How Recruiters Can Address Ableism in Job Descriptions

Limiting requirements to essentials helps reduce ableism in job descriptions. Reasonable accommodations enable disabled candidates to do the job.

Ableism can sneak its way into job descriptions without hiring teams being aware of it, negatively impacting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. That’s because ableism is a subtle bias. And for most recruiters, it’s not always clear what language may deter qualified candidates (as opposed to gendered language, for example). Or how to address ableism in a statement about the company’s commitment to diversity.

How do you address ableism?

Addressing ableism comes down to two things. One, establishing what is an essential function for your job and what isn’t, and keeping requirements to the essentials. Two, providing reasonable accommodations that enable someone with a physical limitation to perform the job.

Establish what’s really essential to the job

Requirements are one area where job descriptions commonly go astray. It’s tempting to add some nice-to-haves to the requirements section of a job description. But preferred requirements can be problematic. Qualified job seekers may not apply because they assume the preferred qualifications are the ones they really need.

In fact, Datapeople research on the confidence gap shows that job ads that include
preferred qualifications actually see 40% smaller qualified candidate pools than job posts
with only must-have requirements. (To measure this, we looked at candidates who made it
to the phone screen stage.) Nice-to-haves also attract 40% smaller female applicant pools
than must-haves, illustrating their negative impact on top-of-funnel gender diversity.

Similarly, it’s important to keep an eye out for any requirement that may give disabled job seekers pause. Anything that isn’t truly essential to perform the job can be harmful. Of the endless possibilities, here are some examples:

“Requires the ability to sit for extended periods of time.”

While most office workers sit at a desk during the day, it’s not actually essential. In fact, many people stand while they’re working just to mitigate the negative impact of sitting all day. Whether they have a physical impairment, old injury, or anything else.

“Must be able to hear the telephone in a crowded office.”

If answering the phones is part of the job, then knowing when the phone is ringing is essential. However, that doesn’t mean someone needs to be able to hear a telephone ringing clearly in a crowded office. There are other ways to address that.

“Ability to drive a vehicle.”

Is the job a driving position? If not, the ability to drive a vehicle may be a convenient bonus, but it’s not essential to the job. 

“Must be able to lift 30 pounds.”

This is a common one…for office jobs, inexplicably. But how many office jobs really need someone to lift 30 pounds on a regular basis?

“Thrives in a bright, bustling, and energetic environment.”

This is a subtle one. It sounds reasonable on the surface, right? (Other than ‘bright, bustling, and energetic environment’ seeming like a euphemism for ‘noisy office.’) The problem is that kind of environment isn’t great for many people with unseen disabilities such as hearing loss or migraine headaches. 

Provide reasonable accommodations for the job

The reasonable accommodation clause in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) addresses ableism in the workplace. Employers subject to the ADA must provide accommodations for otherwise qualified candidates. The only restriction is that the accommodation has to be ‘reasonable,’ meaning it doesn’t cause undue hardship for the employer. Here are some reasonable accommodations for our ableism examples above:

“Requires the ability to sit for extended periods of time.”

Employees with back injuries or other physical conditions may need to alternate between sitting and standing. Meanwhile, sitting isn’t really essential to the actual work itself. Accommodations may include an adjustable height workstation or a standing height desk with an adjustable seat.

“Must be able to hear the telephone in a crowded office.”

This is a problem for deaf or hard-of-hearing candidates, but there are accommodations you can provide. Sound reduction material or active listening devices can reduce background noise. And Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) or telephone captioning services can provide realtime transcripts of speech. 

“Ability to drive a vehicle.”

Again, a driving job will─out of necessity─require the ability to drive a vehicle. But it’s not really necessary for common office jobs. (It’s convenient but not essential.) Also, there are any number of transportation alternatives available. They include taxis, Uber and Lyft, rail, metro, shuttles, and so on.

“Must be able to lift 30 pounds.”

Again, this one shows up in a lot of job descriptions where it really shouldn’t. A warehouse job? Possibly, yes. But office manager, event planner, or IT professional? Lifting ability may be helpful in those positions, but it’s not essential. Reasonable accommodations for those types of positions can include a mechanical lift or hand truck for moving objects. You can also just reduce the amount of weight.

“Thrives in a bright, bustling, and energetic environment.”

Candidates with unseen disabilities like loss of hearing or migraine headaches are entitled to reasonable accommodations. Those can include a separate workspace, telecommuting, flexible hours, or light and noise reduction. 

(Sidenote: A ‘bright, bustling, and energetic environment’ may also deter older workers. Sentiments like energy can signal a preference for younger candidates, which can be a form of ageism.)

Addressing ableism in recruiting

Ableism is a subtle bias that’s all too common in the requirements section of job descriptions. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Hiring teams can reduce or eliminate ableism by limiting requirements to just the essentials. If you need some inspiration, here’s an example of a job post from our customer Conagra with a perfect list of qualifications

And if a candidate does have a disability, employers can (and must, legally) provide reasonable accommodations to enable them to do the job. Datapeople helps identify unnecessary physical requirements and reduce ableism in your job descriptions.

Need more tips for systematically baking inclusivity and compliance into your hiring process? Our free playbook, The Talent Acquisition Mega Guide to Equitable Hiring in 2024, suggests a dozen best practices for making your recruiting efforts more fair (and efficient, too). From facilitating early alignment among hiring teams to exposing biases in your funnel through data, download now to learn how you can achieve hiring equity this year.

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