User1st’s Spotlight interviews highlight individuals who have advanced the rights, opportunities and boundaries of what was thought possible for individuals with disabilities.

This interview format offers insight about the lives, experiences and contributions of those who look to advance the presence of persons with disabilities in mainstream society.

This feature is on Randy Lewis. Randy Lewis is a former Walgreens senior executive, Peace Corps volunteer, Ernst and Young partner, author, and disability advocate. As Senior Vice President of Walgreens, he led the company’s logistics and supply chain divisions. Mr. Lewis pioneered a disability employment model in its distribution centers, which resulted in 10% of Walgreens’ workforce consisting of individuals with disabilities. Since retiring in 2013, Mr. Lewis has been developing the NOGWOG Disability Initiative, a low-cost and sustainable disability hiring model for employers to implement in the U.S. and abroad.

Mr. Lewis is the author of the book No Greatness Without Goodness.

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User1st: Hi Mr. Lewis, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you give us a little background on yourself?

Randy Lewis: Born in Wichita Falls, Texas – the second of two sons – to a railroad brakeman and an office secretary, I learned early the value of work and the importance of treating others as I wanted to be treated. With a grandfather and father who worked for the Ft. Worth & Denver Railroad, my brother and I were the first to attend college in our family.

I graduated from the University of Texas in the early 70s, earning both undergraduate degrees and an MBA. Between undergraduate and graduate school, I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru.

My wife, Kay, and I have three beautiful children – two girls and one boy. The girls live in Maine and Georgia respectively, happily employed. My son Austin who has autism lives with us and works full-time in a Meijer’s distribution center in Wisconsin, just over the state line.

User1st: What was your first job after graduation?

Randy Lewis: I joined Arthur Andersen & Co’s Consulting Division, subsequently known as Accenture. My expertise was the design and development of IT systems to facilitate company operations. I was lucky enough to travel around the world working with some of America’s largest companies. That experience, combined with my previous Peace Corps term, showed me of the incredible promise of technology to improve the lives of everyone.

User1st: How did you get started with Walgreens and what was your first role there?

Randy Lewis: As a Partner with Ernst & Young’s Consulting Division, I was fortunate to help direct the development of a revolutionary logistics project to drastically reduce Walgreens’ huge investment in inventory. The project required speeding the movement of product from worldwide sources to store shelves. As a consequence of working with the Walgreens executives, I was offered a position as Vice President of Logistics in 1992 and promoted in 1996 to Sr. Vice President – Supply Chain & Logistics reporting to the President.

User1st: What motivated you to get involved with disabilities-related issues?

Randy Lewis: I believe that each of us have the responsibility to help others.

As the father of a child with a disability, I learned first hand of challenges that such individuals face every day of their lives – the stereotypes, the fears, and the ostracism. Like every parent, I spent innumerable sleepless nights worrying about my son’s life when his mother and I were gone.

The advances in technology, while greatly improved the efficiency and quality of work, had also eliminated many of the historical physical barriers that people with disabilities (PWDs) face, I believed. However, the cultural barriers remained, continuing the discrimination against PWDs. My goal was to break down those barriers if I could.

User1st: You’re credited with creating what has been referred to as the “gold standard of disability hiring,” which is being used by organizations large and small across the world—can you give us a bit of background how you came up with the idea and some of the unique aspects it focuses on?

Randy Lewis: Our model was based upon the expectation that a PWD could, should, and would be as productive as any other Walgreens employee. We expected the same results and our compensation for all employees reflected that philosophy – equal pay for equal work. At the same time, the PWDs were totally integrated into our workforce.

We started with the premise that we had unintended biases in our thinking about people with disabilities and what kind of jobs would be appropriate. And those biases were also built into our recruiting, hiring and on-boarding processes. That is, there were invisible walls that otherwise capable people couldn’t get over. For instance, not having a continuous employment history would knock candidates out of contention. Or the interview with “what if” questions would be difficult for someone with autism.

The essential elements of the Walgreens model are:

  1. Same pay for same work, same performance standards, side-by-side in an inclusive environment.
  2. Specific intent vs “more qualified candidates”. We did not put the company Diversity & Inclusion statement in an ad hoping that PWDs would apply. We set a high goal to inspire us and demand our best to achieve: one of three hires would be a person with a disability. And then we put measures in places to find them and bring them on board.
  3. No assumptions about appropriate jobs for PWDs (e.g. “something repetitive”). We did not limit the type of jobs available to PWDs. We expected our non-profit partners to understand our jobs and then find the workforce that could do them.
  4. Side door. Rather than bring PWDs through the traditional hiring process (application, screen, interview), we brought them on as temp-to-hires with agency provided job coaches. As soon as they demonstrated they were likely to be successful, they were hired.
  5. Use of outside partners. We sought out partners who had the access and expertise to find, screen people with disabilities and provide the necessary on-boarding assistance throughout the temp-to-hire process.
  6. Willingness to modify existing practices. We were willing to modify policies and processes if they conflicted with the overreaching goal of workforce effectiveness and inclusion.

We were not surprised by that PWDs exceeded our expectations, but their impact upon our overall workforce was a surprise. Our culture significantly changed by eliminating “us” and “them” with managers becoming more people-focused, rather than fixated on process.

User1st: What’s a common misconception you’ve come across regarding individuals with disabilities within the workplace?

Randy Lewis: Employers are no different than the general public. They have the same stereotypes and fears as the average person on the street. They fear that their customers and employees will not accept someone who looks or speaks differently; they worry about possible costs or lawsuits that might accompany hiring a PWD. As a consequence, many are reluctant to take on what they perceive to be an unnecessary risk (hiring a PWD).

