Over the past few years, there has been a lot more discussion about inclusion in the workplace. However, an aspect of this that is often overlooked is how businesses can be inclusive on individuals with disabilities. While the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, it’s not always clear what that looks like in practice. In addition to what’s legally required, what best practices can businesses utilize to make the workplace more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? To answer this question, we are talking to business leaders who have unique insights on “How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have a Disability.” As part of our series, we were delighted to interview Charley Zuidinga.

Charley Zuidinga, the Co-Founder & CEO of Qualee Technology, has deep experience building and scaling fast-moving, global companies. Prior to founding Qualee, Charley held a number of executive roles as a venture capital and technology advisor, where she focused on the employee experience struggles that multinational companies faced. Before consulting, Charley spent several years orchestrating exclusive premium events during Formula One race weekends worldwide and developed a keen understanding of the ambition and value of high-performing teams.

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? 

Born in the Netherlands, I started my career in Formula 1, where high-performance, adaptable teams often mean the difference between the winner’s circle and defeat. F1 took me all over the world but landed me in Singapore a decade ago. There I started to pivot my career into the world of management consulting, taking lessons learned from the close-knit teams across the racing world and bringing them to global businesses. I met my co-founder, who was also an F1 fan, and we delved into the glaring issues plaguing our clients: talent onboarding, engagement, and retention.

Thus, the beginnings of Qualee were finding their footing. Named after the first qualifying laps a racer does to find their footing and place within a race, Qualee was created to help employees find their place while fostering belonging and empowerment, enriching their professional experiences in ways previously not utilized.

I’ve had the privilege of combining my unique experience in the racing industry to not only serve clients on a global scale but revolutionize the very fabric of the workplace. At the core of my story and Qualee’s is a focus on driving positive change within organizations.

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?

Three character traits that have been instrumental to my success are:

  1. Embracing the Art of Listening. Listening isn’t just about hearing words—it’s about truly understanding the needs, concerns, and perspectives of those around us; especially when those individuals report to us in a business setting. Despite the assumption that leaders must always have the answers, I’ve found that active listening is the true path to progress. When faced with challenges, such as navigating employee sentiment issues, I prioritize listening attentively to gather insights from diverse sources. By embracing this approach, I uncover underlying issues, address them effectively, and foster a culture of open communication that enhances morale and productivity.
  2. Letting Data Guide Decisions. In today’s fast-paced world, decisions must be grounded in data rather than intuition alone. By embracing a data-informed mindset, I ensure that every choice is informed by evidence and analysis. This doesn’t mean sitting around and waiting for data before making decisions. Being data-informed means using data as a compass to point proactive actions towards. For instance, when devising marketing strategies for a new product launch, I balance our strategy planning on our continuously gathered wealth of market research, client feedback, and sales analytics to shape our approach. This allows our team to move quickly and take advantage of favorable market dynamics confidently without needing to sit and wait for new data each time we want to plan.
  3. Cultivating Win-Win Collaborations. Collaboration should always be a two-way street, where all parties stand to benefit. Whether negotiating partnerships, business contracts, or adding new leaders to our team, I prioritize creating opportunities where everyone involved can thrive. By fostering fairness, transparency, and mutual respect, we forge strong, sustainable relationships that drive collective growth and underpin our long-term success.

These traits have guided my leadership approach, enabling me to navigate challenges, drive innovation, and foster a culture of collaboration and success within my organization.

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

Early in my career, I faced a significant challenge when I found myself working under an unreasonable manager who continually overloaded me with tasks, disregarding my workload and well-being. This relentless pressure left me feeling overwhelmed and stretched thin, not to mention didn’t seem to make sense within my greater job focus or career aspirations.

To overcome this, I recognized the importance of establishing boundaries and asserting myself when necessary. I began by carefully prioritizing tasks based on their urgency and impact on the business, then respectfully declining additional requests that exceeded my capacity. 

