How Leading With Empathy Supports People With Disabilities

In recognition of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, celebrated this month, we share perspectives from Workmates who are members of our People with Disabilities Employee Belonging Council. They discuss their diverse community, the unique challenges of caring for someone with a disability, and the support they get from each other.

Every December, the United Nations supports a special day observed around the globe: International Day of Persons with Disabilities. In this VIBE Voices story, we share the perspectives of two Workmates from our People with Disabilities (PwD) Employee Belonging Council (EBC).

One striking thing about PwD is how impressively vast and diverse the group is. “There are so many walks of life under this umbrella,” said Jessica Mendiola, global integrated marketing manager at Workday and global liaison lead for PwD. “Some of us have autism, or speech issues, or visual impairments. Some of us use a wheelchair. We face different challenges, and we all come together regularly to talk about whatever’s on our minds, and there's always a different perspective.” In addition to PwD, Jessica serves as global liaison lead for our Caregivers of People with Special Needs (CoPS) EBC. Before joining Workday, Jessica contemplated a career with the FBI (she speaks three languages and used to understand two additional ones). 

We also met with Cole Hasserjian, compliance engagement strategy senior associate and the co-lead for events of the PwD EBC in North America. Cole is a recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who started his career as an intern at a global professional services organization prior to becoming a Workmate. Read on for excerpts from our interviews with them.

Cole, as someone just starting your career, did you find that your disability affected your job search? Did a mentor help you navigate any obstacles you encountered?

Cole: I’m open about my autism diagnosis, and it’s prominent on my resume—I've been involved with autism organizations, and I was part of neurodiversity initiatives at Cal and with other organizations. 

I can use my story to illustrate how I can grow within a new role, but I had a few interview experiences where I had the impression that if I hadn’t disclosed my diagnosis, I probably would've gotten the job, because my resume was good enough to go to the next round or obtain that offer. So there are some of those barriers that still exist. 

“Our EBC sponsors are willing to take an important message to our people leaders, which is essentially, ‘Not everybody's journey is the same, and we need to have grace for that.’"


Jessica Mendiola Global Integrated Marketing Manager and Global Liaison Lead for the People with Disabilities and Caregivers of People with Special Needs Employee Belonging Councils Workday

And when it comes to mentorship, that's an interesting question, because I feel there's a lack of mentorship in what some refer to as invisible disabilities. I had a lot more support being someone who identifies as a Black professional. Other Black professionals would take me under their wing and invite me to networking sessions and client support networks for the Black community. So luckily I had those resources being part of the Black community, but I did not feel I had the same support for my neurodiversity. That's one of the reasons why I joined the PwD group—to help Workday build a support network that is by and for neurodivergent professionals. 

What support do you get from the Workday PwD group?

Cole: Workday’s PwD group is led by folks with disabilities. That’s unique, because most disability groups I’ve encountered are led by folks with the best of intentions, but they’re often not representative of their members. One of the major reasons I accepted an offer from Workday, what sold me, was that the leadership within this EBC actually reflects its members. That gave me confidence. I felt that there was an opportunity for me to help out and share my perspective. And my perspective is valued here at Workday and within this EBC.

Jessica: I got involved as a parent of somebody with disabilities—that was the big catalyst. We have the Families @ Workday EBC, but I never felt like a lot of it applied to me, because I had a daughter who was very delayed. And I was introduced to two other women who also had children with disabilities. We put our heads together and decided we wanted to start the Caregivers of People with Special Needs group, because while we were a cousin to the PwD group and to the Families group, our journey as parents was very different, and it’s easy to feel alone. We might have a thousand different doctors’ appointments. I have to take my daughter to physical therapy or speech therapy or occupational therapy, or I have to step away from work because she has to have her teeth cleaned, and it takes longer than a typical dentist appointment.

You can have feelings of guilt when you have to leave work every week for the same appointment for your child. Not everybody's going to have a doctor's appointment every week. My passion for Workday started there, because we can really help provide a soft place to land. Providing that space was really important to those of us who launched CoPS. 

