Deb Russell on Leading the Way
On Episode 41 of The Unique CPA, Randy talks to Deb Russell about her work as a leader in disability inclusion. Her company works to educate and provide resources to help companies employ more people with disabilities. Prior to founding Deb Russell Inc., Deb helped Walgreens in their drive for disability inclusion, leading to an increase in hiring until disabled people made up 10% of Walgreens’ workforce.
Today, our guest is Deb Russell. Deb helps employers solve employment issues and improve their workforce by bridging the gap between business and disability. I actually had the good fortune of meeting Deb a few weeks ago, while we were recording another podcast called Stroke Chats. Stroke Chats is actually a platform where stroke survivors can share their stories, and you actually can find that at a website, sseeo.org. That actually stands for Stroke Survivors Empowering Each Other. I’m very fortunate to be the president of that organization. And it does great work helping stroke survivors.
So Deb has actually been doing what she’s doing today—helping bridge this gap, in one way or another—her whole career. The last 15 years, it’s really been concentrating on the business and the employee aspect, and Deb actually has a very unique perspective on this. Halfway into this last 15 years, she unfortunately had a stroke, and one reason she was on Stroke Chats as well, but she had a stroke—and that obviously gave her this unique perspective on both ends of this this business, this bridging the gap, which probably is very good for the businesses she works with, very good with the employees she works with. Unfortunately, she had to go through that process, but I think it’s probably really helped in her career with the people she’s working with right now.
Obviously, when I heard her story, and what she does, I immediately thought, “This makes sense for The Unique CPA.” One of the biggest issues we deal with as an industry—public accounting—is employee issues. I mean, I hear this all the time when I’m at conferences, and when I’m talking to CPAs is, “You know, we have problems finding and as much as finding, retaining people.” And that is a big problem. And I think that has a solution probably that we can look at, should be looking at, and probably have looked at it some, but probably not to the level that we really do need to.
And then one last thing—I know, long winded intro—but I’m very excited about this conversation. One last thing: when I was reading a quote that she had, I thought, “Okay, this makes a lot of sense for us as CPAs.” She says she “helps performance-minded companies employ people with disabilities through positively affecting the bottom line”—sounds like accounting talk—“with customized and self sustaining service.” Deb, welcome to The Unique CPA.
Thank you, Randy. It’s such a pleasure to be here.
Oh, well, believe me, it’s my pleasure. I really, really appreciate this. Let’s talk, obviously the big thing I’m going to want to get into is this whole employment issue, and how we, you know, can do this as an industry. But first, I mentioned you did have a stroke, I thought, “Let’s be fair,” And aou know, maybe you can give us an update of where you are and the residual effects. How is your post-stroke journey?
Well, thank you. So my stroke journey is sort of unique. Well, it’s unique because as a younger person, I had a stroke. We typically think of, as you know, older individuals as surviving strokes. And so I was relatively young—I was less than 50 years old at the time—I don’t need to say exactly how old I was. But you know. And I didn’t actually know that I had had a stroke. I lost most of my vision, I was incredibly confused, but I thought it was a migraine. And so I didn’t have the typical experience of most of the people we know who have had strokes, because I was not hospitalized. However, I got wonderful medical care. Once we knew that that was what had happened, and it took about three days to find out that it was actually a stroke, I got into some wonderful therapy, a lot of analysis, a lot of evaluations, a lot of tests to find out why and whatever. But it was mostly focused on, “How do I get back to the point where I can drive where, I can see the monitor on my computer, that I can work”—those were really important to me. And so my therapist really focused on that.
I’d say that going through the experience of surviving and actually being, I think, a better person when I came out of the stroke, is truly a gift. So at this point residually I am probably about 98% of where I was beforehand. My vision is completely restored, but my ability to process information can be delayed at certain times—I struggle with a lot of the same things that people struggle with—lots of noise or chaos, lights and noise sometimes are challenging for me. But I’ve learned how to manage that, and so I think I’m pretty good.
