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Facilitating natural supports in the workplace: strategies for support consultants.

By and large, supported employment services that emphasize individual rather than group placements have followed a particular program model widely known as the job coach model. In fact, the terms "job coaching" and "supported employment" have become so closely linked that many people are unaware that job coaching predated the supported employment movement by many years (e.g. Doanne & Valenti, 1977).

In the job coach model, a rehabilitation agency staff person known as a job coach, job trainer, or employment specialist provides support services to employees with severe disabilities at community job sites. Job coaching includes (a) analyzing the task to be performed, (b) systematically teaching each element of the task, (c) collecting data, and (d) gradually fading to the cues and reinforcers in the natural setting. Job coaches may also teach job-related social skills and perform additional functions, including some that take place away from the employment site (Wehman & Melia, 1985). Job coaching has been an integral part of early supported employment demonstration projects (Boles, Bellamy, Horner, & Mank, 1984; Revell, Wehman, & Arnold, 1985) and has been refined and expanded in numerous publications and training manuals (e.g., Moon, Goodall, Barcus, & Brooke, 1986).

Impressive demonstrations of the effectiveness of the job coach model as compared with previous employment services available to people with severe disabilities have, however been accompanied by a recognition that external intervention by human service personnel alone is insufficient as a source of community employment support. This recognition has resulted from at least three developments.

First, the importance of personnel within the natural environment has been increasingly recognized. In one of the earliest descriptions of what is now known as supported employment, Wehman (1976) recommended the inclusion of co-workers in the process of training and fading. Reports of non-sheltered vocational training of employees with severe disabilities have included co-workers and supervisors as partners in the training process (e.g., Rusch & Mechetti, 1981). Recently, strategies for including co-workers more fully and earlier have been recommended and documented (Shafer, 1986; Shafer, Tait, Keen, & Jesiolowski, 1989).

Second, since integration is one of the primary components of supported employment, facilitating integration has been one of the functions assigned to job coaches. But social integration has not always accompanied physical placement in natural settings, whether vocational, residential or educational. In a review of existing supported employment literature, Rusch, Chadsey-Rusch, and Johnson (1989) noted that interactions between work trainees and nonhandicapped personnel are consistently reported far more often with staff trainers than with co-workers. Chadsey-Rusch, Gonzalez, and Tines (1987) found that workers with mental retardation were less likely to engage in non-work related social interactions than their non-disabled co-workers.

The facilitation of integration function of job coaches has received far less attention in the literature than has skills training. Recent evidence suggests that job coaching may, in some instances, actually restrict social integration. A participant-observation study of supported employment found that job coaches sometimes brought a human service perspective and a narrow job task focus to work settings and were unaware of, or ignored, the wider "culture" of workplaces (Hagner, 1989). Further, job coach training can impede the natural social processes by which experienced employees teach "the ropes" to new employees and socialize them into the culture of the setting, and can project the message that some special expertise is required to interact with employees with severe disabilities. Such processes tend to put social distance between supported employees and their fellow employees.

Third, the availability and effectiveness of natural supports within work settings (Nisbet & Callahan, 1987) has become more widely understood. Professionals have begun to appreciate the complexity of the support process, the potential for incidental learning in natural settings (Wacker et al., 1986) and the necessity for including employers as partners in the support process (Galloway, 1982). Recognition of the role that supervisors play as coaches for their subordinates (Orth, Wilkinson, & Benfari, 1987), and of the importance of internal socialization processes (Sutton & Louis, 1987) have sparked in a closer examination of the role of human service involvement in employment support.

A focus on the social, integrative, and quality elements of work settings has led to a reexamination of the job coach model as it is currently conceptualized and practiced and to proposals for alternative approaches to supported employment (Hagner, 1989; Nisbet & Hagner, 1988). The intent of these approaches has been to design external interventions which complement and augment natural social support mechanisms, achieve fuller social integration, and decrease the intrusiveness of human service involvement.