Being armed with the information to explain why I was turning certain assignments down helped me more confidently have this discussion with my manager and feel less like I was letting the team down and more like I was strategically prioritizing my time. This proactive approach allowed me to discuss my concerns about my workload and set realistic expectations for what I could accomplish within a given timeframe. By fostering transparent dialogue and articulating the impact of excessive demands on my performance, I garnered my manager’s understanding and cooperation.

This experience taught me invaluable lessons in self-advocacy, boundary-setting, and expectation management in the workplace. It empowered me to take charge of my workload, prioritize my well-being, and cultivate a more balanced and gratifying work environment.

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

One of the most exciting projects we’re currently working on revolves around incorporating Generative AI into the HR and people management world. This technology presents incredible capabilities that have the potential to revolutionize how we approach various aspects of employee experience. 

AI is already an integral part of our technology stack and it will continue to be a significant part of our product roadmap. By leveraging AI, Qualee allows clients to streamline manual tasks, automate repetitive processes, and uncover insights from vast amounts of data more efficiently than ever before.

However, we’re also mindful of the apprehensions that surround AI technologies, particularly the fear that it may replace human roles. It’s essential to emphasize that in our employee experience solution, Generative AI complements human efforts rather than replacing them. It empowers leaders to be more efficient in their roles by automating mundane tasks, allowing them to focus on strategic initiatives and activities that require human intuition, empathy, and creativity.

At the core of our approach is the belief that technology should augment human capabilities, not diminish them. Generative AI in our solutions serves as a tool to support and empower human managers in driving positive change and creating the best possible workplaces. By combining the strengths of both humans and AI, we’re committed to delivering solutions that enhance employee experiences and drive organizational success.

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? 

Due to the nature of our business (we’re an HR tech solution focused on employee experience), we have supported and encouraged employee surveys focused on diversity and inclusion initiatives for various clients. 

One of our clients had been grappling with an external perception of lacking diversity and inclusion within their organization. In response, our client’s HR department engaged Qualee to deliver bite-size employee surveys and feedback mechanisms to gather insights into the experiences and perceptions of their workforce.

Our solution analyzed the survey data in real time, identifying common themes such as concerns about limited opportunities for career advancement, a lack of diversity in leadership positions, and instances of unconscious bias in the workplace.

Armed with these insights and inspired by our Generative AI suggestions for areas of improvement, our client’s HR team developed targeted action plans to address the issues identified in the surveys. They implemented initiatives such as mentorship programs for underrepresented employees, diversity training for managers, and efforts to promote inclusive leadership behaviors.

With the help of our continuous surveys and eNPS scoring mechanism, the client noticed a measurable positive shift in the company culture. Employees from diverse backgrounds felt more valued, supported, and included in decision-making processes. Collaboration, innovation, and employee engagement flourished across the organization.

As our client continued to prioritize diversity and inclusion, the impact on the organization became evident. Employee turnover decreased, productivity and performance improved, and the company’s reputation as an employer of choice strengthened.

Ultimately, the implementation of anonymous employee surveys and feedback mechanisms played a crucial role in our client’s journey toward building a more inclusive and equitable workplace. By listening to the voices of their employees and taking action based on their feedback, the company was able to create a culture where everyone could thrive and contribute to its success.

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?

Inclusion brings together individuals from various backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. This diversity of perspectives fosters innovation, creativity, and problem-solving. Different viewpoints can lead to more comprehensive solutions and better decision-making processes.

Ultimately, inclusive teams are more likely to make well-rounded decisions. When various perspectives are considered, decisions are more comprehensive and reflective of the needs and interests of all stakeholders. This can lead to better outcomes and fewer blind spots in both strategic planning and execution.

Imagine this – if you only ever worked and collaborated with people who think the same way as you, you would only ever see that side of the perspective. By working with people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, everyone brings a unique insight and perspective to the table to be weighed with decisions. This also enables you to learn, evolve and grow yourself.

