Giving Them a Chance

Ford Motor Co. has joined the growing list of companies that are actively seeking to hire people with autism. 

By Andrew R. McIlvaine

Tim Weiler's oldest son graduated magna cum laude from Marshall University. Yet, when it came to finding a job, he "hit a wall," Weiler says. 

Weiler's son has autism spectrum disorder, and his struggle with launching a career is similar to that of most people with ASD: Only 58 percent of young adults with autism are employed, according to a 2015 report from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, a rate that is far lower than that for young adults with other disabilities. The United Nations estimates that the global unemployment and underemployment rate for people with autism is as high as 90 percent. Autism affects approximately one in every 68 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People on the autism spectrum (the name for a wide range of developmental disorders that affect a person's ability to communicate and interact with others) have long faced an uphill battle in landing decent jobs.

However, a growing number of employers are finding that hiring people on the spectrum is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. Microsoft, SAP (one of the first large software companies to seek out people with ASD), Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Ernst & Young and Weiler's employer, Willis Towers Watson, are among the companies that are actively seeking out people with autism for well-paying jobs in areas such as software testing and quality assurance. These programs, advocates say, make use of the strengths people with autism can bring to the workplace, such as the ability to stay focused for long periods of time on repetitive tasks, attention to detail and the ability to spot patterns in data that many "neurotypicals" (people not on the autism spectrum) would miss. 

"There are actually a lot of jobs that people on the autism spectrum excel at," says Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne, a nonprofit organization that's helped match autistic people with jobs at approximately 100 companies worldwide. "It's not just the ability to perform a task that many others aren't suited for, but the ability to bring a different way of thinking to companies."

Now, Ford Motor Co. has joined the growing list of employers with initiatives in place to hire people with autism. Last summer, it partnered with the Autism Alliance of Michigan on a pilot program in which four people with ASD were hired on as contract employees in its product development organization. The program -- called FordInclusiveWorks -- proved successful and, at the end of the summer, the four workers joined the company as full-time employees after applying for jobs through Ford's standard recruitment process.

"The individuals we hired brought a huge amount of enthusiasm to their work, and when you have a team member who loves their work, it spreads to the rest of the team," says Kirstin Queen, Ford's corporate diversity and inclusion manager for the Americas. "Our CEO was very pleased with the program."

This year, the automaker expects to hire 12 to 24 additional people with autism in areas such as IT and digital innovation, she says.

The Autism Alliance worked closely with Ford in identifying positions in product development that would be best-suited for people with autism, screening potential hires and providing them with ongoing training and support, says Queen.

The Autism Alliance, which is providing similar assistance to Ford with its current hiring initiative, also provided training for the managers, employees and HR staff who'd be working with the new hires, she says, adding that the training proved highly effective and has since been adapted by Ford with "lessons learned" from the pilot program.

"In a lot of our areas at Ford, we don't have set times for breaks or lunch, so one of the scenarios we present to managers is based on something that actually happened: You notice at the end of the day that 'Bill' hasn't taken lunch -- what do you do?" she says. "It underlies the importance of direct communication -- ensuring that departmental norms are explicitly explained [to employees with autism]."

Indeed, providing clarity is one of the most important things managers and colleagues can do to help ensure the success of employees with autism, says Sonne, a former IT director at a Danish telecommunications company who started Specialisterne (Danish for "the specialists") after his youngest son was diagnosed with autism.  Many people with ASD struggle with routine social interactions and may have trouble interpreting workplace norms.

"Set expectations clearly, say what you mean and mean what you say, and don't use sarcasm," he says, adding that managers who focus on this will become better leaders overall.

At Willis Towers Watson, Weiler -- who'd worked as a volunteer with Specialisterne -- approached senior executives at the consulting firm about starting a program to hire people with autism. Executives were interested, he says, but "wanted to dip their toe in first instead of jumping into the surf."

Working closely with Specialisterne and a local chapter of The ARC (a national advocacy organization for people with disabilities), Willis Towers Watson launched a pilot program in 2014 by hiring 18 seasonal workers for data-analyst jobs at its White Plains, N.Y., office, where they processed and reviewed employer-submitted compensation data. 

The program was deemed a success, with an immediate supervisor winning the Chairman's Award for outstanding work, says Weiler. John Haley, WTW's CEO, gave a speech about the program in 2015 at the U.N's World Autism Awareness Day.

The company has launched a second pilot program at its actuarial services and benefits-administration support centers in Philadelphia and Mount Laurel, N.J., where five people with ASD have been hired so far for full-time positions, and has begun another pilot program at its benefits outsourcing center in London. It plans to expand the initiative to an additional location soon, probably in the United States, says Weiler, who retired from WTW last year and now serves as a consultant to the firm in addition to having started his own company, Sales Compensation Group. 

The standard recruiting process at many firms presents a hurdle for people on the spectrum, who often lack relevant work experience because they've had limited employment opportunities, he says. "These folks often don't have brilliant resumes, and telephone and in-person interviews also screen them out because they may not be good with social skills." 

The best approach, he says, is to give candidates with ASD the chance to show that they can actually do the work. "Many of the things we screen for in the employment process are not directly needed for the job," says Weiler. "We need to find a way to test for job skills that doesn't involve a verbal interview."

Specialisterne, which has also worked closely with SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, EY and other companies on their autism-hiring initiatives, has created a standard four-week assessment program to match autistic people with jobs that includes giving managers the opportunity to get to know candidates by having lunch with them and observing them perform tasks such as building Lego Mindstorm Robots. 

"There are lots of opportunities to get potential managers and colleagues to interact with autistic candidates, because building the personal relationship is very important," says Sonne.

At Willis Towers Watson -- as at many other companies with similar programs -- employees with autism are matched with workplace buddies who've received special training to provide support and help the employees acclimate.

"You have to set up the environment for [autistic employees] to be successful," says Weiler. "Break down your work processes into a codified structure, and give them the time to learn that structure rather than throwing them in and making them figure it out. Once they've figured it out, give them a workplace buddy to coach them."

The results are worth the extra effort, he says. "These workers are really good with attention to detail, executing a structured process and they're not easily distracted. They show up on time or early and stay late. Once they get settled in, they're more productive than typical workers in these jobs. Your turnover will be low to nil because they're delighted to have a job."

Weiler and Queen both say the programs at their respective companies have been enthusiastically embraced by non-autistic employees.

"We received more than 70 comments from employees after we announced our program on our internal website," says Queen. "Some of them were from employees who have children with autism -- they said they were so proud of Ford for doing this, that it gave them hope that other companies would be inspired to do something similar and that their children would be able to easily find work."

Good feelings aside, however, organizations should hold autistic employees to the same standards as their neurotypical colleagues for the jobs they've been hired for, says Sonne.

"It's very important that people aren't given jobs because it makes the company feel good -- it has to be because they are good," he says.

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Jan 16, 2017
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