobility. 
  • Talk about your desired business culture: Make it known that all employees are accepted. Offer them tools, resources and training related to their abilities and performance needs.
  • Go easy on the lights: People with vision loss may be sensitive to lighting, so aim for softer lights in some areas.