The project investigates how small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can succeed in including people from vulnerable groups in working life, as well as how the companies can be effectively supported. By people from vulnerable groups, we mean people who are outside working life due to psychological, cognitive, social, physical or other challenges. Studies show that a relatively small number of employers succeed in employing people from this group, but we still know too little about what these companies actually do and the support they receive from the government, and how these companies’ experiences can be transferred to other companies.
The study is carried out in Norway and the Netherlands. We have collected qualitative data of inclusion work in a selection of companies that have experience of hiring and including people from the target group in their business. We have studied 20 companies in Norway and 10 in the Netherlands, and the companies are divided by size, industry/sector, and skill requirements. We are in the process of analysing this data. Preliminary results have been presented at three conferences in 2022, one manuscript has been sent for peer review, and we have written one op-ed.
A common feature of inclusive companies is managers who show care. Not care that is exclusively limited to the workplace context, but that is aimed at the whole person, e.g. help to get housing or to move between houses, or patience and generosity in relation to learning work tasks or engaging in social relations with co-workers. Furthermore, inclusion is not a solo project on the part of managers, but involves all employees. It is often described as part of a business culture that "puts people first" and that emphasizes strong emotional ties between employees. Being inclusive rarely involves a stated plan, and it may be difficult for managers or others to describe what one does to be inclusive, more than "just being oneself".
Preliminary results indicate that inclusive businesses can be easily divided into task-centred and person-centred. The former is about including people for existing tasks, but where it can be challenging to find a match between the tasks, wishes and opportunities of the employee, and where a lack of match is often explained as the job seeker's lack of motivation. The latter is about developing tasks and skills for included employees, which can be time- and resource-consuming, but which can result in more loyal employees over time. Developing person-centred inclusion requires a change of perspective, from that the employee must be adapted to the job, to that tasks and job percentages can be adapted to the individual's requirements and needs.
Results also indicate that inclusive businesses actively use existing support schemes. This can be about financial support schemes, such as a wage subsidy in Nav that replaces some of the company's production losses for a period, or it can be about cooperation with Nav or other service providers that have expertise in following up people from the outside world and employers. Work inclusion requires not only motivation, but also competence, which apparently can only be partially acquired through experience, but which must also be developed in collaboration with private or public service apparatus.
In the further work in the project, we will develop a survey based on experiences from the qualitative investigations and from a systematic review of the literature. Among other things, we will study differences between inclusive and non-inclusive companies in Norway and the Netherlands, as well as characteristics and practices of inclusive companies. According to the plan, this will be sent out during the first half of 2023.
This proposed research project aims to develop new knowledge about how small and medium sized enterprises can contribute successfully to the sustained workplace inclusion of vulnerable 'hard-to-place' citizens, and can be supported effectively in doing so. With 'hard-to-place' citizens we refer to people struggling to obtain or retain a job due to mental, cognitive, social, physical or other disabilities.
The project is situated in the context of active labour market policies seeking to engage employers and workplaces to take more responsibility for the inclusion of hard-to-place citizens outside the labour market. Despite an emerging literature on the role of employers in active labour market policies, knowledge about the more micro level organizational, HRM and workplace factors contributing to the sustained employment of hard-to-place citizens is meagre. This is especially the case in SMEs, which are highly common organizations (up to 250 employees) and provide considerable proportions of employment in European countries: close to 70% according to OECD data. At the same time, SMEs may often lack resources and competences to engage in inclusion efforts.
This project starts from the key assumption that there is considerable social and economic potential in obtaining knowledge about how SMEs can become an increasingly powerful force for labour market inclusion in contemporary welfare states. The project aims to produce new and relevant knowledge for SMEs, service and education providers and policy makers on (a) successful inclusion practices at the level of the employing SMEs, (b) public/private services that meet the needs of the employing organizations and the jobseekers, and (c) the role of national policies in promoting inclusion efforts in SMEs. We will do so through a multi-method comparative study in Norway and the Netherlands, whose governments in agreement with social partners have initiated substantial, but differing, initiatives to mobilize employers.