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Customized Employment: A New Competitive Edge

By Christopher Button, September 2007

Question: What is customized employment, and how can employers use it as a strategy to recruit and retain workers of all abilities?

Customized employment (CE) is a process through which the relationship between employer and employee is negotiated and personalized in a way that meets the needs of both. Whether knowingly or not, many HR professionals already apply the concepts of CE in their daily work. In fact, CE has been used to respond to increasing requests in recent years for greater workplace flexibility.

But CE is also a powerful tool in the HR professional's toolbox of strategies for increasing diversity, with particular applicability to individuals with perceived barriers to employment success-such as people with disabilities, disabled veterans, mature workers or people with limited English proficiency.

Consider one veteran. A former army personnel sergeant and administrative supervisor with a high level of determination and computer proficiency had skills to offer. She also had challenges: a service-connected disability and no home. Through a customized employment negotiation that addressed both her short-term and long-term goals while leveraging connections from various employment service systems, she now works as a chief administrative officer with a government organization.

Another experienced young professional, who had worked as a paralegal, sustained a spinal cord injury and erroneously believed that he would be unable to continue his career. Using customized employment strategies, he regained his confidence, furthered his education and attained a position as a paralegal at a law firm.

CE benefited both of these individuals, but it also benefited the employers who profited from their skills and experience. As a creative, flexible and voluntary process, CE allows employers and employees the opportunity to overcome obstacles by negotiating individual tasks and/or reassigning basic duties, with the ultimate goal being improved overall workplace productivity.

Customized employment is used by job seekers and existing employees whose changing circumstances require negotiation with an employer to customize employment tasks, expectations or working conditions. A working parent with child care needs may desire a modified schedule. A mature worker may request a reduced schedule and focus on certain job functions during his or her time on the job. An unemployed individual with a disability may have just the right skills to accomplish some, but not all, functions of a particular job. In all of these cases, customized employment may provide the answer to an employer's need to get the job done.

How Customized Employment Works

Customized employment starts with the development of an employment plan based on an individualized determination of the strengths, needs and interests of the job candidate. An employment professional can facilitate plan development and help the job seeker through a process that results in a blueprint for the job search and employment negotiation. A job developer or other personal representative of the job seeker, or the job seeker himself or herself then presents a preliminary proposal to an employer.

Many employers have negotiated an individualized job that meets both the applicant's employment needs and the employer's business needs. The negotiation can occur in numerous ways. While the working parent with child care needs may approach his or her employer directly to request a modified work schedule, some job seekers may want assistance through a third party to negotiate the right job. The negotiation process addresses areas such as job duties, terms of employment, services and supports necessary to carry out the job duties, and expectations adapted to the needs or special circumstances of one particular job seeker. The intent of customized employment is to align the job seeker's profile to a collection of job tasks that help an employer meet a specific need.

According to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, several employers who used CE strategies reported that doing so helped them meet a specific production or sales goal, increase customer satisfaction, improve operations, free other employees to handle customers and reduce backlogged work.

CE is effective because it takes into account the individual's strengths, interests and special circumstances and the needs of the employer, resulting in a unique job description that depicts a customized relationship. CE works because the focus is on one person at a time and one business at a time.

More information about CE is available on the ODEP web site.

Christopher Button is a supervisory policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Dr. Button's 35-year career in the disability arena includes work as a legislative aide on disability policy in the U. S. Senate and as senior manager with a national disability nonprofit organization. She has also worked as a special education teacher, school administrator and university instructor.