Aligning Accessibility with Strategic Goals: A Conversation with Ernst & Young’s Lori Golden

Lori Golden, Ernst & Young

Photo of Lori GoldenLori Golden is Ernst & Young’s abilities strategy leader, driving efforts to help enable EY people of all abilities do their best work. She consults on accommodations and career development issues for EY people working with differing abilities, and advises the firm's AccessAbilities professional resource network, which includes several hundred people from across the organization's geographies, ranks and functional groups, and the Abilities Champions network of leaders who advocate for abilities inclusiveness within their respective geographies and functional groups.  Lori leads initiatives to enhance ergonomics and accessibility in Ernst & Young offices, communications, meetings, trainings and technology and to educate Ernst & Young people on diverse abilities.  She is a member of the US Department of Labor's Circle of Champions, and serves on the boards of directors of the US Business Leadership Network, the largest employer-led disabilities organization, and TransCen, a non-profit helping young people with disabilities transition from school to competitive employment.  She's been with Ernst & Young 15 years and is a graduate of Harvard University.

Ernst & Young, LLP (EY) is a multinational professional services firm that provides assurance, tax, consulting, and advisory services to its clients. It employs more than 175,000 employees in more than 700 offices across the globe.

The company has earned great praise for its diversity and inclusion practices and was recently ranked number one on DiversityInc's list of top employers for people with disabilities. That commitment to inclusion extends to accessible workplace technology, and PEAT recently spoke with Lori B. Golden, the firm's abilities strategy leader, to learn more.

PEAT: Tell us about EY's approach to accessible technology.

GOLDEN: Our approach to accessibility relates both to the technology that we provide our own employees and the products we build for our customers. Many of the solutions we offer clients are powered by technology tools, so we believe it's important to ensure that they're accessible to our customers and their employees. All of these activities fall under a formal EY global accessibility initiative that is truly dynamic. Our activities and priorities change from year to year, because our level of accessibility will never be perfect. It's a moving target that evolves with the speed of technology.

Much of our accessibility work is guided by a framework created by the Business Disability Forum, a national employers' group based in the United Kingdom that is specifically focused on the topic of disability. We're proud that we were the first of the "Big Four" accounting firms to sign the Forum's Accessible Technology Charter, which sets out 10 commitments to good practice on information technology (IT) accessibility. As one of the first companies to sign, we've pledged to use that framework year after year to drive improvements. So that's part of our guiding philosophy, where accessibility is continually improved over time.

PEAT: Who is involved in your accessibility initiative?

GOLDEN: It's a small, collaborative team that spans several operational areas. We have top-level support from our Global CIO, and our Global IT and Enterprise Architecture division drives the effort. Other champions on the team include a few people in our diversity and inclusiveness space, like myself; some communications division staff; plus other technology team members. And in the U.S., we have an accessibility and assistive technology (AT) champion who serves as our "go-to" point of contact when we need a new technology researched, or when we need to come up with a technology-based work adjustment for an employee.

PEAT: How long have these efforts been underway? Did something prompt or inspire them?

GOLDEN: EY has been focused on accessible technology for about five years. Well in advance of signing the Accessible Technology Charter, we were developing and working with outside vendors to customize an accessibility training for all of our knowledge managers around the world. We really needed to get our staff educated on the issue of accessibility, so we made that training mandatory for certain managers.

One of the driving factors in our pursuing accessible technology was a call from one of our client-serving groups. One of their customers was asking about the accessibility of the tools EY was creating for them. So that inquiry led to some testing and initiated a whole effort to educate the EY technologists who create those tools. We proceeded to educate them on the business case for developing accessible products and why it's an important business differentiator for us. We also pointed out that we can use our own products as an opportunity to educate our own clients about the importance of accessible IT.

PEAT: Tell us more about this internal education.

GOLDEN: We have a host of educational materials that we use internally. For leadership, we have a full business case and roadmap that keeps our top executives informed about our efforts. But we also have a suite of training materials for our employees. Some are basic presentations about accessible technology, and others are full-fledged courses and webinars on accessibility best practices. We've even hosted "lunch and learn" sessions to help raise awareness.

PEAT: EY has shown industry-wide leadership on accessible technology. Can you tell us more about that?

GOLDEN: We've been quite active with the Business Disability Forum I mentioned earlier. We're active members of its Taskforce on Accessible Technology, and last September, we co-hosted an event at our Americas Headquarters in New York City in partnership with the Forum and with the National Business and Disability Council at The Viscardi Center. The event gathered about a half dozen chief information officers (CIOs) and other high-level technology leads. The CIO of Barclays led the discussion, and it was an outstanding dialogue about accessible technology issues facing global companies.

EY has also penned a bylined article for trade journals about accessible technology in the financial services industry. This article encourages other financial services firms to get on the accessible technology bandwagon, making a case for ensuring the accessibility of tools we sell to clients.

PEAT: Is accessibility a component of EY's procurement program?