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? 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that businesses with 15 or more employees must make reasonable accommodations to ensure everyone has equal opportunities within the organization. This encompasses modifications or adjustments to the work environment, job duties, or policies that enable individuals with disabilities to perform their job duties effectively; without causing undue hardship to the employer. Here are a few examples:

  1. Physical Accessibility. This could involve making physical changes to the workplace to accommodate individuals with mobility impairments such as installing ramps or elevators for wheelchair access, widening doorways, or modifying workstations to be accessible to individuals with mobility aids.
  2. Flexible Work Arrangements. Employers may offer flexible work schedules or telecommuting options to accommodate employees with disabilities who may have medical appointments or other needs that require flexibility. This allows employees to balance their work and personal responsibilities effectively.
  3. Assistive Technology. Providing assistive technology or devices can help individuals with disabilities perform their job duties. This could include screen readers for employees with visual impairments, ergonomic keyboards or mice for individuals with mobility limitations, or speech recognition software for those with dexterity impairments.
  4. Job Restructuring. Employers may need to modify job duties or responsibilities to accommodate individuals with disabilities. For example, a company may reassign certain tasks that an employee with a physical disability cannot perform to other team members, while still ensuring that the essential functions of the job are fulfilled.
  5. Accessible Communication. Making communication accessible for employees with disabilities is essential. This could involve providing content materials in alternative formats such as braille, large print, or electronic formats compatible with screen readers. Additionally, employers may need to provide sign language interpreters or other communication assistance for employees who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  6. Environmental Modifications. Adjusting the physical environment to accommodate sensory sensitivities or other disabilities is important. For example, reducing fluorescent lighting or providing noise-canceling headphones for employees with sensory processing disorders can create a more comfortable work environment.

These examples show the various types of adjustments that might be needed to guarantee fair job opportunities for people with disabilities. It’s important for companies to handle each case individually, have a discussion with the employee to understand their requirements, and then put in place accommodations that work well for both the employee and the employer.

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. 

Creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace for people with disabilities goes beyond legal compliance; it’s about fostering an environment where everyone feels valued, respected, and empowered to contribute their best. Here are some best practices to achieve this:

  1. Inclusive Hiring Practices. It all starts with inclusive hiring practices. Ensure that the recruitment process focuses on selecting the best candidate for the role based on skills, qualifications, and fit, rather than biased assumptions. Implementing blind resume screening and diverse interview panels can help mitigate unconscious bias.
  2. Preboarding and Onboarding. Ease any anxieties and set clear expectations for employees with disabilities by implementing robust preboarding and onboarding processes. Provide resources and information in advance, offer opportunities for virtual meet-and-greets with team members, and ensure that accommodations are discussed and arranged before the employee’s first day.
  3. Lead by Example. Founders, leadership teams, and managers play a crucial role in shaping the organizational culture. Lead by example by demonstrating a commitment to inclusivity in your actions, decisions, and communication. Embrace diversity, actively listen to diverse perspectives, and prioritize inclusion in all aspects of the business.
  4. Foster an Inclusive Culture. Build a culture driven by values that prioritize inclusivity and diversity. Incorporate inclusive language and imagery in internal communications, policies, and company materials. Celebrate diversity through events, recognition programs, and initiatives that highlight the contributions of employees with disabilities.
  5. Open Communication and Reporting Channels. Promote open communication by providing multiple channels for employees to voice their concerns and suggestions. Implement a “Speak Up” channel where employees can report situations that may negatively impact inclusion, such as discrimination or accessibility issues. Ensure that reports are handled promptly, confidentially, and with sensitivity.
  6. Continuous Feedback Mechanisms. Implement continuous feedback mechanisms to gauge employee sentiment and gather insights on the effectiveness of inclusion initiatives. Regularly solicit feedback through surveys, focus groups, or one-on-one discussions to understand the experiences of employees with disabilities and identify areas for improvement. Use this feedback to inform decision-making and drive meaningful action towards greater inclusivity.

More often than not, these practices are difficult to introduce to organizations that have not previously focused on inclusive employee experiences. HR technology, like Qualee, can help companies set up inclusive practices, benchmark internal sentiment, and evolve their culture to put people strategy front and center.

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?

