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Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Kristin Ruff Of Goodwill Central Texas On How Businesses…

Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Kristin Ruff Of Goodwill Central Texas On How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have a Disability

An Interview With Eric Pines

Take the Vacation. Work is always there when you get back. Creating the memories with your family and giving yourself a “reset and refresh” are vital to your career. Be a role model for your team!

As we all know, over the past several years there has been a great deal of discussion about inclusion and diversity in the workplace. One aspect of inclusion that is not discussed enough, is how businesses can be inclusive of people with disabilities. We know that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. What exactly does this look like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about the “How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Are Disabled “.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Ruff.

Kristin Ruff has over 25 years of experience in senior leadership roles for companies such as Starbucks Coffee Company, Whole Foods Market, Main Event, Southwest Airlines, and several start-up organizations. Today, she serves as the Chief People & Culture Officer for Goodwill Central Texas, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit that provides free job placement services, career training, and education to thousands across Central Texas annually. In 2021, local Goodwill organizations across North America helped more than 140,000 persons with disabilities find employment. Goodwill Central Texas was also recognized as a We Hire Ability Employer by the Texas Workforce Commission in 2022 for its commitment to hiring and retaining individuals with disabilities.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?

I joined Goodwill Central Texas a little over a year ago as Chief People & Culture Officer. I started my HR career as a Benefits Administrator for Presbyterian Hospitals of Dallas and was immediately “hooked” on helping people. I quickly moved into HR leadership roles, working for great companies like Southwest Airlines, Blockbuster Video, Starbucks Coffee Company and Whole Foods Market. One thing that has remained constant throughout my career is my focus on people and my mission to help employees be the best version of themselves, regardless of their specific job in the company. In my mind, every employee is a key employee. It’s important that my employer have “people first” values and Goodwill Central Texas goes beyond anything I could have imagined. We not only provide opportunities for our Team Members to grow and learn, we also provide world-class leadership development for those who aspire to be leaders, fundamental work/life skills training, and a variety of different career certifications. Goodwill really does transform generations and makes a difference in the lives of so many.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

As a leader, I have learned to have a “developer” mindset. If the leader is making all the decisions, telling everyone where to go, and solving all the problems, the team will never become great decision makers, great leaders, or great problem solvers. I have found success by supporting my team, motivating the team to think outside-of-the-box, and encouraging them to be great problems solvers.

As a leader, I have learned being collaborative and inclusive is extremely important. People need to feel their opinions count and that they add value to the team. Different perspectives and experiences make the team stronger, more productive, and more engaged.

Being a great listener is also an important leadership trait. Active listening means removing distractions, asking questions, showing empathy and avoiding the tendency to give advice. Really “dialing in” to what your employee is communicating (or not communicating) is critical to your success as a leader.

Can you share a story about one of your greatest work related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?

I once took a job as Chief People Officer for a start-up company. The company was in an industry that I had never worked before, but I assumed my role would be similar to prior HR leadership roles of my career. After joining the company, I realized that profits would always come before people and in fact, people would never be considered a priority. It was the first time in my career where the values of my employer and my personal values were so vastly different. I tried to stick-it-out and influence change — after all, it was a start-up and our culture was being formed in that very moment, but unfortunately, it was not to be. After a year of struggling with this ethical dilemma, I decided to move on. I’m not a quitter, so actually making a decision to leave the company was a struggle. I kept thinking that I could make a difference, that I could convince the partners to put people first, but they had other priorities. I realized staying true to myself was much more important and I needed to prioritize myself. It’s always about the people!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m super excited to be building a world-class leadership development program at GCT. My team has spent countless hours evaluating how we can make a difference in building the capabilities of our leaders. Many of our leaders have never had leadership development. They aspire to be great leaders, but don’t know how to get started. Last year, we launched several fundamental leadership sessions and we will continue to build on this development for the next several years. Being able to make a difference in the lives of potential and current leaders is probably one of the highlights of my career; it’s definitely the most rewarding.

Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about inclusion. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Early in my career, I created the first Diversity committee for my company. I was about a year into my first HR Manager role and at that time, there wasn’t much emphasis placed on Diversity and Inclusion. In fact, the word “inclusion” was never used in the workplace. Back then, it was a Diversity committee of one (me) — focused primarily on delivering “How to be A Nice Human” training (Sensitivity Training) and required compliance reporting. I recall having to convince people that “this is just how I was raised,” was not a legitimate reason or free pass to treat people badly. I recall having to convince people that life’s circumstances did not mean that a person deserved to receive the inequities of the world and that they should be thankful for what they had! I recall being shocked — I thought it would easier. There wasn’t much talk about Diversity initiatives or promoting inclusion. Slowly, companies began seeing DE&I more as critical and the right thing to do, and less about it being a compliance thing. While we have a very long way to go, DE&I is no longer about facilitating a training class — it’s about establishing affinity groups, it’s modifying job descriptions to support DE&I, it’s changing hiring processes, it’s offering time off for employees to celebrate holidays that are important to them, it’s appreciating differences and understanding the value of different perspectives. It’s about making a meaningful change in how we do life.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?

Having an inclusive work culture reflects the people it serves, it fosters different ideas, brings a diverse range of skills, and appreciate different experiences. I believe when you achieve an inclusive work culture, you bring out the best in your employees and allow them to reach their full potential.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Can you please share a few examples?

Goodwill Central Texas is a second-chance employer. What this means is that we hire people that other companies often would not consider for employment. While we do provide opportunities to people with criminal records, we also provide opportunities for people who have mental or physical disabilities. People who have these types of challenges often have limited or no work experience or they don’t feel welcomed in a new job. Great people with great skills, but no one has given them a chance to shine. Great people with great skills, but no one helped them along the way. One of GCT’s best services is what we call “wrap-around” services. For us, it goes beyond providing an employee with a reasonable accommodation — it’s helping them find housing, it’s helping them pay for a bus pass until they get their first paycheck, it’s teaching them appropriate work behaviors such as, why it’s important to get to work on time. We literally wrap our arms around a new employee and help them find their way. This is what it looks like at Goodwill Central Texas.

Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples.

Being welcoming and inclusive starts prior to the first interaction with anyone. For potential new employees, it starts with the job posting. It’s important that companies really evaluate the requirements of every job and avoid using boilerplate templates to advertise their open jobs. When candidates come for their interview, the company has a second opportunity to demonstrate and validate an inclusive work environment. For customers, it’s about greeting them when they arrive, making the store accessible so they have an enjoyable shopping experience. Being welcoming and inclusive must be genuine.

Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?

We have a Team Member who is 32 years old and Goodwill hired this Team Member in his first job — ever. This Team Member struggles with a mental disability, but with good medical care and a great job, he has been able to overcome many of life’s challenges. He recently passed his 2-year anniversary and now believes he can do anything! Getting a job seemed like a pipe dream to this Team Member but getting one he loves — something he never thought possible. I truly believe that we believed in him before he believed in himself. Funny thing is, we never thought we could hire someone as amazing as this Team Member — now we believe too! That is Goodwill!

This is our signature question that we ask in many of our interviews. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Career”?

Take the Vacation. Work is always there when you get back. Creating the memories with your family and giving yourself a “reset and refresh” are vital to your career. Be a role model for your team!

“How Do You Eat an Elephant? One bite at a time!” You can’t achieve all of your goals in one day so give yourself some grace — one day at a time. Make a plan, work your plan, and adjust if necessary.

You can’t do it all and you will never know it all — hire and develop a great team. Treat your team with respect and dignity.

Celebrate the wins — even the tiny ones. Your team needs to know you see and appreciate their hard work, so celebrate!

Lead with compassion. A few kind words of encouragement or a simple “thank you, I appreciate you” can be extremely powerful.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

“Forget the Mistake. Remember the Lesson”. I often have to remind myself to stop searching for perfection; it doesn’t exist. Rather, search for opportunities to try new things, think of an idea out-of-the-box and then go with it. Life is all about the journey and the lessons. So, I try to live with purpose and enjoy the ride.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement of kindness and compassion, I truly believe great things would happen. The world seems so askew right now, but with kindness and compassion for our fellow humans, we could all make things better for all.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can visit GoodwillCentralTexas.org to learn more about the life-changing programs and services that we offer to our community.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.

While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.

Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Kristin Ruff Of Goodwill Central Texas On How Businesses… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.