The neurodiversity advantage

Tech companies are learning how to tap the special talents of neurodiverse workers

Carrie Hall’s path to her job as a technical writer at SAP wasn’t a simple one.

Although she previously held several project-management positions, ambiguous job descriptions presented stumbling blocks to building a career. Facing trendy interview techniques was a “kiss of death,” says Hall. “What does the color of a butterfly have to do with the job?”

Hall is on the autism spectrum. She landed at SAP thanks to a talent-development program, Autism at Work, that the software company rolled out in 2015. The program was designed to attract and retain “neurodiverse” employees who possess a variety of valuable cognitive abilities.

The SAP program replaced traditional interviews with a more interactive process. It adapted new employee training to help neurodiverse hires bond with each other and feel a sense of belonging within the company.

Hall’s detail-oriented approach made her ideal for writing meticulous technical guides. “I’m a bit of a unicorn among unicorns,” she says. “There’s the perception that autistic people have executive functioning issues or aren’t big picture people, but I don’t have those. I’m just a big-picture person in a very different way from others.”

Tapping into special skills

Not that long ago, autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, was treated as a crippling disability. Today, big companies increasingly see people with this and other neurological conditions as valuable employees who bring special skills to business problems.

Technology organizations are leading the trend. People with ASD often possess high levels of concentration and an eye for detail. Many bring memory and math skills that are in high demand for a variety of IT jobs.

Yet their talents remain largely untapped. Many struggle with communication and socialization skills. And as Hall found, traditional management approaches can backfire with neurodiverse people. In response, pioneers in the field are developing techniques to make workplaces more inclusive.

The potential payoffs are significant. Large companies with neurodiversity programs today are seeing “productivity gains, quality improvements, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in employee engagement,” according to a 2017 Harvard Business Review article by Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano.

SAP was the first major company to recruit neurodiverse employees. Its program boasts more than 160 workers in 13 countries.

EY, the global consulting giant, recently opened several Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence (NCoE)—programs designed to match neurodiverse workers with clients in demand of their special skills. EY currently runs NCoE programs in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Dallas, and plans to launch others in San Jose and Nashville.

“The growth of these offices is not driven by endorsing inclusion or fulfilling corporate social responsibility,” says Jamell Mitchell, operations leader for NCoE at EY. “The centers are placed where there is real market demand from a client.”

In one case, an NCoE team was able to significantly reduce the time EY spends new clients. At the time, the company’s most senior consultants were spending up to two hours creating client contracts using predefined templates.

Assigned to come up with a way to automate the process, an NCoE team member developed software that could complete 90% of the forms for 15 different contracts in 12 minutes, leaving senior consultants to quickly fill out the remainder. EY realized instant savings from the innovation.

Corporate pioneers

The number of people with autism and other neurological conditions is hard to measure, especially among adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified autism in about 1 in 59 children. Neurodiversity efforts also aim to recruit those with dyslexia, associated with enhanced pattern recognition, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is linked to high levels of creativity.

German software giant SAP was the first major company to launch a neurodiversity-inclusion effort. Its program now boasts more than 160 employees in 13 countries. Microsoft, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and IBM are among other blue chip brands that have followed suit.

SAP also leads a consortium of companies that are working with the University of Washington Information School to share best practices for neurodiversity initiatives. In early 2019, the group summarized their recommendations in a white paper titled Autism@Work Playbook.

JP Morgan Chase, a consortium member that began its own Autism at Work program in 2015, has recruited more than 80 neurodiverse employees in more than 20 roles. The bank’s goal is to have 300 employees in the program by the end of next year. Beginning with a small pilot, within six months it found that employees in the program were 48% faster and 92% more productive than their peers.

Embracing neurodiverse employees “allows our company to benefit from the unique blend of talents provided by these detail-oriented, rule-bound, logical and independent-thinking individuals,” writes James Mahoney, JP Morgan Chase executive director and head of the company’s Autism at Work program.

Emerging best practices

Developing a more neurodiverse workforce can be challenging for a company’s existing HR processes. Here are some common pitfalls noted by experts in the field, along with lessons from pioneering companies on how to overcome them.

Recruitment:

Finding neurodiverse employees isn’t always easy. There isn’t a job marketplace that specializes in candidates with autism, and lingering social stigmas usually prevent candidates from flagging the condition in their applications.

Advocacy groups and other organizations can help identify likely candidates, and they can help implement inclusion programs.

A company’s own employees can also help with recruiting. At Microsoft, for instance, autistic employees have volunteered to help recruit others, says Neil Barnett, the company’s director of inclusive hiring and accessibility.

Interviewing:

Intentional or not, interviewing is often one long test of a candidate’s social aptitude. Interviewees are put through a battery of meetings in which their communication and interpersonal skills are put to the test. Such trials can be difficult for autistic individuals.

Microsoft, which began its Autism Hiring Program in 2015, developed a nontraditional interview approach that brings candidates to the campus for five days. Candidates meet with various teams and have the opportunity to display their skills, not simply answer interviewers’ questions.

JP Morgan Chase set up its interview process in partnership with organizations that have experience working with autistic individuals. The groups have trained JP Morgan Chase interviewers in alternative communications techniques, such as avoiding open-ended questions and relying on literal explanations when describing things.

Training:

Once hired, neurodiverse employees often need help adapting to their new work environment. And existing employees and managers need to learn how to welcome those who seem different.
For the new employee, training in communication and interpersonal skills can help smooth their transition. SAP partners with the Danish consultancy Specialisterne to provide social and life skills training for employees with autism, such as how to rent an apartment and use public transportation.

For existing employees and managers, training aims to raise awareness of autism and other cognitive conditions and to teach appropriate communication styles. At Microsoft, for instance, managers are taught to recap what they cover in meetings and to check in with all team members, not just the autistic ones, about their preferred ways of communicating.

Onboarding:

Employee support circles and job coaches can help ease the transition for the new employees and can be useful long after the typical 90-day probation period has passed.

SAP organizes support circles for its employees with autism. Those typically include the employee’s manager, a “work buddy” who helps the employee adapt to the job, a mentor from another team who helps the employee with on-the-job networking, and a life skills coach from outside the company.

Retention:

The challenges don’t end with onboarding. Autistic employees can be unsettled by typical workplace dynamics, such as corporate reorgs or management turnover. It’s important to communicate change proactively and to be flexible in how changes are implemented.

Managers must also consider whether or how to inform managers and other team members that their new colleague is on the autism spectrum or has some other neurological condition. Neurodiversity advocates advise that the employee’s privacy preferences should remain the top priority.

“Many of the team members we’ve hired prefer not to have their diagnosis highlighted as either a disability or a kind of superpower,” says EY’s Mitchell. “They just want to be individuals that bring value to an organization.”


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