We've written a few times, with some admiration, about the efforts Walgreens has made to hire workers with a variety of disabilities for its distribution centers. Randy Lewis, vice president of supply chain management for the retailer, has not only been the driving force behind the initiative, he has been an evangelist on the concept, urging other companies to adopt their own versions of the Walgreens model.
That's a message that has gained a lot of traction over the last few years. One convert is Lowe's Companies, the home improvement retail giant, and it has a story to tell that is as compelling as Walgreens'.
Steve Szilagyi, senior vice president of distribution at Lowe's, told that story to attendees at the Warehousing Education and Research Council's (WERC) annual conference in Atlanta earlier this month, and he brought to his address the same enthusiasm and passion that Lewis has shown in his own presentations.
Lowe's has been hiring workers with disabilities at its 14 DCs around the country. While the numbers remain relatively small, the successes have been large. For example, Szilagyi told of one employee by the name of Chad. Chad is legally blind and as a result, had been unable to find work for a decade before Lowe's hired him. Today, Szilagyi says, Chad loads trailers at a Lowe's DC and loads them well enough that he trains other employees on how to pack trailers high and tight.
He told of another employee, a gruff senior worker, who raised his hand at a staff meeting and told the manager he had a question about the disabled employees. The manager, prepared for the worst, asked the employee to go ahead. He said, "When are we going to get some of those guys in our department? They work their [tails] off."
That last comment is particularly instructive. These initiatives are all about providing opportunities to people who may not fit the mold of typical workers, but who want to work hard and earn their keep. The workers with disabilities at Lowe's and Walgreens meet the same work standards and earn the same pay as other employees. It is a matter of seeking ways to ensure they succeed and at the same time contribute to the companies' goals.
Managers who make these efforts are likely to expand the way they look at all their workers and adapt the way they manage them. The fact is that every one of us has strengths and weaknesses, and good managers understand that and find ways to build on the strengths and help their staffs overcome their weaknesses.
By the way, kudos to Michael Mikitka, CEO of WERC, and his staff. They have provided a forum for Walgreens and Lowe's to tell the story of their successes and to spread the word about efforts that are at once noble and eminently practicable.