Career Progression and Accessibility

Three men and one woman sit at table. They watch another woman who is pointing to the group notes on a wall

Cross-posting research I’ve lead on increasing the promotion and retention of people with disability* within the New South Wales (NSW) public service. We undertook fieldwork to understand the behavioural barriers and solutions. We find that administrative hurdles and inadequate support are negatively impacting the career progression of people with disability. We can improve these outcomes by: 1) Using a feedback loop to increase professional development opportunities for staff with disability; 2) making it easier to implement workplace adjustments; and 3) providing managers with improved resources and training on disability inclusion.

The challenge

Disability is more common than most people may think. One in five Australians have a disability (18%). It’s likely that we work with someone who has a disability, even if we don’t know it.

The NSW Premier’s Priority to create a ‘world class public service’, includes ensuring that 5.6% of government sector roles are held by people with a disability by 2025. In 2019, 2.5% of public servants were people with disability. To meet the Premier’s target, the NSW public service sector is supporting a broad range of activities to improve recruitment and workplace culture.

What we did

We did fieldwork to understand how we could support the Premier’s Priority with a behavioural intervention.

We interviewed 50 NSW public servants:

  • 22 one-on-one interviews with staff with a range of physical, sensory, and cognitive/ mental health disabilities. Most of these staff members had more than one disability. Two of the participants were Aboriginal, and five were ethnic minorities from non-English-speaking backgrounds (two are Auslan speakers, one of whom is an ethnic minority).
  • Six focus groups with 28 senior managers and HR experts (‘managers’).
  • Participants were roughly balanced by gender and age (14 were over 41 years, the rest under 40 years).

We also consulted with experts from the Department of Customer Service to better understand data collection on people with disability, to identify potential improvements to the recruitment and promotion of people with disability.

The result

Support managers to improve recruitment and promotion

Managers told us that there are many hurdles, as well as hidden costs, to recruitment (friction costs). For example:

  • Navigating extensive information for recruitment panels, with dense guidelines and too many forms.
  • Lack of focus on disability inclusion; for example, not knowing how to check for interview adjustments.
  • Little flexibility to modify role descriptions.
  • No awareness about Rule 26, which allows recruiters to vary recruitment and selection process, to improve outcomes for non-Executive candidates with disability (e.g. advertising requirements, recruitment assessments, modifying bulk recruitment processes).
  • Difficult to understand how workplace adjustments work once a candidate is hired, especially in fast paced environments experiencing budget cuts.

Reduce unnecessary administrative burden from recruitment (‘sludge’)

Provide hiring panels with a brief checklist that includes tips on disability inclusion, such as offering all candidates adjustments during the selection process, discussing job share and flexible work options as part of the job interview, and considerations on whether Rule 26 might apply.

Create a feedback loop

In our interviews, staff report that they are looking to better understand how to act on promotion opportunities. Individuals improve their results when they are provided timely feedback data they can reflect and use to change their behaviour (‘feedback loop’). Examples discussed in our interviews include:

  • Constructive feedback on how to improve their capabilities.
  • Opportunities to learn new skills on-the-job.
  • Collaborating with a manager to come up with a list of specific skills and goals to prepare staff for a higher-level position.
  • Executive Roundtables create an opportunity for leaders and managers hear directly from staff with disability on what they need to ensure their career progression.
  • Specialist programs, such as Stepping Into, provided staff with more dedicated support to navigate career planning. Public servants can tap into these established networks to recruit and retain talent.

Make it easier to implement workplace adjustments

In our interviews, staff report many challenges and delays to get reasonable workplace adjustments properly implemented (e.g. multiple assessments).

  • Simplify implementation of adjustments. People are more likely to act when forms are easy to follow, and unnecessary steps are removed (simplification). The Department of Customer Service has rolled out a ‘Workplace Adjustment Passport,’ that eliminates the need to re-apply for, and chase up, their adjustments each time an employee applies for a new role. The Passport states the employee’s approved adjustments, without specifying disability or other personal details. This simple administrative action could be efficiently used across the public service.

Managers told us it is confusing to navigate information about how to pay for and implement adjustments for their staff. Other research has also identified that lack of awareness and perceived cost about adjustments hampers recruitment of those who might need them.

  • Establish central funding as the default. Individuals prefer to go with the pre-set option (default bias). Therefore, making a new or unfamiliar decision the automatic choice encourages positive behaviour change. The Department of Customer Service has recently introduced central funding for adjustments, taking financial pressure off individual teams and hiring managers. As part of the recruitment processes, hiring managers can be prompted with a reminder about central funding, and encouraged to proactively promote workplace adjustments in job ads.

Improve data collection to inform recruitment and promotion decisions

Our fieldwork included a review of data and systems. We found that there are many systems where potential candidates can choose to disclose their disability. This includes on their job application, during onboarding, and on the human resources portal. However, these systems aren’t connected. If they are comfortable disclosing, staff should only have to ‘tell us once’ about their disability status, and have full control to update this easily.

  • Prompt staff to update their disability status. Behavioural research shows that individuals are more likely to change preferences if they are given a reminder at an optimal time. Behavioural reminders could regularly encourage staff to update their records by highlighting the benefits and outcomes of diversity initiatives. For example, if staff opt-in, they could be confidentially offered relevant training or targeted career opportunities.

Support for managers

Managers told us they need improved resources and training on disability inclusion. 

  • Send personalised invitations to relevant training. Managers told us that they want dedicated training on how to support staff with disability, including on mental health issues. Managers have access to hundreds of courses online, but it’s hard to know which course is most relevant (information overload). Behavioural insights suggest that personalisation can improve uptake of relevant training. This could be emailing personalised invitations to managers with a direct link to relevant training, with clear links to the specific skills gained from the course.
  • Provide peer support. Managers told us that they seek advice and mentorship from senior colleagues with first-hand experience of supervising staff with disability. Research shows that volunteer networks who provide practical support improve workplace culture (reciprocity). One way to achieve this is to establish a peer mentoring network to help managers upskill their management techniques, and receive support from influential peers.

Create more training opportunities for people with disability

In our fieldwork, staff with disability said they want accessible training to support their career progression. 

  • Make training easier to access. Staff with disability find it difficult to find relevant courses that are accessible, and how to negotiate time, funding, and approval to attend. Training can be made easier by removing complex approvals, and other unnecessary administrative burdens (friction costs). All courses should make electronic materials available ahead of time. 

What’s next?

Using these insights, our team ran a randomised control trial in 2020, to improve disability awareness and training.

How can you use this in your work?

Behavioural insights from our project have wide application for other diversity initiatives:

  • Make training more attractive: Make training more accessible and send personalised invitations to managers. Promote training and resources at optimal times with reminders of how team members and customers benefit from inclusion.
  • Make it easy to implement change: set up centralised funding for diversity initiatives as the default option. Use a checklist to prompt hiring managers to ask about inclusion (e.g. adjustments, flexible work). Use a simple, once-off approval process to facilitate voluntary disclosure of diversity (e.g. Workplace Adjustment Passport). Prompt staff to voluntarily opt-in to disclose by showing the benefits and practical outcomes of diversity programs.


This research was first published by the NSW Behavioural Insights Unit.

We received ethics approval prior to fieldwork. Interviewees were provided with their stated adjustments: most staff with disability opted for online or phone interviews (rather than face to face), and two interviews were conducted with Auslan interpreters.

* This analysis reflects the person-first language preferred by people with disability who work in the public sector.