Skip to main content

Gaining a competitive advantage with disability inclusion initiatives

Organisational approaches to developing and implementing Diversity & Inclusion strategies often take a ‘broad brush’ approach to the subject, rather than making choices about ‘where to play’ that are aligned with business outcomes.

American case study, September 2014

What if organisations were more selective in their approach to Diversity and Inclusion? Would improvements in customer satisfaction and employee engagement be more fully realized?

In this article, Assistant Professor Kalargyrou (University of New Hampshire) reviews the perceived impact and benefits of disability-focused inclusion activities, specifically in the context of two companies from the high-turnover retail and hospitality sectors. Kalargyrou argues that despite some of the challenges (like equal productivity standards for all, and creating a safe workplace environment for people with a disability), the positive impacts on employee turnover, loyalty, attendance and psychological safety – both within the target employee group and beyond - are significant. For Walgreens, these initiatives have helped create a clear ‘competitive advantage’ and one which is recognized by Walgreens receipt of high profile awards.

Kalargyrou identified the organisational practices that helped maximize the full potential of individuals with disabilities at Walgreen, such as alliances with local disability partners; creating a supportive culture and safe work environment; investing in manager training and awareness about working with team members with disabilities; generating transparent discussion; and creating fair and equal opportunities for different roles, particularly ‘customer facing’ roles. 


Kalargyrou sought to identify the types and benefits of disability inclusion initiatives implemented by two US organisations in the retail and hospitality sector respectively: Walgreens and Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino, to evaluate their effectiveness. Kalargyrou also aimed to identify the challenges in successfully implementing a disability inclusion strategy.


Kalargyrou applied Grant’s (1991) resource based strategy, which theorises that companies can gain a competitive edge through harnessing unused resources. In the case of people with disabilities, the ‘competitive advantage’ was thought to include increased loyalty, decreased turnover, better attendance and improved psychological security and corporate reputation.

The study focused on two US organisations: Walgreens and Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino. Walgreens was selected for further analysis due to its recognized status as a pioneer in disability inclusion initiatives. Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino was excluded due to its early stage in the implementation process.

Structured interviews were conducted with select subjects: 13 at Walgreens, 9 Mohegan Sun. These subjects were chosen due to their recognition by the author as being well placed to discuss the disability strategies of their respective companies. The interview structure was pre-validated by persons identified by the author as disability experts.

Overall themes were identified in relation to the perceived benefits and challenges in relation to implementing disability inclusion initiatives. Qualitative interview responses and a literature review are integrated to support the findings. 


Since 2007 Walgreens has successfully implemented a disability inclusion strategy such that 40% of employees now have some form of disability. This strategy has resulted in increased loyalty (both employee and customer), lower employee turnover, better attendance and improved psychological safety and corporate reputation. For example, turnover at the Connecticut Distribution Centre was reduced to 15% (compared to 55% in other Distribution Centres, which is driven by the repetitive nature of the job). Increased loyalty of employees with a disability was identified not only by the reduced turnover but also by the increase in discretionary effort, with many employees turning up to work between 15-20 minutes before their shift, and reduced absenteeism. In relation to customer satisfaction, Walgreens’ customer satisfaction surveyed revealed that “There were a few negative responses, but hundreds of letters stating that customers will never shop anywhere but Walgreens”.

1. The importance of a supportive culture and promoting discussion and acceptance in the organisation

A supportive culture is critical to creating the conditions for people with and without disabilities to work side by side. Kalargyrou found that such a culture was facilitated in Walgreens by promoting discussion about the impact of disability in the workplace, addressing scepticism and disability stereotypes, as well as ensuring fairness in the conditions and support given to employees with a disability. She also found that leaders played a critical role in building a positive relationship amongst team members.

Walgreens sparked curiosity and encouraged discussion about their disability inclusion initiatives by encouraging employees to wear buttons on their uniforms saying “There is no them” which encouraged questions from customers about the initiative

2. Creating the conditions for employees with a disability to be successful

Accommodating employees with a disability requires an employer to make reasonable changes to enable the employee to work successfully and maintain safety, without creating an overly protective, ‘parental’ environment which may negatively impact productivity. Kalargyrou cited an example by Walgreen, namely their addition of technology to support visually-impaired employees working in call centres.

From a performance perspective, Kalargyrou found that holding all employees accountable to the same standards regardless of their level of (dis)ability was important in creating a sense of fairness among all employees

3. Training and support for the employees with a disability

Investing in time for training, even before hiring, demonstrates commitment to the initiative and care for the employee with a disability. Kalargyrou found that specific training initiatives in Walgreen included providing employees with a manual to help remind them about the steps of their daily work routine which facilitated efficiency and created confidence in completing new tasks

4. Ensuring leadership commitment to disability inclusion and building manager capability to inclusively lead employees with a disability

Walgreens’ interviewees observed that the productivity of employees with a disability had decreased when they were treated differently by management. Kalargyrou found that training and awareness building activities for all team members were important to “get past the fear of ‘what if’” and build awareness and confidence in managing team members with disabilities. For example, those with hearing impairments may communicate more bluntly and training may include helping managers understand communication styles of people with hearing disabilities. Kalargyrou also found that Walgreen introduced education activities that went beyond employees and included customers as well as the employee’s carers and families

5. Partnering with local agencies and disability groups

Kalargyrou found that Walgreens partnered with local disability organisations (such as agencies and disability groups) to access support such as information about the approaches and practices used with other corporate partners. Walgreens also accessed Government and tax incentives to provide additional support to their partnering relationships

6. Ensuring the right candidates are matched to the right job

Kalargyrou found that it was critical for Walgreen to ensure a fit between the abilities of the employee and the requirements of the specific job. Additionally, qualities such as personality, attitude and ability rather than disability were emphasised when considering workers with a disability for customer-facing, front of house roles. With this in mind, Walgreens ensured that their inclusion initiative was extended to front of house, and the initiative received positive feedback through on customer attitude surveys.


The study provides interesting ‘food for thought’ for leaders considering implementing a disability inclusion initiative as part of their overall D&I strategy. The example of Walgreens provides support for the concept that a focussed disability inclusion initiative can help can help create competitive advantage by ‘tapping into’ a previously underutilised talent pool, and addressing workforce challenges that are particularly relevant for high turnover, customer-facing industries such as retail and hospitality.

The examples outlined in this qualitative review of Walgreens’ practices challenge existing perceptions about disability management, such as having to restrict the roles available to employees with a disability, needing to make excessive workplace adjustments or significantly altering performance expectations. The research demonstrated that there are a number of simple approaches which can effectively support employees with a disability to be successful.

Perhaps the most interesting finding related to the positive impact Walgreens’ initiatives had on customers and the extended families of employees. Encouraging open, transparent dialogue about disability stereotypes, addressing scepticism directly and ensuring fairness is a topic of conversation not just for employees but for the broader stakeholders of the organisation, can have positive effects and in turn reinforce the organisational culture of inclusion for workers with disabilities.

To read the full article, see Kalargyrou, V. (2014) “Gaining a competitive advantage with disability inclusion initiatives” Journal of Human Resources in Hospitality and Tourism, Vol 13 pp. 120-145.