Demonstrations of the effectiveness of alternative approaches, referred to as "natural support," "co-worker support," "informal support" or "peer support" projects, are in their early stages of development. The authors have worked directly with agencies in Dover and Keene, New Hampshire and Syracuse, New York that have been successfully facilitating co-worker support arrangements. Promising practices have begun to emerge. A compilation of strategies has been drawn from these promising practices and from research on social integration in supported employment (Hagner, 1989). These strategies, offered as preliminary guidelines for maximizing the utilization of natural or internal supports in supported employment, include (a) using typical strategies to secure jobs, (b) building interactions and supports into job designs, (c) adopting a consultant role, (e) utilizing business procedures for training, and (f) reading workplace cultures to incorporate informal routines.

Using Typical Strategies to Secure Jobs

The support potential of a job is often determined early in the job development and employer contact process. Both the methods of establishing contacts and the types of jobs sought are important.

Use Personal Connections

Many employees obtain jobs through their informal contacts and social networks. These employees start out with a significant advantage over those who enter a new work setting "cold," since their acceptance into the workplace may be sponsored, in effect, by a more senior co-worker or other insider (Ragins, 1989; Zey, 1988).

Developing supports can begin in the job search process with a systematic listing and canvassing of a job-seeker's neighbors, family, relatives, and community contacts. These people may be able to identify potential employers and jobs that meet the individual's employment needs.

A related strategy which has proven effective is to approach businesses with which job-seekers have a relationship as a customer. A recent brochure soliciting applicants for a restaurant chain states that "some of our best employees come from our customers". As a customer, the job-seeker may be familiar with the setting, know some of the employees, and be viewed as loyal to the business.

The personal social networks of agency personnel assisting a job-seeker, including a present and former staff, present and former board members, benefactors, and so forth are additional sources of contacts for jobs. Often human service organizations serving people with disabilities are made up of a diverse array of people with extensive connections to potential employers.

Nondisabled individuals develop social contacts partly through leisure and recreational involvement, and use these contacts to secure job leads. Some supported employment providers work with residential providers, teachers, or family members to help individuals become more closely connected within their communities through involvement in integrated sports, clubs, groups, and other settings and activities. Such efforts may lead directly or indirectly to paid jobs, as well as enhance skills, relationships and overall quality of life.

Empahsize More Valued Job settings

The types of jobs and settings targeted for development can have a significant impact on support and integration. In settings with a lower turnover of personnel, employees tend to be more committed to their jobs and develop stronger social bonds (Mottaz, 1988). An individual with a disability will be more likely to develop close working relationships and to receive stable, long-term support in such a setting than in lower-status, high-turnover jobs.

Building Interactions and Supports into Job Designs

Social interactions are significantly more likely to occur among workers who are physically proximate, but even more so among workers who have similar jobs and responsibilities and who interact as a part of their job (Burke, Weir, & Duncan, 1976; Peponis, 1985). Several features can be built into the design of supported jobs to enhance the potential for social integration.

Target Shared or Similar Positions

A supported employee who shares the same or similar job title with other employees in a setting (e.g., a baker's assistant in a bakery) may experience more complete integration than one who is the only employee with those responsibilities (e.g., the custodian in an insurance company). A social bond may form when a "co-worker" is not simply a person who walks past or works in the same building, but someone who has similar job experiences, frustrations and responsibilities.

Build-in Overlapping or Intersecting Tasks

Whenever possible it is advantageous to include co-worker interactions in the design of a job by building-in tasks that overlap or intersect those of co-workers. Overlapping jobs contain tasks that two or more workers perform together. For example, at a printing company, a team of workers may fold and pack materials together for shipping. Jobs intersect when one employee begins where another leaves off, with some point of connection. For example, at a bakery the baker's assistant sprays loaf pans and hands them to the baker, who fills them with dough. The interactions required to perform overlapping or intersecting jobs tend to "spill over" into informal interactions (Peponis, 1985). For example, as the worker's ship out Friday's printing job they may discuss their weekend plans. Some supported employment personnel consider informal social behavior, which is not directly part of the job, to be "off task" and confusing to supported employees. But, with a rare exceptions, supported employees are much more likely to experience confusion from a lack of co-workers whom they can readily approach and communicate with than confusion from too many interactions.