But there was about two years of serious recovery and rehabilitation to get to the point where I am now. So that was two years of learning how to see again, learning how to process information visually, teaching my brain how to do that. And that was where I really got the insight as to how it was challenging for employers and for people with disabilities, because up until that point, I was a technical expert—I knew, oh, there’s all these software solutions, there’s these other equipment and things that people can use to help them with their sight. I just had the unfortunate, close-up experience of understanding how hard it is to actually use those things and be taught, when you can’t see, and when you’re used to seeing, and when your brain is still trying to figure out how to rewire things so that you can process information.
So it just gave me a lot of empathy toward not just the employee who may be trying to leverage the solution, but helping the employer understand, “What is the employee’s experience of trying to learn to use this?” We all think, “Oh, it’s so easy. You just use software.” Well, it’s not that easy. And so that’s how I really got the opportunity to have a little more empathy—for just for the solutions that we talk about sometimes so easily.
Yeah, well, it’s obviously like I mentioned before, it gives you a unique perspective on what you do. And you know, it’s great to hear that you—98%, that’s pretty close to 100. So that’s pretty good. People that listen to the show probably have heard me talk about, I am also a stroke survivor. I am, in my mind, 100% recovered—I’m sure there’s that 1% of something that’s still affected. But we’re not the norm, you know. Most people that have a stroke, you know, I think—I don’t know the numbers off top my head, but I think it’s close to 90 or over 90%—you maybe even know—of stroke survivors have a form of disability, and is actually the number one cause of disability, I know in the US, I think worldwide. And so I’m assuming that a lot of your people you’re working with are stroke survivors.
So let’s get into how you got this originally started. I think I mentioned you were working for businesses in the past. The one I don’t think I said by name was Walgreens, but you had a very successful program that you started setting up with Walgreens 15 years ago, which probably set the stage of what you’re doing today. So maybe give us a little background on what that program was, the success with it, and again, don’t be afraid to brag because it sounds like it was a very successful program.
Well, thank you. Yes, and it is my proudest moment, was the seven years that I spent at Walgreens. We had an executive who had a passion for helping the company figure out how to employ people with disabilities. But because he was an executive, he was very attuned to the restrictions around that—that it needed to make sense financially for the company. And so when I was brought in, they had done a lot of pre-work and they were getting ready. They kind of geared up for three years, because nobody had done it before. And Walgreens was a little bit hesitant simply because we needed to kind of have our ducks in a row and figure out what we’re doing. But the other part was, we wanted to do this in a new facility. We wanted to start with fresh—with a greenfield operation. And so we were waiting for the building to be finished.
It was the distribution—the logistics—SVP who was the executive, so we were starting the distribution centers, because that’s where he had the authority and the ability to kind of be more creative. And I was brought in as the disability expert to guide Walgreens through this experience, but as you implied, I had the opportunity of learning from the business perspective. It was important in being able to employ people with disabilities. I knew like the budget parameters I needed to stay within that it needed to come and be a budget neutral when we were done, or a budget positive. But outside of that I really didn’t know a lot about how businesses operate, and what makes a business successful.
And Walgreens is has grown and merged since I left, but even then we were a top Fortune 50 company at the time. Walgreens was an incredible growth at that point in time—I came in in 2006, and leading up until the economy crashed in 2008, 2009, we were opening a new store every 17 hours. And we were building new distribution centers to be able to, you know, outfit those stores. So we were on this huge growth trajectory. We knew we were going to be hiring massive numbers of people and we wanted to be able to make sure people with disabilities were part of that.
So my job was to figure out how. How does Walgreens do this in a way that’s fair to the shareholders, to the customers and to the employees all at the same time. And that was the guardrails that we did everything within. The other side part of that was that this executive—his name is Randy Lewis, and he’s written a great book about this called No Greatness without Goodness—but Randy was very passionate about this. And he really wanted to not just help Walgreens, because he’s a father of an individual on the autism spectrum, he wanted to actually make a difference for people with disabilities. And although Walgreens employed a quarter of a million people—that wasn’t big enough for him. So not only were we figuring this out for Walgreens, but then our goal was to teach any company that wanted to know, in the US or around the globe, what lessons did we learn, how did we do it, so that they could then shorten their learning curve, to be able to do it also.