The insights and ideas shared throughout this interview stem from real-world experiences at our company. These suggestions have been thoroughly tested and have fostered a work environment at Qualee that embraces diversity and inclusion. 

With team members spanning five continents and representing over 10 nationalities, I, as a founder with a multicultural background, aimed to establish a workplace that values fairness and compassion. Our diverse perspectives enrich us collectively, making us more resilient and innovative.

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”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Don’t Be Intimidated. When you start your career, it is easy to be intimidated by others who have more experience. This is especially true for entrepreneurs. What I have learned is that most founders are all dealing with the same challenges. The key is to remain confident in yourself and surround yourself with a support system of people you can trust and turn to for advice. Be open to listening to others, learning, and continuously evolving yourself to become a better leader for others.
  2. Networking is Key. As early in your career as possible start creating client-facing experiences to build your own network.  This provides invaluable opportunities to grow relationships, develop communication skills, and establish a strong professional reputation, which can open doors to future opportunities and accelerate career growth. Early in my career, I started a successful business but it didn’t involve much interaction with others. I realized it was limiting my professional development, so I sold the company and got a sales role. That job allowed me to create a network that still serves as the foundation for what I do today. 
  3. Take Risks and Embrace Change. Stepping out of your comfort zone and taking calculated risks is essential for career advancement. I still get nervous when taking risks, but it’s important to trust your gut feeling when you’re at a crossroads in your life or career. For me, moving to Asia was one of the best decisions of my life and that change has brought me a lot of happiness and career satisfaction. 
  4. Continuous Learning is Essential. The pace of change in today’s world is rapid. Investing in skills development, staying updated on industry trends, and seeking out opportunities for professional development are essential for staying relevant and advancing in your career. A few years ago I noticed a shift from traditional marketing to digital marketing, which inspired me to sign up for executive education in this field. This allows me today to better understand the market and set our marketing strategies. 
  5. Feedback is a Gift. Constructive feedback is invaluable for personal and professional growth, yet many people shy away from seeking it. At the beginning of my career, I interpreted feedback as criticism and my natural reaction was to be defensive which does not promote development. My co-founder taught me that feedback should be considered a gift and we should be grateful when someone takes the time to give feedback, which completely changed my perspective. I now know that feedback provides valuable insights into blind spots and areas for development, helping me to refine my skills and performance.

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

One of my favorite life lesson quotes is, “Time is the most valuable thing a person can spend,” by Theophrastus. This quote resonates because it emphasizes the preciousness of time and the importance of using it wisely. It reminds me that optimizing efficiency and effectiveness in tasks, no matter the size, is paramount. It also underscores the significance of prioritization and focus, ensuring that efforts are directed toward activities that yield the greatest impact and value. Since I became a mother a year ago and have to daily strike a balance between my career growth and personal life, this quote has become more important than ever. 

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. 🙂 

As an avid scuba diver and animal lover, sustainability is a cause close to my heart. Therefore, I have been contemplating an approach that integrates employee experience and environmental stewardship in a way that hasn’t been done before. I envision a concept called “Eco-Employee Ownership.” This movement would empower employees to become shareholders in the company’s sustainability efforts, fostering a sense of ownership and accountability.

Under this program, employees would be allocated tokens representing their contribution to specific sustainability projects identified by the company, and they would have the opportunity to invest their time, skills, and resources into these projects. Each project would be accompanied by clear and measurable impact metrics, allowing employees to track their contributions in real time.

As sustainability milestones are achieved, employees would receive rewards and recognition, reinforcing their commitment to the cause. This approach could foster a culture of collaboration and innovation, where employees from all levels and departments actively contribute to sustainability efforts.

In essence, Eco-Employee Ownership would empower employees to become active agents of change in driving sustainability. This movement would not only enhance employee engagement, motivation, and loyalty but also accelerate progress toward a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn to discuss anything related to workplace culture and employee engagement. I’m always eager to share insights, exchange ideas, and connect with professionals passionate about fostering inclusive and thriving work environments. You can also follow the Qualee company page for insights, tips and tricks, and more. Looking forward to connecting and continuing the conversation!

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