Allow Flexibility in Job Duties

A feature of work settings that stimulates social interactions among workers is the disruption of work routines or the occurence of unplanned events. For example, when the dining area of a restaurant has to be set up differently for a special banquet, the employees have to interact to get the job done. On a typical day, following an established routine, there is less need to interact. Plans and routines are constantly being disrupted at most work settings. But the jobs of supported employees are often deliberately shielded from interruption and overly routinized because many human service professionals believe that people with severe disabilities need rigidly structured jobs. This might be more myth than reality. While observing the work behavior of trainees with severe disabilities as part of a skill acquisition study, Martin, Elias-Burger, and Mithaug (1987) were surprised to find that trainees had no trouble responding to natural disruptions and then returning to their assigned work. Supported jobs should be designed and taught in a flexible enough way to accommodate exceptions and disruptions to a routine. For example, one photo media company occasionally receives rush orders and everybody is pulled off their usual tasks to pitch in. The co-workers were encouraged to include the supported employee in these efforts. Openness to change is one way employees demonstrate their value and versatility to employers and obtain increased wages and responsibilities.

Incorporate Social Times in Work Schedules

Informal social behavior at work is not evenly distributed across a work day. Usually, the start and end of work shifts tend to be relatively more social times, as are break and lunch. The pattern of interactions may follow some rhythm inherent in the work; for example, workers may socialize earlier in the shift at a bank, later in the shift at a bakery.

The work schedule and routine of supported employees should include more social times to the maximum extent possible. Part-time employees are at a serious disadvantage in settings where part-time employment is not typical. They either miss the start of the shift, when the day is being planned and eased into, or the end of the shift, when workers may share their feelings of tiredness and their free time expectations. Whenever possible, it is important for supported employees to work the same shift as their most closely related co-workers.

Adopting a Consultant Role

It can be assumed that most work supervisors and company managers are reasonably well matched to their jobs and reasonably good at what they do. Supervision and management includes giving instructions, assignments and reminders to employees, solving problems, reassigning or rescheduling work in response to situational problems, checking work and giving feedback, evaluating performance, and praising or reprimanding and correcting subordinates. Where supported employment is concerned, these supervisory tasks are frequently taken over by job coaches. In one study (Todd, 1987), supported employment personnel listed "provide supervision to the disabled employee" as their third most important function.

Rather than circumventing the supervisory capacity of the natural environment, McLaughlin, Garner, and Callahan (1987) recommended adopting the role of a consultant towards organizations. Consultants are sought after and utilized extensively in the business world, and particularly so in the areas of personnel management and organizational development.

Consultants provide information and support to business organizations in one or more specific areas of expertise in such a way as to facilitate the development of internal organizational competence. The most effective consultants resist the temptation to solve problems for a business in the role of the expert (French & Bell, 1984). Rather, they assist businesses to develop their own expertise. For example, a support consultant might suggest supervisory strategies for handling a particular situation involving a supported employee or provide instruction to co-workers in the use of a communication board.

Lippitt and Lippitt (1984) emphasized the harm that can result when external consultants interfere with and threaten internal resources within an organization. They suggested that consultant efforts always be coordinated carefully with those of internal support systems. Support consultants must walk a thin line, demonstrating but not doing, being available but not taking over, focusing their interventions on supervisors and co-workers as well as on employees with disabilities.

Utilizing Business Procedures for Job Training

Teaching job tasks to a new employee is not something foreign in the business world. In the U.S., employers spend as much on employee training as the combined budgets of all public colleges and universities (Sonnenfield, 1985). One prevalent mechanism for employee training is the pairing of a new worker with an experienced worker, commonly referred to as a mentor (Lawrie, 1987). Most often, mentors are assigned by supervisors on an informal basis as a new worker is asked to "go around with" an experienced worker to learn the job.