So the first two years was very focused on “What are we doing at Walgreens? How are we doing this? How do we access the HR systems? How do we recruit? How do we train managers?” It was all focused on how we’re going to make this first building successful, what do we need to learn. And it was such an interesting experience, because I just, I didn’t know enough to not know what I didn’t know, which I think was a gift. So I was just trying everything. We really, I think the metaphor is to take some wet paper towel and throw it at the wall and see what sticks—that’s really what we were trying to do. A lot of trial and error, a lot of freedom to do that, because Randy was a great executive and really believed in this. But we very quickly found success—success beyond what we expected.
So what we expected was that we were going to—you know, looking back on it, I’m not that proud of the viewpoint we had—but we were helping people with disabilities, we were doing this great thing for these people with disabilities. And about six months into, after we had really started onboarding the folks is when we realized, “Wow, this changed our company, it changed our culture, it changed everything going on in this building.” And then we replicated it and did it in another building. And then we went across the entire network of distribution centers and realized, “Wow, this is—the business benefits were outrageous. We could not have possibly predicted that this was what we were going to have.” But six months in, I had so much data, we could clearly say that we had much lower turnover with the employees with disabilities. We had equal or better performance. We had—the safety data was tremendous. It just really showed that people with disabilities are just as safe as employees without disabilities, however, when they have a safety incident, it’s usually negligible in cost or any other resources used by the company—typically it’s that they need a band aid, and because they got a cut or something like that.
And what we found when we dug into that data was that people without disabilities ignore the rule that when you get a cut and need a band aid, you have to go report it. And so we had employees without disabilities, just going and getting their own band aid, and not filling out the reports, but a lot of the employees with disabilities were much more literal, very attuned to our rules, and so they submitted the report to request the band aid officially. When we actually looked at workers’ comp data, and the things related to much more significant safety incidents that some people with disabilities were involved in, the return to work was much faster. It was 68% lower budget costs for anything related to workers’ comp. So as soon as somebody had an incident that was at that level, and they had time off, they were returning to work so much faster, the costs were so much lower.
And that was such an surprising impact of this. We did not expect that. We thought things would be about the same. You know, we really did not expect that we were going to have such stunning data. And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we were determined that this wasn’t going to be a charitable activity. We were holding people to the same standards—we were really adhering to, “How do we make sure people have the skillsets that they need to have?” We were partnering with local agencies so that they could get people to kind of pre-train before they came on board. We worked with those partners also to make sure people had supports while they were in the workplace if they needed job coaching or assistance in learning a new task or a new process. So it was just as an interesting experience where we just found so much benefit, culturally, to the rest of the workforce, but also monetarily—on the financial side of things. We didn’t expect it.
So I said, it was about six months, we started collecting this data, and about six months in, we were also kind of on a media tour. And ABC News did a nice piece on us and talked about what we were doing, and I thought it was a little heavy-handed on the charitable side, you know that we were doing this nice thing for people with disabilities. But the response from the general public was overwhelming. It was the largest media response Walgreens had in their history. So many people wrote in or called the company and said, “I didn’t know that Walgreens did this. I had no idea that Walgreens employs people with disabilities. I am now switching my prescriptions to Walgreens. I will now shop only at Walgreens”—and that was another business benefit. Because nobody had done this before, we didn’t know what to anticipate. We had some thoughts, we had a lot of suspicions, but this was it.
So that experience was, to me the greatest gift. Not only did I help Walgreens find these business benefits, and as we went to teach other companies, found the same results within them, but I also made a huge impact on people with disabilities—which was my initial motivation for taking the job. I had started my career helping people with disabilities find jobs. I was special educator, I did job coaching, worked for governmental systems trying to make things better. So it was such a gift to be able to do it from both sides.
