Unmasking the Pimpernel

Scarlet Pimpernel

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere!
Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?
Where is that damned elusive Pimpernel!

Many of you will recall these famous lines from the play and novel “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. You may remember the Scarlet Pimpernel worked in the dark; his identity was only known to a few loyal supporters under a cloak of secrecy. I’m struck by the similarities between the Pimpernel’s behaviour and the response of today’s senior business leaders towards disability. Business leaders who are themselves disabled keep quiet and this often leads to a feeling that it’s a taboo subject. Disability lurks in the shadows and those employees who have non-visible impairments only tell trusted colleagues or friends. Very Pimpernelesque!

A recent report Disability Confidence: The Business Leadership Imperative’ supported by EY (formerly Ernst & Young) has found that business leaders with disabilities are twice as likely to be underrepresented in companies globally: though 1 in 7 of the world’s population live with a disability, fewer than half this figure (1 in 14 or 7%) of board-level executives consider themselves to have a disability. Of these, 1 in 5 does not feel comfortable revealing their disability to colleagues – highlighting that disability continues to be a taboo subject for many of the world’s leading businesses.

Another report this time published by the Thomas Pocklington Trust found that disabled people are being marginalised, 26% of British people admitted that they avoided conversations with disabled people, just over half felt that they did not have much in common with disabled people and 30% were concerned about causing offence and 17% didn’t know what to talk about. Evidence perhaps that reinforces the notion that it is better to keep quiet about having a disability.

A worldwide call to action for business to recognise the value of disabled people found disability is still woefully absent from the majority of board-level discussions globally – with the majority (56%) of global senior executives rarely or never discussing disability on their leadership agendas.

Despite all this gloom and despond, the question of disability employment was for the first time part of the agenda for business leaders attending the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. Thought leaders from the world of disability were rightly excited. An enthusiastic panel of disability experts appeared on the platform and shared their thoughts and ideas about how global businesses could take advantage of the disabled talent that is just waiting to be unleashed. Sadly very few business leaders attended so the panel’s pearls of wisdom fell on empty seats. If we are to take any comfort from this sorry state of affairs it is that at least the subject was on the agenda.

There are other signs that some things might be changing.

A CEO of a large corporate experienced a severe mental illness and as a result, had to take time away from work to receive treatment. In my experience what usually happens next in these situations is a generous severance package is put together and the search begins for a replacement. Not in this case. The individual concerned made a full recovery and was supported back into their role. What makes this story even more unusual was that the CEO then talked openly and publicly about what had happened.

By so doing they offered reassurance to those in a similar position that it is possible to continue working in the most demanding roles after experiencing a serious mental health challenge. In this particular company, at least, mental illness is now openly discussed. Programmes are being developed to assist and there appears to be a steady change in the corporate culture which now encourages people with non-visible impairments to share their stories.

At last the Pimpernel has been brought into the light.

Author: PhilFriend

Dr Phil Friend (OBE FRSA) himself a wheelchair user, is acknowledged as the UK's foremost consultant on disability matters. A powerful and highly popular communicator, his company – Phil & Friends – provides consultancy to many of the country's best-known companies. In addition to his professional activities, he is also a respected champion for equal opportunities and diversity in general, where his special blend of humour and direct speaking has won admirers from around the world.

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