White text on red background: "Disability Employment Awareness Month," next to a photo of a smiling man driving a forklift and wearing personal protective equipment.

Different, Not Less: Employment for All Abilities

For Disability Employment Awareness Month, we spoke with retired Walgreens SVP Randy Lewis about how he transformed the company into an inclusive workplace for thousands of people with disabilities, and why he believes other companies should, too.

Randy Lewis says he was conscripted to be a champion for people with disabilities when his son, Austin, was born with autism.

"The moment they get the news, every parent starts thinking, 'What are we going to do? What's going to happen when we're gone?'" Lewis said.

One of the many worries that weighed on Lewis's mind was who was going to support Austin financially. He and his wife shared the grim hope that they would outlive their son by at least one day.

When Austin started an early childhood development program at age 3, Lewis and his wife began to realize that there were a lot of families like theirs — some with children who had even greater challenges.

Headshot of Randy Lewis
Randy Lewis, retired SVP of Walgreens and disability employment advocate

That got Lewis thinking: If adults with disabilities could get jobs, they might have a better chance at independence and security. He just had to figure out how to create opportunities for them to get hired.

"Given my position of authority and responsibility, I thought, if I can't do something about this, who would?" Lewis said.

Early Attempts

Lewis had plenty of energy, good intentions and the green light from his boss, the Walgreens CEO. What he didn't have was a solid plan.

"The first thing I did was make an impassioned speech to my direct reports," he said. His words were well-received, but no one knew what to do next.

They tried working with schools to create programs that would prepare students for jobs, but each school system had different requirements, and Walgreens was on the hook for transportation.

"It worked on a small scale in some places, but I wouldn't call it a success," Lewis said.

Their next effort was to start a program at a new distribution center, because, as Lewis pointed out, it was easier to start something new at a new location. Working through a staffing agency specializing in employees with disabilities, Walgreens hired contract staff for jobs that weren't time critical, like tagging products and janitorial work.

"Everyone loved how dedicated these employees were, but they still weren't our employees, and they weren't getting paid the same," Lewis said. "It wasn't inclusive."

Peer Coaching Model

Over time, many of the contract workers continued to demonstrate they could do more than the assignments they'd been given. They just needed support from someone who knew the job.

Lewis worked with his team to develop an all-volunteer peer coaching model. By making it voluntary, they gave peer coaches the freedom to figure out how to coach their teammates. They hoped by not requiring people to be peer coaches and not prescribing how peer coaching should be done, they would reduce employees' and managers' fears of making mistakes. Both the coaches and contract workers loved the program.

At one point in the early days of the effort, Lewis visited a new center in Dallas. A woman walked up to him and showed him a picture of her team and told him how much she was enjoying the program. She paused before clarifying: "Oh, I'm not one of them," she told him. "I'm their supervisor."

A light went on for Lewis. The employees with disabilities still weren't full members of the team: "It was 'us' and 'them,'" he said. "It wasn't going to work until they became part of 'us.' We needed to go bigger."

Same Pay, Same Standards

Lewis realized the contract workers needed a path to full employment at the same wage and the same productivity standards as any member of the team. Not creating special rules and special standards for people with disabilities was important.

"If you come in and you can't do as much as other people on the team, people won't expect as much, and then you become a mascot," Lewis said. "We wanted to tear down that paradigm, that people with disabilities are lesser. Different, not less."

He acknowledges that not everyone could do every job, but people with disabilities could do a lot more than managers had expected — a lesson Lewis had been learning throughout his son's life.

Gaining Momentum

Lewis's team continued working with employment agencies to bring in workers and train them in paid internships. If they were successful, Walgreens hired them. If they didn't make it, managers were asked what they did to try to help the employee be successful.

With the construction of another new center, Lewis's team had an opportunity to go even bigger. They set a goal of hiring people with disabilities in one-third of the roles.

"We figured at least we would learn something," Lewis said, and it turned out to be a huge success — even more than they had hoped. "That building became the most productive in our history. Performance was better, and the workers were safer because they had fewer accidents."

Managers in other centers started to take notice.

"They saw what was happening, they saw the culture, and they wanted to do it, too," Lewis said.

Shifting Attitudes

As Lewis shared success stories about employees who exceeded expectations, he noted that the abilities of the employees hadn't changed dramatically over the course of the program. What had made the program successful was the profound shift in hiring practices and management attitudes.

Many of the employees just needed a chance to get through the door, but most employers never give candidates with disabilities the chance.

Lewis and his team learned that it's up to the organization to broaden their search and screening processes. Rather than setting requirements for how a job gets done, they set expectations for what needs to get done, and then asked the employees how they would do it.

For employees with disabilities to get through the door in the first place, Lewis likes to say: "We had to open the door a little wider."

Keys to Success

Lewis shares tips and guidance freely because he wants others to learn from his efforts and replicate his success. (In his book, "No Greatness Without Goodness," Lewis outlines 16 principles for hiring people with disabilities.)

In his experience, hiring people with disabilities proved to not only be good for employees, it's good for business.

Here are five tips from our conversation:

  • Don't assume a disability is a disqualifier: Assume instead the person with the disability has a different way of performing a task. Ask them how they'd do it and make it possible for them to do it that way.
  • Direction has to come from the top: Drive the program from the executive level, so the leaders not only have authority, but they have the resources to get the job done and provide a buffer for employees by taking questions from other senior leaders.
  • Make program participation voluntary: People who volunteer as peer coaches will bring energy and inspiration. They will believe in what they're doing and take pride in the success of the program and their teammates.
  • Give it your best shot: Empower managers and peer coaches to do everything they can, within the rules, to help their teammates be successful. If you have to let someone go because they couldn't do the job, you'll be able to sleep at night knowing you tried your best.
  • Give away your lessons learned: From the outset, Lewis's goal was to tell other businesses, even competitors, what Walgreens did to be successful in hiring people with disabilities. In his book, he writes: "This work isn't only important for the business; it's important for all of us. This may be the most satisfying work of your life. Pass it on."