And so I stayed there for six years. We started with the distribution centers; we had set a goal that we wanted 10% of our workforce to be people with disabilities by 2010—it had a nice little ring to it 10% by 2010. We actually did not achieve that goal, because of the economic downturn that we went through. We stopped hiring people, and when you’re not hiring people, you can’t hire people with disabilities. But it allowed us the opportunity that by 2011, we did hit that goal, as we were continuing to refill empty positions and had other turnover.
So that in itself was just great. But then we went to the retail side of the company, and had the opportunity to develop a model where we could, again, employ people with disabilities. It’s a very different organization than a distribution center, and we needed to figure out how to make it work in that different environment. And then we went to the corporate headquarters, and were able to infiltrate the diversity programming to be able to hire more people with disabilities, across all the ranks of Walgreens.
So by the time I left, it was a very stable program. Walgreens continues to be a leader in employing people with disabilities. They’re on a great trajectory, growth-wise, and people with disabilities is a part of that in their workforce. And so that’s just been a wonderful opportunity to see that, and to be able to influence so many other companies. And as you said in the introduction, then I created my own consultancy, to help other companies because I had sort of, I’d hit the limit with Walgreens—they were set and ready to go. And I wanted a new challenge. So I moved on to to helping other companies and found the same results. But I will always be grateful to what I learned at Walgreens because that’s how I learned how to make it make sense on the business side.
Yeah, it sounds like an amazing program. And that’s why I said, don’t be afraid to brag. I don’t think you bragged enough! But some of the key things that I took off of that, obviously, is just the program itself. It’s amazing. But the fact that we can—measurable results, we can show that this is not a negative effect on anything that we’re doing. In fact, it’s a positive from the decreased turnover, in the workers’ comp costs, and everything else there.
And Walgreens is a big sample size, so you can prove it is a successful program. So how do we now, you know—I mentioned at the beginning, in our industry, major topic of conversation is always getting and retaining the people we need. Thanks for sharing this with me, you shared me this blog you recently wrote, which is Five Ways to Recruit People with Disabilities. And I’m thinking that’s probably a good thing for us to talk about now, and help educate on how we can be better at implementing this in our firms. So, you want to give us a little background ,or maybe just go through the five points?
Sure. Yeah, I mean, you can go to the blog for all the details. But I think that right now, there’s this perception that because of what happened with the pandemic, there isn’t a good workforce out there. And on the other side, that people aren’t employing new individuals. And that is not the truth. There is—the job market right now is just going crazy, and so it’s important that I think people know how to leverage candidates with disabilities as well, because they’re in the workforce.
And I’ll just back up for a second and say, people with disabilities is 20% of the US population. The definition of disability is so broad that a lot of your workforce that you currently have already are people with disabilities. But if you want to be able to reach out more, there is a section of the disability community that feels like they’ve been discriminated against, and so it does take a little bit of extra effort on your part to let them know that you are not going to discriminate. That you are welcoming of people with disabilities. And so my first suggestion to companies is always to go beyond the EEOC language when you’re posting on your jobs, or the careers part of your website, just to be sure that you’re just not saying “We’re just not going to discriminate,” but saying “We’re welcoming of all candidates who can do our jobs.”
I think a thing that a lot of companies should be doing is creating partnerships with local agencies or schools or anybody else who can help you find the people with disabilities that are a little hesitant, but are certainly capable of doing what you need them to do. I think that clearly communicating with your own internal folks of saying, “This is why we’re employing people with disabilities, we’re doing it for the business benefits, not to just look like we’re great on the PR side of things because we’re hiring people with disabilities”—when you communicate that internally, what we have found is that all of a sudden, almost every one of your employees know somebody with a disability who actually would be a great employee, they just didn’t know that you would be welcoming and encouraging that. So just that very simple step of communicating that clearly, and making sure people know that you’re doing it for the business reasons—not because you’re money grubbing, but because, why not do it in a way that really makes sense for all of your employees and all of your customers.
The fourth thing I really encourage people to do is if this is your first time, dipping your toes into employing people with disabilities, maybe you create a dedicated internship and you partner with a college. If you currently have a local college that you recruit from, reach out to their student services office for students with disabilities. Every university and college has one. They’re the ones who are helping those students with any kind of testing accommodations or things like that, they need note takers while they’re in college—that’s the best source. That’s a very significant part of the disability community who are very hesitant. They don’t know if people are gonna be welcoming of them.