User1st: What do you think are the biggest barriers to the widespread adoption of disability employment initiatives?

Randy Lewis: Fear that it won’t work. The belief that people with disabilities are different from other people, specifically less capable, by employers and legislators. Employers often believe that employing PWDs will increase costs, create problems with their workforce, and expose their business to customer complaints and lawsuits.

User1st: Why is meaningful employment so important for individuals with disabilities?

Randy Lewis: For me, meaningful employment is the opportunity to be judged on one’s own merits without the stigma of group stereotypes, to be seen and treated as an individual. People with disabilities are too often viewed through a prism of bias. As a consequence, they are separated and treated differently than people without disability. A meaningful job is a chance to be accepted and treated as an individual, not a symbol. A job is more than a paycheck; it means friends, security, learning new things, feeling valued.

User1st: What is the best course of action to minimize stigma and misinformation regarding individuals with disabilities?

Randy Lewis: Exposure. People develop stereotypes from lack of experience. Every minority has been the subject of discrimination that is only eliminated when real experience proves that the stereotype is false. Social integration of PWDs in schools, neighborhoods, and the workplace breaks down barriers and fosters understanding of others that might be different than one’s self.

User1st: Can you tell us a bit about the NOGWOG Disability Initiative, your low-cost and sustainable disability-hiring model for employers?

Randy Lewis: The Disability Initiative was established to communicate the Walgreens experience to the business community at large, especially Fortune 500 companies and large employers. By spreading the message about the financial and cultural benefits available to a company willing to establish PWD employment programs, we expect to increase employment of PWDs and transform the workplace culture to benefit all employees. When invited, I work with those companies who are considering their own programs, detailing the lessons we learned and the processes we put into place so they can adapt it as needed and provide them the access to the resources and expertise needed to execute it successfully.

User1st: What role does technology have in the world of disability?

Randy Lewis: Technology has transformed the workplace for everyone, generally eliminating physically demanding, simple repetitive tasks, and low-value work. This transformation and the development of new tools have also enabled those who might have a physical or mental difference to perform side-by-side, meeting the same production standards, with those without a disability. As the costs of technology decreases, the opportunity for PWDs will undoubtedly grow.

User1st: How important is web accessibility within the disability community?

Randy Lewis: Simply stated, access to the web gives everyone – with or without disability – access to information that historically has been inaccessible. For those with a mobility disability, the web allows them to gain experiences and knowledge that might otherwise be unavailable. Furthermore, the web allows companies to separate work from a specific workplace location and work schedules. In effect, telecommuting allows anyone to work from anywhere without a noticeable difference in cycle time or quality. From that perspective, the web could be considered critical for PWDs.

At the same time, remote work is unlikely to improve social integration of PWDs into a work society unless the employer promotes the development of formal and informal relationships in the business network.

User1st: What are your thoughts on the future of disability and technology?

Randy Lewis: It is my hope that at sometime in the future, the term “disability” disappears with the recognition that each person is unique with different abilities and capabilities. I believe that technology in the workplace as well as in society at large will continue to level the playing field physically. Unfortunately, equality for all means that we as a society must drop our predisposition to judge people on appearances or inaccurate information. We need to remember and practice the Golden Rule.

User1st: What role do you think the government should have regarding employment opportunities for persons with disabilities?

Randy Lewis: I do not believe that Government can solve all of our problems but can play an important. I think that Government’s role is to eliminate discrimination against PWDs while providing educational, occupational, and social assistance. Specifically, I believe that the Government working with non-profits needs to offer employers the “offer they cannot refuse”: “If you will make available jobs, we will understand those jobs, find & screen people with disabilities that we believe will be successful, provide the necessary job coaches to make them successful on the job and continue to be available should problems arise later – all at no cost to you. ”

User1st: What do you consider your greatest professional accomplishment?

Randy Lewis: Proving that people with disabilities can perform in the workplace equally as well or better than people without disabilities. The result was without expensive accommodation or extra costs. We learned what was good for our employees with disabilities was good for our workforce in general.

In addition, our Walgreens experience has been reviewed and confirmed by business professionals and academicians. (For copies see nogwog.org) The process we developed can be transported to other work environments and companies to capture the same result.

Finally, my most satisfying experience has been the transformation of the workplace culture. In an era where the emphasis on the bottom line has created vast dissatisfaction among employees and distrust of company managements, we have employees and managers who are proud of their company and the jobs they do, who care about each other, and enjoy coming to work each day.

User1st: What is a disability-related goal you hope to see accomplished in the near future?

Randy Lewis: The use of the Walgreens experience as a major case study in all business schools around the world. Training the next generation’s leaders and managers in a more humanistic style will benefit everyone including PWDs.

User1st: What can the average person interested in promoting the rights of persons with disabilities do to help further the cause?

Randy Lewis: While the rights of PWDs generally are best protected and extended through political efforts, the average man or woman on the street can help the cause by welcoming the integration of PWDs into society as a whole. Encouraging your own children to interact with other children who have a disability, speaking out against the slurs and comments that demean those who are different, and correcting false stereotypes is every person’s responsibility. Encourage companies to employ PWDs by trading with those companies. As an employee, ask your company to review their hiring practices to include those who might not otherwise be considered. As an employer, broaden your employee candidate pool to include PWDs and eliminate any barriers that discriminates against those who might not speak or test well, but can do the job.

To learn more about Randy Lewis and his work, visit his website: http://www.jrandolphlewis.com/