Employment April 19, 2021
Autism at work programmes that help tech companies integrate inclusion with business development goals
Over the last five to seven years many top companies have launched autism at work programmes with autism talent advantage emerging as a key concept. We look at some of the best autism hiring practices used by companies that combine business needs and address core obstacles that come in the way of people with autism and other neuro-diverse conditions at the workplace.
This month, to mark Autism Awareness Month, Ernst & Young LLP (EY United States) announced the launch of its Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence (NCoE) in Boston. This is the first centre in the New England area and is designed to apply the talents of people with autism and other neuro-diverse conditions to meet the business needs of clients.
The Boston NCoE is made up of 10 people with cognitive differences such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia, and 14 more professionals will be hired in the coming months.
“The NCoE is a unique model for talent engagement that brings the power of cognitive differences to help meet changing demands for jobs, tasks, and skills”, said Jane Steinmetz, Boston Office Managing Principal, Ernst & Young LLP, in an interview to Newz Hook. “The purpose stems from the need to drive growth for businesses by recognising the tremendous untapped talent of neuro-divergent individuals. The Boston NCoE will not only transform the way we help our clients across New England, but it underscores our deep commitment to diversity, inclusiveness and opportunity for all. These team members bring unique skills to the firm and will be able to support clients through innovative work and thinking”.
Autism at work initiatives drive innovation
Since it launched the NCoE concept five years ago, E&Y has opened six such centres in the U.S., and one each in Canada and India. The entire process of E&Y’s autism at work programme – hiring, training and on-boarding – has been customised to make it more inclusive. One such adjustment is shifting from a behaviour-based interview process to a performance-based process, explains Steinmetz, who had long wanted to bring the concept to Boston and calls it a win-win for businesses as much as the individuals themselves.
This comprehensive approach provides structure around the team to help ensure success and promotes psychological safety for true belonging and equity. Neuro-divergent individuals have the ability to observe challenges, recognise patterns or spot solutions most of the population cannot. By working to tap into the wide array of skill sets this group has – such as analytical thinking, technology design and programming – EY can help their clients with future of work demands. – Jane Steinmetz, Boston Office Managing Principal, Ernst & Young LLP
Making autism hiring a priority
A growing number of companies, large and small, are realising the value of autism hiring programmes, with autism talent advantage emerging as a core concept, especially in the tech space. A large part of the credit for this goes to E&Y, Microsoft and SAP, which together spearheaded the Autism at Work Summit, the most high profile autism hiring initiative.
SAP’s Autism at Work programme began as a volunteer driven initiative in 2011 in India. The company sources much of the talent by partnering with local not for profits as well as through the community and direct outreach.
“Today we have hired around 180 full time employees across 20 locations and 10 countries and provided part time opportunities to another 180+ autistic individuals until now”, says V R Ferose, Head, SAP Academy for Engineering. The U.S contributes to highest number of hires. “SAP has always seen hiring autistic people as a competitive advantage. They think differently and are central to our innovation agenda. In 2019 the Hasso Plattner Founders Award, the Oscars at SAP, was won by Nicolas Neumann, an employee with autism, from Argentina in 2019. “There cannot be better testimony of the innovation power of autistic employee!”, says Ferose.
Watch Nicholas Neumann receive the award:
Under SAP’s autism hiring programme two support circles are identified for new recruits – one at the workplace, and the other for the personal space. At the workplace there’s a team manager, a job and life skills coach, an Autism at Work mentor, a team buddy, and an HR business partner, to name a few. Each region/country has the freedom to choose their own autism hiring practices.
Microsoft’s Neurodiversity Hiring Program is built on the belief that traditional recruiting does not allow people with autism and other neuro-diverse conditions to demonstrate their strengths and qualifications. Under Microsoft’s autism hiring programme, applicants engage in an extended interview process that focuses on workability, team projects, and skill assessment, thereby giving them the opportunity to demonstrate their skills.
Since 2015, Microsoft has recruited and hired more than 100 employees with autism and other neuro-diverse disabilities. They support 95 organisations – Azure, Customer Support, HoloLens, Windows, Xbox and others.
Since the first Autism at Work Summit was held in 2017, 20 of the largest companies in the United States have now embraced autism hiring in a major way. “Yet, put together, the Autism at Work program hired less than 800 adults by the end of 2020”, writes Michael Bernick, former director at the California Employment Development Department and author of the book The Autism Full Employment Act in this article in Forbes. “Another 80 or so major employers have autism hiring initiatives outside of Autism at Work, but together they employ fewer than 1500 workers”.
Sustaining autism at work programmes
On the bright side, there’s greater awareness by business of the potential of autism at work programmes and the value people with autism and other neuro-diverse conditions bring to the table.
“That awareness is starting to translate into real desire to be inclusive of this population”, says Jim Atwater, Founder, InReturn Strategies, a Kansas City-based start-up that is making the hiring process more inclusive by bridging the gaps between employers and job candidates with disabilities. “The real challenge will be if companies can scale that awareness into cultural intelligence across their companies and change systemic barriers in getting their brand and their jobs to these people and attracting that talent”.
For inclusion to happen in a deeper, sustained fashion, says Atwater, companies must regard underserved populations, including people with disabilities, as contributing members of their companies’ success material to revenue and cultural advantage. “Essentially, they don’t just have a disability programme, but have integrated inclusion into their business development goals, can scale the value of underserved populations across their companies and can measure profitability and sustainability for their shareholders, their people, and their communities”.
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