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Introduction

"Do the right thing, the right way, and everyone benefits."
Edward A. Brennan, Sears Chairman and CEO

"Over the years, Sears developed a corporate culture that said, 'do the right thing for our customers and employees.' We've never had a formal program to deal with employing people with disabilities. We give jobs to people who can do those jobs. We don t focus on what people can't do. We focus on what they can do."

That formula, as expressed by CEO Edward A. Brennan, has resulted in Sears' long-established commitment to providing employment opportunities to people with disabilities, dating back to the days of Julius Rosenwald, an early Sears chairman whose involvement with the company began in 1895 and continued until his death in 1932. Rosenwald, known for his philanthropic as well as his business interests, acted upon his wife's urging to share the company's success with its employees.

Sears currently employs an estimated 20,000 people with physical or mental disabilities among its 300,000-person work force. This extrapolation is based on self-identified disabilities among 5,251 employees compiled from the company's Selective Placement Program, which since 1972 has matched the talents and skills of people with disabilities with job requirements within Sears. These numbers are not exactly proportional to the estimated 49 million Americans with disabilities among an overall population approaching 300 million, but they represent the scope of disabilities and related accommodations that enable productive, meaningful participation in the work force.

Is Sears' Approach Effective?

"There is no penalty for doing what we are doing," Brennan asserts. "In fact, it helps. People with disabilities are determined to be successful. They will work harder to do a good job. I know of few cases in which people with disabilities have not performed equal to or better than their counterparts without disabilities. At the bottom line, when we help people with disabilities, we help Sears, and we help our customers."

This approach has become inherent in the culture of Sears at virtually every level, and even though its positive impact may not be as measurable as it will need to be in the future, its value is significant enough to ensure that it remains a continuing priority, regardless of company performance.

Sears has returned to profitability after its recent highly publicized repositioning. For the first half of 1994, Sears' consolidated revenues were $25.27 billion, a 7.8 percent increase over the same period in 1993, when the company achieved record earnings ($2.37 billion net profit on sales of $50 billion). The repositioning included the sale or spin-off of the company's financial services subsidiaries, the closing of more than 100 stores, and the elimination of 50,000 permanent jobs (16,000 full-time and 34,000 part-time positions). Brennan emphasizes that the employee cutbacks were based "solely on operational criteria, without regard to individual considerations [such as disabilities] of the affected employees."

Looking ahead, Brennan sees the company's continued success and its commitment to work force diversity as "mutually reinforcing trends." "The best thing we can do for all concerned is to prosper as a business," he believes. "The better we do, the more opportunity we can provide. And the more opportunity we provide, the better we do."

Sears is one of dozens of corporate role models that provide an important "laboratory" for studying the impact of the ADA. The intent of the employment provisions of the ADA, set forth in its Title I, is to include and empower people with disabilities in the work force. However, the effectiveness of Title I depends upon education and communication--in many cases, based upon learning from models such as Sears and other corporate leaders--to achieve the following:

Empirical information about the employment experiences of people with disabilities and their attitudes toward participation in the work force is emerging and reveals progress and future challenges. Sears' experiences in employing people with disabilities affirm the importance of communication and education in successfully integrating and diversifying the work force. With more examples of corporate leadership, we can expect continued progress beyond minimal ADA compliance toward ADA transcendence throughout the American workplace.