Arkansas Pilots State as a Model Employer Policies within Individual State Agencies

By Sean Slone, Senior Policy Analyst

State as a Model Employer (SAME) initiatives refer to policies and practices states engage in to increase the recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement of people with disabilities within state government. SAME efforts allow states to advance their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals and serve as examples for private sector employers to follow. While 20 states and Washington D.C. have adopted SAME policies statewide, other states have focused on efforts within specific state agencies. One such state is Arkansas.

As a 2020 equal employment opportunity report to the state legislature demonstrates, Arkansas state government and multiple state agencies have supported SAME policies and concepts, although no formal statewide efforts have yet emerged. Nevertheless, the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) moved forward in 2022 to pursue a SAME effort on its own. According to Jonathan Taylor, Executive Director of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, DFA has established an initial goal that 10% of its employees will be people with disabilities and is reevaluating and modifying its hiring processes to meet that goal. If successful, the department’s efforts could be something other agencies emulate, including those that have struggled to implement such policies in the past.

Strategies to Increase Employment of People with Disabilities within DFA

DFA’s Diversity and Inclusion team has agreed to four specific steps designed to make hiring processes more inclusive and help DFA reach its 10% goal.

(1) Accessible Job Descriptions

DFA is conducting a full accessibility review of job descriptions. This includes looking at language in entry-level state government job descriptions that indicate a successful candidate must have a certain number of years of job experience, which might dissuade literal thinkers – including individuals on the autism spectrum – from applying. DFA will instead adjust job descriptions to consider and give weight to academic and volunteer experience.

To be inclusive, job descriptions can also clearly indicate the essential functions, knowledge and skills, and physical requirements of a job, to help people with disabilities understand whether they are able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodations. The Job Accommodation Network provides additional strategies for developing an inclusive job description.

(2) Inclusive Interview Questions and Evaluations

Arkansas officials convened a working group to talk about how traditional interview questions and evaluation criteria can put people with disabilities at a disadvantage.

For example, questions about abstract concepts can present challenges for literal thinkers, including those with autism spectrum disorder. The Job Accommodation Network instead recommends that questions focus on the applicant’s specific abilities, achievements, and qualities.

Similarly, traditional evaluation criteria may discriminate against individuals with certain disabilities. For example, traditional methods of assessing an applicant’s communication skills – such as based on smoothness of speech – may discriminate against people with speech impediments or ADHD.

While each office within DFA will continue to use its own interview questions, a guide on inclusive interviewing will be provided to department hiring managers. This can address the way interview questions are worded and how applicants are evaluated, to avoid discriminating against job applicants with disabilities.

(3) Hiring Etiquette Training for Staff

Arkansas Rehabilitation Services and Disability Rights Arkansas will conduct a disability etiquette training with the Diversity and Inclusion team at DFA, then expand to other agencies. These trainings will allow hiring managers, supervisors and others to learn about and incorporate policies and procedures to create a more inclusive application, interview and hiring process for individuals with disabilities. Arkansas will incorporate the perspectives of people with disabilities to inform the trainings.

Etiquette trainings can help remove bias in the interview process, by helping staff understand how to interpret certain behaviors. “Most interviewers have been conditioned that if you don’t make eye contact, you’re clearly not interested,” says Taylor. “People with autism often don’t make eye contact. Eye contact is an old paradigm; the new paradigm is [figuring out what] connectivity looks like.”

(4) Preferential Interviewing

DFA uses a point scale in the interview process, and currently veterans receive “bonus points.” Applicants with disclosed disabilities would also receive bonus points under the plan. Preferred interviewing for applicants who disclose a disability is already part of the application process in Arkansas, but the new point scale will allow the department to further prioritize individuals with disabilities in the hiring process.

According to Taylor, DFA’s inclusive hiring initiatives will benefit the department with reduced attrition; a dedicated staffing pipeline; and improved diversity, equity, and inclusion within the agency. In addition, the policies being piloted to hire people with disabilities can be applied to other underrepresented groups. Finally, the initiatives would standardize onboarding processes and establish best practices for all department agencies.

Considerations for States

Other states have taken similar approaches to develop inclusive and accessible hiring practices and to generally become model employers of people with disabilities.

Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota, and New Jersey have established and pursued goals for increasing the number of people with disabilities employed in state government.

Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Utah, and Virginia have established hiring preferences for people with disabilities.

Kentucky, Maryland,and Vermont have adopted a mandatory interview option for qualified individuals with disabilities.

Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio have enacted legislation to provide disability training to public and private sector employers.

For more on state as a model employer policies and practices, The Council of State Governments and the State Exchange on Employment and Disability (SEED) have published a report titled “The State as a Model Employer of People with Disabilities: Policies and Practices for State Leaders,” which includes policy options and state examples from around the country. The SEED website includes a policy curriculum page on SAME.

In addition, states are invited to participate in a new community of practice (CoP) focused on State as a Model Employer initiatives. The CoP meets monthly and includes participants from vocational rehabilitation and other agencies across multiple states, including Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and South Carolina. SAME leaders have expressed a desire to learn best practices from other states in order to better serve individuals with disabilities. The CoP facilitates this exchange, and brings in subject matter experts, to help each state become an employer of choice for individuals with disabilities. For more information about this initiative, contact [email protected].