Mentoring offers enormous benefits as a training mechanism for supported employees. Mentors teach not only the formal skills and tasks of a job but also the informal social behaviors that form the culture of the setting and also the tricks of the trade learned from experience with a particular job in a particular setting. Outsiders, including job coaches, seldom have full access to culturally significant information and tricks of the trade. In fact, the presence of an outsider may impede access to such information.

Mentors also function as allies for new employees, helping them interpret events and understand people, defending or covering for mistakes, and so forth. In one laundry the supported employee was told by her co-worker not to worry if the boss yelled; the only time to worry was when he stopped talking to you. Mentors also help other co-workers become comfortable with the new employee, acting as a sponsor for a new employee's acceptance by the work group. This form of support is especially valuable to members of groups who have been excluded from the work force and who might be the target of stereotypical attitudes (Ragins, 1989; Zey, 1988). Showing the ropes to a new employee also adds a new, often enjoyable dimension to the job for mentors, who get a chance to display their proficiency, have a hand in another person's development, and feel that their knowledge and experience is especially recognized by the employer (Sutton & Louis, 1987).

When employers are not told otherwise, they typically assume that they have primary responsibility for training. In fact, some agencies have experienced difficulties in convincing employers to agree to the introduction of a job coach and report that their first experience with a more natural support approach was at an employer's insistence.

As a support consultant, the human service professional serves in an indirect role, not primarily as a trainer but as a bridge builder for, or an assistant to, the supervisor and/or co-workers. This can include helping identify the most appropriate co-worker or co-workers to serve in the role of mentor. In some cases, the availability of the consultant alone, providing reassurance to a supervisor or co-worker who has reservations about teaching a person with a severe disability, has been all that was needed. In most cases, on the basis of careful observation, consultants reinforce positive interactions, give pointers about teaching strategies, and engage in joint problem-solving with mentors. For example, a consultant may advise a mentor to make more use of modeling instead of verbal directions alone, or provide supplemental training on one or two parts of a job that require extra attention.

Reading the Workplace Culture and Including Informal Routines

Every work setting has, to some degree, a set of shared beliefs, customs, meanings and traditions known as the organizational culture (Sathe, 1983; Schein, 1985; Smircich, 1983). Some aspects of the culture are not directly work-related, such as where people eat lunch or take breaks; and some may not even be known to or sanctioned by company management. But it is important to participate in the culture to gain social acceptance. For example, one supported employee was treated politely but not particularly warmly in his new job until he took a turn making the morning coffee. After that, he was one of the gang. Sometimes participation in culturally appropriate social activity is more important than the possession of formal job skills when it comes to gaining acceptance.

It is a good bet that one or more food and drink customs, like contributing to a coffee fund or going out for lunch, can be identified at most work settings. There are also specific places within a work setting where employees gather and socialize, and these are not necessarily the formally designated break rooms. At one restaurant a specific booth was commandeered by employees during their slow times. In a hospital, a favorite social space was the area in front of the elevators.

Joking and teasing are customary at many work settings, and although to outsiders such verbal exchanges may be interpreted as indices of conflict or rejection, insiders may understand them as signs of acceptance. Over time, some support consultants have become familiar with some of the rules governing such behavior and have been able to encourage co-workers to explain the activity to supported employees, to include the individual, and to act as naturally as they do with other colleagues.

Organizational cultures are complex and require time to understand. Some customs may be subtle and participants may not even be conscious of them. In one instance, co-workers at a law firm were puzzled as to why the supported employee never attended any of the impromptu parties held at the end of a day to celebrate a birthday or other occasion. The custom in such cases was for the secretary to place a notice on each employee's chair, not in their mailbox because employees might not check their mailboxes. The supported employee usually performed his filing job standing up, so he had no designated chair and received no notice. The co-workers had not even been aware of the functional importance of their custom.

Schein (1985) has suggested that business consultants should at least in part become ethnographers, spending time at a business, observing a variety of events and contexts and talking to numerous participants to gain some understanding of the culture. This advice should hold especially true for support consultants attempting to facilitate the social inclusion of supported employees in work settings.

