Building an Inclusive Workforce, One Job at a Time
If you walk into a UNIQLO store anywhere in Singapore, you are received with a chirpy, familiar sound bite from a nearby employee.
The friendly “Welcome to UNIQLO!” greetings are emblematic of the brand’s culture of hospitality. But this culture isn’t simply a matter of paying lip-service to patrons. It’s part of a larger philosophy of inclusivity that extends to its hiring practices.
“Unlocking the Power of Clothing” is the company’s mission statement, and a key facet of that is to create opportunities for people who may be overlooked in society, including Persons with Intellectual Disabilities (PWIDs). As Mr James Lee, HR Director of UNIQLO Singapore expresses: “As a global retailer, we are in a unique position to use our business to change lives.”
Creating an Inclusive Workplace
UNIQLO Singapore currently employs 30 PWIDs nationwide, and Mr Lee states that their goal is to have PWIDs work in every one of their stores across the globe.
Johannes Cheong is one such employee. The 27-year-old has been working at UNIQLO’s Suntec City outlet as a retail associate for over nine years, having graduated from the MINDS Hi-Job! Job Placement Job Support Programme (JPJS) in 2013. Through his day-to-day work packing, labelling, and displaying clothes on the shopfront, Johannes has become more independent and confident across many aspects of his life.
“Being able to work improves my self-esteem and makes me happy,” Johannes quips. “It gives me a sense of dignity. I feel very happy to be employed [and to] receive income.”
But the road to building a truly inclusive workplace doesn’t stop at the hiring process. All employees should be given adequate support, a conducive environment to succeed at work, and a fair opportunity at a rewarding career path — one that matches their unique skills and capabilities.
Providing Equal Opportunities for All
To achieve this, Mr Lee shares that the UNIQLO team works very closely with MINDS Hi-Job! coaches to understand each PWID employee’s profile and preferred way of communication. “As with all employees, we focus on each person’s strengths and interests during training, and assign tasks in stores to maximise these capabilities,” Mr Lee adds.
All PWID staff at UNIQLO are included in the company’s regular evaluation process, with Store Managers pushing them up for promotions and career advancement based on their work performance. This is part and parcel of providing fair opportunities for PWIDs to build careers with the global lifestyle brand.
Take Florence Hui, a graduate from a fellow social service agency serving persons with special needs.
Recognising the 22-year-old’s aptitude and enthusiasm at work, her employers at UNIQLO’s [email protected] outlet pushed for her to take on more responsibilities and expand her skillset. She was tasked with fitting room duties and topping up stocks on the sales floor above initial duties that involved cleaning and preparing stocks.
Naturally, the new tasks came with an increase in customer interaction, which can initially be difficult for PWIDs. The point however isn’t to shy away from such challenges but to provide the support they need to overcome them.
Supporting PWIDs in their Everyday Work
To help PWIDs like Florence, Mr Lee explains that UNIQLO employees are paired in a buddy system in which PWID staff work alongside a fellow colleague as they adapt to new environments. Additionally, Job Coaches are present to offer support for new PWID employees and provide counselling where necessary. Assigned tasks may also be broken down into simpler steps to ease them in.
Both Johannes and Florence expressed a deep appreciation for their approachable Job Coaches and work buddies, with the latter emphasising how important it is to have people they can seek help from and confide in at the workplace. “Knowing I have the support of my colleagues whenever I face difficulties at work keeps me motivated and really boosts my confidence,” she says.
A large part of building such bonds between co-workers is to create organic opportunities for conversations. “This can take a formal structure, like town hall meetings,” Mr Lee notes, “but don’t underestimate the authenticity of a casual setting like company-wide lunches, volunteer days, or cross-team social activities.”
He is also quick to point out that employers should not underestimate the potential of PWID staff.
Overcoming Stigma and Misconceptions
“There is a misconception that employers need to simplify job scopes drastically or make major changes to work processes to cater to PWID employees.” Mr Lee continues, “while they may need a little more time to get used to their scope of work, we have observed that they are very meticulous in their work once they are familiar with the assigned tasks.”
That earnest fervour to perform well at work is merely one example of the impact PWIDs can bring to an organisation. Their passion for productivity encourages fellow employees, and the relationships built while working together add a layer of compassion to overall team dynamics.
“With the hiring of PWIDs, we can see that team members have grown to be more patient in communicating with each other and empathetic towards the needs of others,” Mr Lee observes, adding that these perceivably intangible factors do in fact translate to a more customer-centric approach at their stores.
The Importance of Inclusive Hiring Practices
All businesses, no matter the size, permeate modern society and have the capacity to create positive change. The efforts businesses like UNIQLO have undertaken to integrate PWIDs into society are slowly but surely bearing fruit in more ways than one.
Last year, UNIQLO became part of The Valuable 500, a global initiative that pledges to put disability inclusion on board corporate agendas. With more work opportunities available across sectors, PWIDs are empowered to trust their abilities to live independently while expanding and strengthening their social support systems.
With more PWIDs work in customer-facing roles, the day-to-day interactions allow them to engage with people beyond their immediate social circles. At the other end of these interactions, social stigmas that may persist amongst the public regarding PWIDs are also slowly chipped away. Their presence in our shared spaces also inspires people from other disadvantaged groups that a life without limits is very much possible.
“We believe that all individuals, PWIDs or not, can contribute to society in a meaningful way,” Mr Lee reiterates.
While it is this ethos of inclusion and community that makes the soul of an organisation, it is the relentless commitment to take action that makes a lasting difference.
As MINDS celebrates its 60th anniversary, we recognise the effort and commitment from organisations to build inclusive workplaces that enable individuals with special needs to thrive, and we invite more organisations to create inclusive hiring and employment practises for PWIDs. Learn more about SG Enable’s opportunities for inclusive hiring here.
The MINDS Hi-Job! Job Placement Job Support Programme empowers individuals with special needs through providing fulfilling employment and training opportunities. For adults with special needs and industry partners who are interested to enrol in this programme, learn more here.