Q&A: Microsoft’s director of inclusive hiring and accessibility, Neil Barnett

Barnett spoke to HR Brew about the future of disability inclusion at work and the concept of “screening in”
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· 5 min read

Neil Barnett is director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at Microsoft, where he’s head of the company’s disability hiring strategy. Barnett, who started out at Microsoft 20 years ago in customer service, was integral to the recent rollout of the Neurodiversity Career Connector (NDCC). The site was unveiled in February, connecting neurodivergent talent with employers looking to recruit workers from this underrepresented community.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A lot of people may not be familiar with what an accessibility and inclusive hiring role entails. Can you tell me what your job is like? We look at accessibility and disability inclusion together, so I wear a couple hats; I spend a lot of time working on inclusive hiring for people with disabilities broadly, partnering with our talent teams and the business to look at how we find and create talent. And then also, what is that employee experience once hired? I also spend a lot of time working with other employers to help them think about [various disability topics, such as] starting a neurodiversity program, disability inclusion, or self-ID, topics that are important to them.

What’s your career been like since you first joined Microsoft? I’ve been with Microsoft for 20 years and working in the neurodiversity space for the last six years. It’s been a wonderful journey and eye-opening to see not just Microsoft but other employers starting to think about disability inclusion and trying to look at their landscape and understand what they can do, how to resource [disabled employees], how to partner with folks.

This is a space where it’s a journey and it’s good to learn and to reach out to others, and not have to try to do it all yourself. We quickly realized that there’s other employers looking for help, wanting to do some work here. And we brought them together to start the [neurodiversity] roundtable, which now has gone from the original six members to, now I think, we’re close to over 50 members.

How can companies make it clear that they’re a welcoming workplace that attracts disabled applicants and where those with invisible disabilities feel comfortable disclosing? When I talk to employers, it’s about building a culture of trust…[in part, through] looking internally first. Do you have an employee resource group for disability and then building it out? How are you working with the community, the local partners, the nonprofits, or advocacy groups? How are you getting out there in the community as a company and showing up?

How long has Microsoft’s disabled employee resource group been around? And how do you encourage employees to be involved? It’s one of our oldest. And what’s great is, it has grown so much over the last, you know, you know, five to 10 years, where I think there’s over 21 chapters globally. We have the disability ERG, but then we have vision, mobility, ALS, Tourette’s, neurodiversity, like subchapters. For folks that self-identify, they can choose what community they want to spend time in besides the broader community.

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Disabled people have twice the unemployment rate of their non-disabled peers. What are the hurdles to employment that they still face? Before the pandemic, I think one of the [hurdles] was just mobility and the ability to move to a geographic location for an employer. And now, hopefully, we’re seeing more jobs open to work wherever, from home or hybrid, and so I’m optimistic that that trend continues and it will open up more opportunities for folks where they don’t have to move [for a job].

At Microsoft, we talk about the concept of screening in versus screening out. You know, people have unconscious biases, and really getting recruiters and employers to screen in is really important. And then also, one of the things I’m pretty passionate about, as a career connector, is making sure that we [disabled] have representation in jobs of all different levels and different types of jobs.

Once a person is in a role, how can employers make the remote and in-office settings more accessible to people with all sorts of disabilities? Have conversations with your employees and ask what they need, whether it’s setting up an office space—like a physical office space for somebody, with ergonomics—to communication style. A lot of it has to do with the communication between the employee and the manager, and really trying to connect with folks and understand what people need to be as productive as possible, which is our goal.

What are you hoping to see for disability inclusion in the next few years? Over the next few years, we’re gonna see more and more employers thinking about accessibility as a culture, and really looking at accessibility. There’s the hiring piece there, but you have to think about the life cycle, like procurement, products, and governance.

There are a lot of people today at every company that have disabilities, and many don’t self-disclose or self-identify. I want to see how we can work on the employee experience to make sure that people are able to bring themselves and be as productive at work as everybody else, and create that culture of trust, which is so important. I’m optimistic that in the next few years, the wave of companies that are investing in accessibility will continue to grow exponentially.—KP

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