It’s also important to provide a place for people to ask questions, and in the case of PwD, that’s true whether they disclose their disability at work or not. We’ve had strong executive support—EBC sponsors who are willing to take an important message to our people leaders, which is essentially, "Not everybody's journey is the same, and we need to have grace for that."

Could you talk a bit about how having a safe space for people with disabilities is important to a feeling of belonging at Workday?

Cole: As a young professional, having the opportunity to talk to folks with experience, who are also neurodiverse, that's unique. Having those conversations really does help. You can ask certain questions you might not feel comfortable asking another Workmate. About accommodations, for example: How do you request them? How does your manager deal with your accommodation? For me, I like to have a stress ball at my desk. And I sometimes have repetitive movements, called stimming, that help me keep calm, and I can ask Workmates what they do to help get through the day. 

That helps, because growing up, I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with an autistic professional. I didn’t have an example of how they navigate through the corporate world. Being a young professional, you need mentorship, because I still don't know a lot. It doesn't even have to be a formal mentorship. Just knowing that there's this group and folks you can talk to who've been through something similar, or someone like Jessica who's been such an advocate for herself, could really make it easier to navigate the workplace.

Jessica: The story I always come back to is when we were starting the CoPS group. We had a meetup, back when we could meet in person, and somebody came who had just received a diagnosis for her child. She never said a word in our entire meetup, and she cried the entire time. We'd all been there, and it was the most heartbreaking thing but also a beautiful thing, because she came to the next meeting, and we felt we were helping her get through the steps. There's grief, but there's celebration because you have a child. And you love that child, and they're no less than what you thought that they were. It’s just the journey's going to be different. In that moment, we were just so grateful to have created this space for people.

“I know what it’s like when people put inaccurate labels on you, so I try even harder to be kind and respectful to everyone.”

Cole Hasserjian Compliance Engagement Strategy Senior Associate and Co-lead, Events, North America, for the People with Disabilities Employee Belonging Council Workday

All our stories are a little bit different. But all of us in CoPS are caregivers trying to do the right thing by our kids. And with this EBC, we're going to help Workday be the best it can be, and we're going to make people want to come to Workday. We're going to make senior leaders be better people, with more empathy and understanding. If Cole, as a newer employee, is already having a great experience at Workday, my goal is to make him have an ever greater experience.

How can companies be more inclusive of people with disabilities? What can we do to help influence the culture to be inclusive?

Cole: Companies can offer more forums to have these conversations. I think that's the ultimate goal. There’s basic empathy if you gain context about people's situations and have an open line of communication. That just takes a little bit of time. 

Everyone has their own different strategies. But again, it’s important to talk about those strategies and how best to cultivate ways to better connect with your team, especially for those of us with less work experience. I also think companies feel more inclusive when they have more representation across many aspects of diversity, including race, gender, and people with disabilities.

Jessica: Inviting people to the table is also really important. And for managers, it's about getting involved. I would challenge managers to join the PwD conversations. We want to encourage allies to join, because those are people who are trying to learn. Maybe you know somebody at home or a friend's child or there’s that person who may not hold your eye contact and you think, "What is the deal?" 

Joining some of these calls will open people's eyes. Perhaps even more so for managers, because managers have a duty to us as individual contributors to allow us to come as we are. 

How has your experience as a person with a disability, or a person caring for someone with a disability, shaped your perspective?

Cole: One of the stereotypes I hear about autistic folks is we lack empathy. I think it's the complete opposite. When you're in my position, one, being a person of color, and two, being autistic, I think you're usually in the outgroup. And I think that gives you empathy and a lot more runway for understanding folks with struggles. I’ve been called the outcast or the weirdo, and I know what it’s like when people put inaccurate labels on you, so I try even harder to be kind and respectful to everyone.

Jessica: I think the biggest thing for me is that my daughter makes me a better person. She doesn’t really understand that she has cognitive disabilities. She’s seven. And it can be hard to explain her disability to kids who are her age—or younger. But it would be great to explain it to other parents who can then put their children in situations with people who are different than they are and teach them empathy.

My daughter makes me a better human, and I want everybody to be better, more empathetic humans.

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