Last week the United Nations celebrated World Autism Awareness Day by urging employers to hire individuals on the autism spectrum. The Call to Action – announced by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon – supports the growing belief that employing this untapped talent pool will greatly benefit the global economy.
The UN welcomed multinational corporations to testify on the success of autism at work programs, as well as academics, policymakers, and employees who advocated for the importance of workplace inclusion.
“You don’t do it out of charity,” said Gov. Markell of Delaware. “It’s good for the bottom line… It’s a win-win-win situation.” Anyone with the ability to work deserves to experience the self-fulfillment that comes from a having a job, Markell argued. And when people with diverse capabilities find suitable employment, the benefits are felt by businesses, governments, and the employees themselves. Hiring employees with autism is simply good business.
Specifically, those on the autism spectrum have unique characteristics that bring immense value to jobs like software testing and programming. Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne, highlighted the value that comes from employees who are honest and straightforward, approach tasks with extreme focus and a critical eye, and are perfectionists in the workplace.
Since SAP launched its Autism at Work program in 2013 it has hired 40 participants – many of whom had been out of the workforce for years due to unwarranted discrimination.
The benefits to SAP have been twofold, explained Tanja Rueckert, EVP and COO of Products and Innovation at SAP. First, Autism at Work participants excel at innovating and creating new products. Second, their attention to detail and perfectionist attitude has helped SAP test and improve the quality of existing products.
It’s all about competing in the innovation economy, explained Copenhagen Business School professor Rob Austin. “Taking action in this area is vital to the development of the organizational capabilities that companies need to compete in the future economy,” he said. Companies need employees who think differently, as innovation often comes from those on the edges.
The long-term goal at SAP is to expand geographically and into new functional areas, including finance, administration, and HR – with the hope of ultimately employing 1 percent of the entire workforce with colleagues on the autism spectrum. SAP also encourages other companies to rise up and meet the UN’s challenge, stressed Rueckert.
The most powerful testimonials came from employees with autism who are thriving in the workplace. Patrick Viesti described his long and challenging job search after graduating from college in 2009. Despite his qualifications, interviewers often found him to be too monotone and stiff.
But his experience with SAP was different, he said. The interview included a problem solving exercise designed to identify strengths in a real-world situation. “SAP took the time to better understand who I was and my capabilities,” explained Viesti, an approach that paid off for both parties. As one of SAP’s first Autism at Work hires in the US, Viesti is now exceling in his role as an IT Product Associate – a win-win situation indeed.