GOLDEN: Definitely. About two years ago, we enhanced our procurement program to ensure that the technologies we buy meet specific accessibility requirements. This involved reviewing our global procurement processes and adding accessibility "check points" within them. Our requests for proposals (RFPs) include very specific mandates, and we perform acceptance testing once we receive technology products from vendors. All new solutions deployed as part of our projects are tested through our User Experience Architecture process.

PEAT: How does someone apply for a job at EY? Do you use online applications?

GOLDEN: We do. Our hiring process typically involves people going to our public website, EY.com, where they can browse our CAREERS pages and apply online. While the system is technically accessible, we recently became aware of some functionality issues that could be improved upon. So we are currently working to make it even more usable for users of diverse abilities. When the issues were brought to our attention, we asked a unit within our Shared Services group to conduct a full scale accessibility review. And based on their recommendations, we initiated improvements. Worth noting is that we use a third-party talent management system, so we've been working with the vendor to address some of the accessibility improvements we'd like to implement.

PEAT: How do you manage workplace accommodations at EY? Do you have a centralized accommodations fund?

GOLDEN: Well, at EY, we prefer the term, "work adjustment" over "accommodation." And while we know that centralized funds work well in many organizations, we don't have one because we haven't found the need for it. In our experience, cost is simply not a major barrier to helping our people be productive. Our staff is incredibly in-demand, so it's in our best interest to invest in them and give them the tools they need to do their job effectively. While I no longer work in the role, I served as the lead consultant on work adjustments for about six years. I reviewed 300 to 400 accommodation requests annually, and not once did I receive push-back on a work adjustment request for cost reasons.

Today, we have one individual who serves as the subject matter expert on work adjustments. When a request comes forward from an employee, that need gets taken to their assigned field HR representative. That representative completes a template and basic situation analysis, which then gets forwarded to a specialist who determines who needs to be brought into the discussion. The next step is a team effort where the employee making the request, the HR person, and other appropriate personnel meet to discuss the need and a game plan for solving it. More homework may need to be done, and our AT expert is sometimes called in to research solutions. So it's a collaborative process with no single gatekeeper who says "yay" or "nay."

When I was managing the process, I would often find that I would end up recommending many more solutions for the employee than what was originally requested. For instance, in one case, I had an individual who was hard of hearing request an amplification device for his telephone. And in addition to granting him that device, we helped his manager develop a new protocol for team meetings that made it easier for him to contribute in a meaningful way. So we like to look at these situations case-by-case in a creative way.

PEAT: To what extent is accessibility a part of EY's brand?

GOLDEN: We're proud of our commitment to accessibility, and we do consider it a growing part of our brand. But we're very careful about promoting our levels of accessibility because, again, we're not perfect. We consider accessibility a journey, and there will always be room for improvement. So we choose to be very transparent about our approach to the accessibility process. It's part of EY's commitment to continual improvement.

PEAT: What challenges have you faced in your inclusive technology practices?

GOLDEN: Well, one of the key challenges is the fact that we're a global company. Being multinational means we have to contend with several different accessibility standards and regulatory considerations. There are also some cultural factors that come into play, and one of those is around the use of disability-related language. Our colleagues in the U.K., for instance, tend not to use "person-first" language and instead use the term "disabled." So we've tried to educate our colleagues in other countries about our common practices in the U.S.

As an example, we formed several disability-specific groups on the social network, Yammer, to serve as places for our global employees to talk about key issues. One of our Yammer groups is driven by our AccessAbilities Professional Resource Network, so it covers any topic related to disability in the workplace. The other is specifically devoted to accessibility challenges and possible solutions. One issue discussed on Yammer recently was font size—how to enlarge as a default, encourage others to do the same, educate on magnification capabilities, etc.

Another key challenge, of course, is the lack of awareness of accessible technology's importance, and of best practices related to achieving universal design. So the internal training efforts I mentioned earlier have been key.

PEAT: What advice would you give to other companies embarking on an accessible technology program?

GOLDEN: First and foremost, I think that top leadership buy-in is critical. Companies need support from all levels of leadership in order to get both intellectual and financial support for accessibility efforts.

My other piece of advice relates to business goals. If you can tie accessible technology to organizational goals and strategies, it will be easier to gain support and buy-in from key players. As an example, EY has a new global business strategy called Vision 2020 that commits us to a goal of very high and rapid growth over the next five years. It challenges our firm to be a lead actor in building a better working world, where organizations and communities can function more effectively. Well, accessible technology aligns perfectly with those strategic goals. Finding alignment with your organization's strategic imperatives will make accessible technology efforts a no brainer.

On that same note, I recommend that companies not rely on statistics alone to build a business case for accessibility. It also has to be about performance, and how accessible technology can make your organization perform at its peak by helping every individual in the organization do his or her best work. Our business case centers around enabling all our people to do their best. Every middle manager can get behind that. And that's the strongest business case there is.

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