April 2nd was World Autism day, and Microsoft is a company that in recent years has been trying to change the image of Silicon Valley from nerdy white boys to a more diverse group—from age, gender, sexual orientation. In April of 2015, Microsoft decided to take itself to a new edge in hiring practicing by extending its diversity programs. It announced that it was opening a brand-new program: their Autism Hiring Program. The program launch was announced initially on another World Autism Day by Mary Ellen Smith at UN location in New York, as part of their initiative to become a more diverse company. The program was developed in tandem with Danish company Specialisterne (meaning “specialist” in Danish). The company was started by Thorkil and Annette Sonne, parents of an autistic son. As they came to get to know the community, they realized there was a gap after children leave the mandated school system and were transitioning into adulthood. They learned about the difficulty so many of these young adults have with finding gainful employment.
Another commonality the couple noticed while spending more time with children on the spectrum is that some of the children showed traits of being able to be very focused on a single task for extended lengths of time, and they were very exact in the execution of tasks. Knowing that there are many positions and companies that require these traits, Sonne saw no reason that these children and adults could not be employed with the proper supports available to them.
Thus, Specialisterne was founded. They teamed up with companies in Denmark looking for employees who could work on data-entry, software testing, and other highly specific skills. Most people attempting these jobs get bored and get sloppy, but for someone with skills of being focused and exact, it would be a perfect pairing. Of course, it isn’t just about taking a person and dropping them into a workplace or even a job interview. An interview structured for a neurotypical candidate will not accurately assess the skills of anyone who is neurodivergent and it is here that candidates frequently get snagged when trying to get employment.
To solve this, Specialisterne has developed their own interviewing process to assess if applicants have the precise skills they’re looking for. Finding people who are good fits for the program is difficult because the program is not one-size-fits-all for everyone along the spectrum. Per an article in the New York Times “The Autism Advantage” only 1/6 applicants are hired. In the New York Times article, Sonne admitted that the program has its limits and unfortunately cannot serve every neurodivergent individual.
The process of evaluating applicants is in several stages. Candidates need to be evaluated based on how they work in teams, individually, and how they deal with problem solving. Something unique one will not find at the average job interview, is that Sonne uses Lego Mindstorm building kits to help evaluate these skills. Occasionally during the interview process applicants will get distressed, per Sonne in the New York Times article, the colors of the Legos not matching exactly with the colors of the bricks themselves is a common problem. However, during the group assessment, other candidates will often put down their work to help fellow team members with problems and get the group back on task. Specielisterne’s approach to employment evaluation has been so successful, that it is something they now specialize in.
This specialization is what made them an attractive partner for Microsoft when they were seeking to create their program expansion. The tech giant needed to work with a company who was already successfully evaluating and hiring candidates for positions that Microsoft was attempting to fill. The first wave of applicants went through a four-week hiring workshop. The extended length of time was to enable candidates to be able to showcase their skills in a more relaxed environment, where they could open up and really show off their true skills.
At its launch, the new Microsoft program received over 700 applicants, over 1000 emails, and were flooded with phone calls LinkedIn requests, and phone calls with questions. They also were inundated with requests for interviews, and offered awards. But the program did not receive solely external support—the internal support from within Microsoft itself overwhelmed those involved. Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, stated in an article on Microsoft’s news blog, “What it said to us is that there’s a bigger need that we even realized.”
Just as Specialisterne needed to alter how it deals with new hires, Microsoft had to completely reimagine the entire hiring process. It is not enough to alter the interview process, there needed to be built in support for new hires. To achieve that, the company partnered with another organization PROVAIL, a Seattle based organization whose mission statement is “Supporting people with disabilities to fulfill their life choices.”
PROVAIL helped to connect Microsoft with job coaches, who work directly with new hires through the Autism Hiring Program on anything they might need help with—from balancing working life, to problem solving strategies, and learning how to navigate in an office environment. Microsoft is also careful not to drop a new hire into a hostile situation. There was a balancing act between telling the teams that where the new employees were entering that they came through the Autism Hiring Program (which effectively announced that the new person has a disability) and prepping team members so that there would be as few conflicts as possible.
Microsoft worked to develop a training program for managers, co-workers, and other members of the team. The training program was meant to inform teams about what the Autism Hiring Program was, how it worked and what the process was that applicants went through. It was also meant to explain more about Autism Spectrum Disorder, and what strengths and weaknesses their new team member might have. The advantage of this program is that all managers were prepped to take incoming hires and help them to integrate into the Microsoft environment, rather than in a normal setting where a neurodivergent person could be potentially dropped into a hostile environment. The advantage of hiring individuals on the spectrum is not well studied, but the overwhelming feeling is that industries are missing out on potential talent pools. In the Microsoft blog article, Lay-Flurrie said “By adjusting out hiring practices, we were able to recruit from a new talent pool—a talent pool that is rich with mad skills. We’re hiring these folks because they’re amazingly talented individuals who are going to help us do amazing things here at Microsoft.”
The tech giant is in a unique position where it has enough resources to implement such a massive overhaul—and has the renown to make it a vital competent to changing minds of other companies that it is possible to hire neurodivergent people and have not just a successful company—but a thriving company both economically and socially. Diversity is not simply a need to check a box, a company like Microsoft is constantly looking for new and creative ideas. That calls for some out of the box thinking. In The Globe and Mail article, “Autism becoming an increasing value in diversity” Dean Betz stated, “Thinking out of the box isn’t merely a mental exercise, it’s how [people who are neurodivergent] think every day, and approach problems, is a tremendous asset, especially in a company like Microsoft.”
On February 2 of this year they announced via the Microsoft Jobs announcements twitter handle @MicrosoftJobs, that they are once again looking for candidates. This time they are looking for engineers though all applicants are encouraged to send in resumes and showcase their skills. Today the Autism Hiring program takes place over a 5 day period, rather than the initial longer interviewing process, and there is another group date coming up corresponding to the call for applications. The group event will be from March 27 until March 31.
The work of Microsoft and Specialisterne are not the magic solution for everyone. Not everyone has the skills for these position, and more work needs to be done to help connect potential talent of all kinds with companies and industries that need that talent. However, it is a huge step forward in realizing that doing thing the way we have always done them does not work for everyone, and by resisting change companies are losing phenomenal talent. It is one step in the march toward diversity in the workforce—but it is a big one, hopefully soon to be followed by many more.
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