And that leads me to the last point, which is to understand what accommodations are reasonable and which ones aren’t. And that was a huge learning curve for Walgreens. We needed to be very careful about how we were setting accommodation. It scares people to say those terms. They think something big, something expensive, really understanding reasonable. Now my guess is that CPAs truly understand the idea of reasonable from the financial standpoint, and that’s great, because honestly, if somebody is asking for something that’s so outrageously expensive, odds are if you’re a smaller firm, or even a bigger firm, it may not make sense. But the other part we looked at a lot was not the money, but did it interfere with our operations. So that was the other side of reasonable accommodation. And me coming from the disability side, I did understand that legal aspect really well.
So understanding combinations, if you go to the blog, there is a wonderful resource in there, but I’ll just say it out loud: www.askjan.org. It’s funded by the federal government, it’s intended for businesses, it’s completely confidential, and they know everything about every business situation, every employee’s situation, what kinds of different kinds of disabilities and what has worked well, so they can really, if you say, “This is the situation I’m dealing with,” they can give you great solutions. So I always encourage people to use them.
And I did want to back up just for a second and say one thing about the Walgreens success. The financial benefits that we saw, and this might make you cringe, Randy, none of them were tax credits, we never measured that.
And there are tax credits that are available, and a lot of companies do use them. Just at the time, it didn’t occur to me to measure that specifically. So all of the benefits that we experienced, and then some, from Walgreens—and since then I’ve gotten better at helping people find out how to use the tax credits if the individuals that they’re employing are eligible.
So that’s great. And that before I move on—that blog, where can people find that?
Alright, great. And then you just mentioned, you know, how you’re working with people on this. What is your business? What are you doing—you’re obviously bridging the gap, but you’re introducing to someone with a disability to the business? How does this operation work that you’re doing?
So most of my clients are businesses who want to better source people with disabilities, or they want to have their managers and the rest of their internal operations be disability-friendly. So sometimes managers are hesitant. They want training on, “how do we manage people with disabilities? Is it different? Is it not different? What can I say? What can I not say?” Having their recruiters and individuals who are doing the interviewing, understanding what are the parameters that they can operate with him, and not overstep the bounds of the Americans with Disabilities Act or anything like that.
So a lot of it is training, but I also work on strategies for recruiting in general: how do we open up the pipeline of qualified candidates with disabilities, whether it’s building those partnerships that I talked about, or whether it’s just looking at different ways of recruiting. Some of it’s messaging, which I talked about in the blog. And really, so I take the opportunity to sit down with a company and say, “Where are you right now, and where do you want to be? And how can people with disabilities help you get there?”
Sometimes it’s a very intensive engagement, where I’m spending a lot of time there helping them build dashboards so that they can measure the metrics of the success, and sometimes it’s a much shorter engagement, really just kind of giving them a little kickstart and getting going. So I do all sorts of things.
And then on the other side of it, so I look at disability employment as the business side and the disability side. And what my job is, as I always say, is to help them connect better—to bridge that gap. And so sometimes my job is helping the disability side be better at sourcing good candidates, working with an employer to understand what does that business need, and then finding the candidates that have that skillset. So it’s, on both sides that I spend a lot of time.
The last two years has been much more focused on the disability side, because businesses “got it.” For a while, I had to convince businesses that this was a good idea. And we finally started talking about it enough and it was getting communicated out. And I didn’t need to be pushing on that side. My goal is for us to completely bridge the gap of employment for people with disabilities. Right now the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is double that as it is of Americans without disabilities, so we need to do better. That’s my mission in life, is oo just to bridge that gap totally. It comes from both sides.
But businesses tend to have very simple questions. And sometimes they’re afraid to ask it. So I always want to be that trusted advisor to say, “You can ask me anything. It doesn’t matter if you worded it politically correctly or not. I’m here to help you frame that question differently if you need to have it framed differently, but otherwise, just to answer the question, and get you the resources that you need.”
