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A businessman walks in front of a Deutsche Bahn train in Berlin
Reuters/Michaela Rehle
Privacy first.
CATCH 22

German attitudes about disability disclosure in the workplace are shaped by a Nazi past

By Lila MacLellan

Among the 11 million noncombatants killed by Nazis during World War II, an estimated 300,000 were people with disabilities who were euthanized. Six decades later, German companies are still dealing with the implications of that past horror.

One sign is the widespread lack of compliance with quotas for employment of the disabled. Any German company with more than 20 employees is required to fill at least 5% of its jobs with workers who are “severely disabled,” meaning more than 50% disabled, whether physically or psychologically. (The degree of disability is determined by medical and legal guidelines.) These employees have the right to special perks, and government subsidies are available to employers to make sure the employees get the tools and accommodations they need.

But according to a new report (pdf) from the Center for Talent Innovation, “a cultural tendency toward keeping such information private, perhaps rooted in Nazi policies that targeted people with disabilities in the run-up to World War II, make meeting the government quota quite difficult.”

Rather than push for more disclosure from employees, say the report’s authors, “virtually all” companies simply pay the government fines. That money—roughly €105 to €260 (US$125 to $300) per month for every position that ought to be filled by someone who is severely disabled—is redirected to employment programs and to making public spaces accessible. A disability activist interviewed by the German media outlet DW has called this common practice buying your way out of law abidance.

The Center for Talent Innovation report on disabilities in the workplace was largely focused on the US—among its key findings: that 30% of US white-collar workers have a disability—but the research group’s study included sections on Germany, the UK, Japan, and Brazil, to help show how workplace inclusion of people with disabilities varies from region to region.

In a few important ways, its portrait of Germany suggests that the country’s culture around disabilities in the workplace is less progressive than that of the US. The study found that 55% of German workers with disabilities have endured insults at work, and 33% say they have felt avoided at the office, compared to 31%, and 20%, respectively, in the US.

In Germany, 45% of the study’s sample population agreed that they don’t share their health status with their colleagues because it’s “none of my colleagues’ business.” In the US, only 33% agreed with that statement. And, among the survey respondents who identified themselves as being disabled, 49% in Germany (vs 29% in the US) “say they downplay or avoid drawing attention to aspects of their identities by avoiding mentioning their lives outside of work,” the report notes.

German regulations would appear to account for a cultural, and legal, bias toward privacy. “Government-issued certificates indicate disability status and offer employees an incentive to disclose, since extra vacation days and other benefits often accompany the certification,” note the authors of the Center for Talent Innovation study. “This is critical, because strict laws govern companies’ ability to collect information about employees in Germany.”

But the seemingly progressive approach of using quotas and offering accommodation can also act as its own disincentive. The report quotes Drew Gulley, a diversity and inclusion program manager at Bloomberg LP, which was a co-sponsor of the study, as saying: “There are so many state-level protections around individuals with disabilities in Germany, it is very difficult for companies to fire employees with disabilities. Because of this, we’ve heard the stereotype that employees with disabilities are a drain on the company, if they are under- performing and cannot be terminated for cause.”

The report also cited an unnamed journalist at a global media company, who spoke of a form of discrimination that sadly still feels universal: “I disclose when I need to, not because I want to,” he said. “It’s perceived as a weakness and abnormality, so one does not openly run around and tell everybody.”