Hire people who think differently to reap rewards
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
There was the workshop where he felt constantly on edge because his back was to a door; and there was the bank that sacked him from his temping job when it learnt of his autism. Gareth Moreton has a gift for maths, but his chequered career has often depressed him — or rather it did.
Today, the 32-year-old graduate of Oxford university works for Auticon, a business that employs people on the autistic spectrum as IT and data consultants. Since February he has worked on a project for St James’s Place, the UK wealth management group. “For the first time, I’m realising I have skills that not everyone has that are useful to employers,” Mr Moreton says.
He is one of a small but growing number of people for whom autism is less of a bar to employment. Organisations such as SAP, Microsoft and EY run autism recruitment programmes; others, including Deutsche Bank UK, offer internships.
Tech businesses in particular hope to benefit by hiring people who think and sometimes act differently. According to the UK’s National Autistic Society, just 16 per cent of autistic adults are in full-time paid work. Generalisation is dangerous, but people on the autistic spectrum, including those with Asperger’s, often excel where others fall short: thinking logically, interpreting data and following methodologies meticulously. Yet, once hired, the problems associated with autism do not go away. An autistic person may suffer from anxieties, social awkwardness and sensitivity to environmental conditions, all of which can make the day-to-day of office life and feeling one of the team tricky. How can business make it work?
Finding a partner organisation with expertise in autism may be a good first step. Having the support of a job coach provided by Auticon helped Mr Moreton approach consulting confidently. Though technically expert, he finds change and noise stressful and needs time to acclimatise to unfamiliar surroundings and people he does not know.
His coach explained this to his client, found him a quiet cottage to rent and helped him choose appropriate workwear — a well-cut navy suit.
Kristen Doran, a senior human resources executive at SAP, also stresses the value of collaborations. When an employee joins through SAP’s Autism at Work programme, an adviser from its autism partner Specialisterne helps the person to settle in and talks to their team mates.
“Mostly it’s an education piece so that people have no unnecessary concerns about offending their new colleague or doing something wrong,” Ms Doran says. For example, it may help to remind co-workers to speak plainly — autistic people sometimes take metaphors literally — and to respect the strategies that people use to manage anxiety and avoid stressors such as noise and bright lights.
Providing specific instructions is also important, says Laurence Sirac, the director of a new data programme at Grenoble Ecole de Management for cognitively-able adults on the autistic spectrum. “If you say: give everybody a copy of this report the person may wonder: ‘who does everybody include?’”
For the most part, the normal rules of office life apply when managing an autistic colleague — but a shade more so. Matt Peers heads technology at Linklaters, the law firm, and recently hired an Auticon consultant for a data project. “Because we’re conscious of the situation, we’ve probably taken greater care with his induction than with people who don’t suffer from anxieties in the same way.” This approach includes ensuring that others know that the consultant finds small talk uncomfortable but enjoys discussing work.
How can employers best use the abilities of autistic workers? One approach is to match people’s capabilities to roles and provide training in their weak spots. However, improving enough in some areas may be hard for people with very uneven skills. An alternative is to divide roles according to people’s strengths. “The notion is that it’s better to focus on the spikes [of achievement] where people can create a disproportionate impact rather than obsess about shortcomings,” says Mark Evans, marketing director at Direct Line Group, the insurance company.
While managers can be flexible over how work is done, it is important to hold autistic employees to the same performance standards as everyone else, says Ms Doran. Otherwise, colleagues could view their contribution as less valuable: “You absolutely need to break down any perceptions that autistic people may not be able to contribute meaningfully, because a few dissenting voices can really undermine the ability of people to grow and develop within the organisation.”
Emily Swiatek, an employment training consultant at the National Autistic Society, urges employers not to pigeonhole people. She is herself on the autistic spectrum and breaks a stereotype by disliking numbers and thriving in a job based on communication skills: “If you get us on a subject that we’re passionate about, a lot of us are very clear and enthusiastic communicators.”
Observing a staff member with Asperger’s led Mr Evans to the same conclusion. The employee, who was asked to improve a process that hinged on accurate data entry, designed a step-by-step guide that read like a cartoon strip and the audit pass rate rose from 66 to 91 per cent. “He took a routine process and made it engaging,” Mr Evans says.
Mr Moreton recently aced the maths questions in a company quiz night hosted by his client, and his work has won praise: “My supervisor has said that I spot things and see patterns in numbers that he and no one else can.”
Grenoble Ecole de Management is creating a programme to help school leavers with Asperger’s pursue careers in big data, software development and cyber security.
The programme will launch in January 2019 with a cohort of 25 students, in partnership with the autism educational body C3R. To participate, students must have an autism diagnosis and have graduated from secondary school.
Laurence Sirac, who heads GEM’s MBA and masters job placement service and has Asperger’s herself, will direct the programme. It mixes online classes in data skills, which are taught by professors at the school, and specialist face-to-face tuition in the social skills that autistic workers sometimes find hard to acquire.
Students will be helped to find jobs and have access to job coaches as they adjust to their new roles.