Okay, so a majority, it sounds like, consulting with the business and helping them set up these programs and do the programs correctly. And that’s great. So anything, any last thoughts on this, before we get some contact information for you?
I think that what holds so many people back from pursuing this, or even asking questions, is fear. And so I always just want to try to alleviate people’s fear: They’re afraid of people with disabilities, because they’re not familiar. And I get that, having gone through the whole stroke thing, being on both sides of it. And it’s okay—because it’s just something we’re not familiar with.
The U.S., as a society, hasn’t always promoted people with disabilities as a great workforce solution. And so I just want to reiterate to people—you don’t need to be afraid of this. It’s natural, but you can move forward and you can get the information you need to be able to access such a great workforce. And the final thing I’ll say to anybody who’s thinking about employing people with disabilities, and it’s rather controversial when I say it, but please remember: just because somebody has a disability doesn’t mean that you can’t fire them with cause.
So that was our metric at Walgreens for a while, was making sure that we were treating people equitably—meaning we’re giving them the supports that they need, because they have a disability—but at the same time, we’re holding them to the same standards, and when they couldn’t accomplish those standards, with or without supports, then we needed to let them go. And we did terminate people with disabilities for cause just like with terminate people without disabilities for cause. But that’s a huge fear. So I just wanted to put that out there. Thanks for that.
I like that. I like that. Nope—treating everybody equally, I think which is fair.
All right. Well, I think this is great. If people do want to get a hold of you. I know we mentioned the website a little bit, but what’s the best way to get ahold of you?
I think through my website or on LinkedIn. I spend a lot of time on LinkedIn, putting content out there, so that’s a great way to reach out to me. but my website and my email address are the other ways to do it. I tried to put a lot of free resources onto my website, just so that people who are looking for quick questions to be answered, hopefully can find it on there. But if not, they can reach out to me through the website, or the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alright, well, that’s great. And we will put that in the show notes as well.
This did not disappoint. I was looking forward to this. And this was a great conversation. I really appreciate your time. And again, really appreciate you agreeing to be on the show.
I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about this. I don’t know if you could tell or not. But I love talking about the success we had at Walgreens and what it’s led to since then. So any chance I get to talk about it is wonderful.
Yeah, your passion definitely shows through. So I appreciate that.
About the Guest
Deb Russell works to bridge the gap between business and disability, helping hundreds of companies, schools, state agencies and non-profits. A stroke survivor herself, she helps companies improve sources of talent and help sources of talent improve companies. She uses online courses, coaching and consulting to help both sides come together to bridge the gap between business and disability.
In her previous work at Walgreens, she increased the number of disabled workers to over 10%, while saving Walgreens money through higher safety ratings and retention of these employees.
Deb earned her Bachelor’s in Psychology from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1989. She earned her Master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling from the same institution in 1993.
Meet the Host
Randy Crabtree, CPA
Randy Crabtree, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals, is a widely followed author, lecturer and podcast host for the accounting profession.
Since 2019, he has hosted the bi-weekly “The Unique CPA,” podcast, which ranks among the world’s 5% most popular programs (Source: Listen Score). You can find articles from Randy in Accounting Today’s Voices column, the AICPA Tax Adviser (Tax-saving opportunities for the housing and construction industries) and he is a regular presenter at conferences and virtual training events hosted by CPAmerica, Prime Global, Leading Edge Alliance (LEA), Allinial Global and several state CPA societies. Crabtree also provides continuing professional education to top 100 CPA firms across the country.
Schaumberg, Illinois-based Tri-Merit is a niche professional services firm that specializes in helping CPAs and their clients benefit from R&D tax credits, cost segregation, the energy efficient commercial buildings deduction (179D), the energy efficient home credit (45L) and the employee retention credit (ERC).
Prior to joining Tri-Merit, Crabtree was managing partner of a CPA firm in the greater Chicago area. He has more than 30 years of public accounting and tax consulting experience in a wide variety of industries, and has worked closely with top executives to help them optimize their tax planning strategies.