Director of Jobs
Best Buddies Illinois
As the Director of Jobs at Best Buddies in Illinois, Nicolette Cuttell supports employers who hire people with disabilities. Read on to learn how Best Buddies, a global nonprofit, matches diverse candidates to employment opportunities and helps employers and clients achieve their goals.
Tell us about Best Buddies and what makes it so unique.
Best Buddies is a global nonprofit, and the office where I work serves all of Illinois. I love knowing that Best Buddies is part of something larger, that it’s a global movement towards inclusion and we are all working towards the same mission. Here in Chicago, we are a small local team, but it’s also part of something more significant. I get to be part of two things, which is really unique.
We hope for a world where people with disabilities are included in all aspects of society, and we address that through our leadership development program.
What is Best Buddies hoping to achieve in the next few years?
In the next few years, we hope to reach the milestone of 100 active job placements in Chicago. We are just over halfway to that goal and our Jobs program continues to grow throughout the Chicagoland area.
In the long run, we like to say we want to put ourselves out of business. We hope for a world where people with disabilities are included in all aspects of society, and we address that through our leadership development program. So, it’s about more touchpoints with all stakeholders who are in a position to help us. It’s weird to think that we don’t want our services to be needed, but that’s the dream. In the meantime, we’ll continue building our chapters, getting more employers on board, increasing those numbers, and hopefully providing the necessary resources to carry it forward.
What kinds of individuals do you work with?
There is a criteria for admission that all individuals served by Best Buddies must have. First, someone must have an intellectual or developmental disability diagnosis. Second, they must have a desire to work in the community. Someone can join the Jobs program once they have graduated high school or finished their transition program. We take a faded approach to our support so someone must be able to perform their job independently over time. We like to say we are here through the lifespan of employment for our participants. For example, I had a client who just recently retired, so that’s been great to see. We’re always here for them.
An estimated 85% of adults (18+) with developmental disabilities do not have a paid job in the community. There’s just such a great need for services.
Can you talk a bit about some of the challenges your organization is facing now?
I think one of the biggest challenges is the new virtual work dynamic. It’s been an excellent opportunity for some of our participants with limited access to transportation. However, there’s still the continued challenge of social isolation in that, sometimes, the virtual work environment can be challenging for someone with a disability. In other words, how do we promote inclusion and ensure they’re integrated into the workplace if they work virtually? How do we continue to learn and adapt to the trends?
Our approach is very person-centered, so we must ensure we serve both the individual and the employer. It’s not just about making a placement at such-and-such company. We want it to be a good match. We want to ensure the relationship is sustainable. The goal is for a long-term employment opportunity that’s good for both parties.
Can you touch on anything that’s preventing you from reaching these goals?
We’re trying to serve as many people as possible, which is no easy feat. As there’s more awareness and acceptance for the disability community and an understanding of what someone’s ability can be in the workplace, we’re getting many more referrals. More and more people want to join our program so we can help them find a job. So, the biggest challenge is our staff bandwidth and capacity to serve. An estimated 85% of adults (18+) with developmental disabilities do not have a paid job in the community. There’s just such a great need for services.
When you connect with an employer you’re hoping to partner with, what does that look like?
We’re open to anything in terms of size and sector. Since we are global, we have a National Jobs team connecting states to national employer partners, and we take the lead at the local level.
Employers need to celebrate their employees. When you see an employer that gets that, it’s such a joy. You see the participant thriving there and know that we helped. But really, it’s because of the structure and system the employer has in place and that they understand how to treat their employees.
In terms of what we look for, we do a lot of research before we partner with a company. It’s more about looking at what the companies are like, their values, culture, and what resources they have. And then, we’ll explain our program and be a resource to them in helping them create a more diverse workplace. There can be a lot of bias regarding, “Is this going to take more work to hire someone from this program?” They don’t know. And that’s what we do; we identify natural supports and accommodations in the workplace.
What are some common misconceptions that employers come to you with?
Too much time to hire and concern about the cost are top issues. We let them know that it’s free to use our services. We explain what reasonable accommodations are and provide a lot of educational resources. We do a lot of employer lunch and learns, for example, or presentations to outline some interview best practices and disability etiquette in addition to introducing them to who we are at Best Buddies so that they can realize, “This is possible.”
What kind of timeline could they look at as far as partnership?
I wish it were a one-size-fits-all kind of scenario. But if we can’t answer in terms of timeframe, we can say: here are the steps. If I have someone who meets the criteria of the job, we want to connect right away. In some cases we’d want to do a site visit and a job analysis to make sure we understand the lay of the land in terms of supports or accommodations. We need to have a good understanding of the workplace to make sure that they understand our program and services and that we understand their workplace culture before proceeding.
What are some common traits of successful employer partners?
A good structure and a point person we can communicate with for check-ins and to provide supervision, especially during the onboarding process. Also, we like an employer that’s willing to take advantage of all we offer; coming to our events, seeing our mission in action and all the different facets we serve or will do outside the job itself. After a lunch and learn, for instance, we can do some disability etiquette training for their teams or talk about other ways that they can grow the partnership. You see that investment, work on what makes sense, and go from there.
Do you have an employer success story?
A company had hired a participant, which lasted for a bit, but then she moved on to something new. We didn’t have anyone employed with them for a while, and they returned to us with an open position. They wanted to hire someone from Best Buddies as they understood our mission and program. It wasn’t about selling the program; we just needed to find them a good candidate. So they hired one of our participants a year and a half ago and gave her multiple opportunities to grow. They really leaned into her skill set. She was teaching and training co-workers, and it was great from an employer perspective; they understood what integrated employment was. They celebrated her as an employee and treated her like any other colleague.
Once a year, we do this event called Friendship Walk. Everyone gets together and celebrates inclusion. We let the employer know that their employee was going to be our Jobs Participant of the Year. If they want to come, great! If they’re not available, we understand.
In this case, six or eight of them came to cheer her on. They threw her a party at the office. No one said, “Hey, here’s how you can get involved,” — they just took the initiative.
Employers need to celebrate their employees. When you see an employer that gets that, it’s such a joy. You see the participant thriving there and know that we helped. But really, it’s because of the structure and system the employer has in place and that they understand how to treat their employees. That’s genuinely amazing.
If an employer reading this takes away just one thing, what do you hope it will be?
Be open to giving someone a chance. Connect with us; we’re here to help. Inclusion can happen in the workplace, and we’re here to help you realize what that can look like.