Identifying Commonalities

In any work setting people come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. One of the social activities of people at work is to seek out others who have common interests or experiences. People with disabilities may be perceived as socially different from their co-workers and may, in fact, have very different backgrounds and experiences. Both real and apparent differences may be exaggerated by a supported employee's lack of communication skills or skills related to "breaking the ice" socially. For example, one employee with cerebral palsy loved to fish and for years had gone fishing on weekends and on occasional fishing trips with a staff person from his residence. It took his co-workers over a year to discover this fact - a side of him they didn't know existed. From that point on, several co-workers enjoyed reporting their fishing triumphs to him and wanted to hear about his. This common bond reduced the sense of difference people perceived and increased the level of interaction between the supported employee and his co-workers.

Support consultants can assist supported employees and co-workers to identify and communicate their mutual interests. Some of these may involve leisure pursuits shared among workers outside of work time. For example, at one work setting a number of office workers participated in an aerobic exercise class during lunch hour every Thursday. When the supported employee indicated an interest in trying the class, the support consultant helped her to join and her co-workers helped her to participate. It is important to recognize that people whose life experiences have been restricted may not be able to readily identify their leisure interests. A support consultant can sometimes encourage an individual to give some new opportunity a try.

Co-workers and supervisors pay close attention to the interpretations and behavior of the human service representative who is assisting them in employing people with severe disabilities, especially if this is something new and unfamiliar to them. This confers on a support consultant some degree of influence over the social image of supported employees. It is important to emphasize similarities rather than differences among workers when interacting with or in the presence of company employees and to avoid stigmatizing language or human service jargon. For example, it would be preferable to ask a supported employee "How are things at home?" rather than "How are things at your group home?" and to explain to the supervisor that an employee is angry rather than that he or she is "acting out."


In authorizing the supported employment program, Congress clearly intended to support the development of an open-ended and flexible program with the capacity to respond to a variety of needs through a variety of services, including "salary supplements to a co-worker" and other creative models (House Repor 99-571, p. 31). Initial supported employment efforts imported into the business world the heavily staff-controlled service models with which service providers were familiar and the teaching and behavior management techniques prevalent within human service environments. As practitioners have learned more about natural work environmets and gained experience as partners with business people in the support process, interest in expanding beyond a narrow range of service options has grown. As Kregel and Wehman (1989) noted, it is both narrow and premature to "institutionalize" supported employment into a small number of familiar service models. The field must continue to develop and broaden techniques and approaches to supporting people in work settings.

Several practices have been identified that appear to hold promise for maximizing the "natural support" or "co-worker support" potential of community work settings and for achieving fuller social integration of employees with severe disabilities. These include (a) utilizing typical strategies to secure jobs, (b) building a number of interaction points and commonalities into the design of supported jobs, (c) adopting the role of a consultant to businesses, (d) working with accepted business procedures for employee training, (e) reading the culture of a workplace and attending to important informal routines, and (f) assisting workers to discover common interests and experiences.

It is important to keep in mind the preliminary and tentative nature of these recommendations. As further information is collected, they will almost certainly be subject to further refinement, expansion, and deletion. It is equally important to avoid the tendency to conceptualize "natural supports" as a new service model to be imposed on businesses. Facilitating the development of natural supports is a highly individualized process that requires a degree of skill and judgement that may not be reducible to a set of implementation instructions. The most appropriate interventions may be more a matter of style and timing than the possession of specific techniques or program models. This should be kept in mind as the role of supported employment personnel evolves and concerns are expressed regarding professional preparation and competency. Clearly, the degree of responsibility, autonomy, and community visibility required by direct service personnel in supported employment far exceeds that required by direct service personnel in traditional vocational services (Winking, Trach, Rusch, & Tines, 1989). As the role of supported employment personnel continues to evolve and expand, increased attention will be required to the competencies, training, and level of compensation required to assure that adults with severe disabilities receive the support they need to participate fully in natural work settings.


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Author:Murphy, Stephen
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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