SAP’s Unlikely Talent Source

In 2012, business technology giant SAP launched a charitable initiative in India to offer autistic people there the chance to learn by interacting with iPads.

Educational opportunities for people with the neurodevelopment disorder, many of whom speak very little, are limited in India. SAP’s effort, launched in partnership with the Autism Society, was seen as a way to give them a chance to learn by interacting with SAP’s software on tablets.

According to company executives, the effort was a success — for reasons that extended beyond its original intent.

Through the course of the workshops, SAP discovered something interesting: Participants showed a surprising tendency to identify flaws in the platform’s usability.

Because autistic people tend to have a heightened sense of detail, it turned out that they were especially effective in debugging usability issues. SAP had its developers sit with a few of the autistic participants to help develop simple applications that would allow them to express feelings like hunger and thirst.

“We realized it was really wonderful to have these people involved in the development, because they could really focus on details and help us to understand what was not necessary,” said Anka Wittenberg, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at SAP. “A simple and effective app was the result of that, so we knew that we wanted people with autism in our workforce.”

To that end, SAP began developing a program,“Autism at Work,” to recruit those with autism to perform certain jobs. Launched in May 2013, the program aims to have autistic people represent 1 percent of SAP’s 65,000 person workforce — about 650 people — by 2020. To date, SAP has hired 40.

So far the effort has paid dividends, but not withoutits share of obstacles. Identifying jobs for those with autism, learning to interview and test for their skills and integrating them into teams were among the top challenges.

A Unique Perspective   

About 1 percent of the world population is estimated to have autism, according to the Autism Society. In the United States about 1 in 68 children are born with the disorder, which makes interacting with others difficult. According to the National Insitute of Mental Health, autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopment condition characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Put simply, autistic people tend to have difficulty interacting with others.

This is not to say people with autism aren’t skilled. According to experts, they tend to pay greater attention to detail. “I claim that in any business area, at least 5 percent of the tasks would benefit from being solved by people that have a good memory, a structured way of working, pattern recognition skills and can perform with high accuracy in repetitive tasks,” said Thorkil Sonne, founder and chief executive of the U.S. branch of Specialisterne, a Danish training and consulting firm that specializes in placing people with autism in the workforce.

As SAP discovered, these skills lend themselves particularly well to the tech industry, where obsessive attention to detail is often required to perfect the nuances that go into developing software.

At SAP, executives wanted to make sure the hires it made weren’t just for roles that required intensive coding or quality assurance. According to Wittenberg, the company wanted each autistic employee hired to be able to contribute to SAP as a whole and be embraced for their differences and unique characteristics.

But that would require SAP to change its corporate culture and bring in external partners to help source and develop autistic workers. They turned to Specialisterne.

“They are the experts in regard to autism,” Wittenberg said. “We needed a strong partner to help create an inclusive environment where we can bring in people who are different and focus on the strengths that they bring to the table.”

Sonne said to help propel SAP’s interest in hiring people with autism, it first held a series of information sessions to create a dialogue about autism in the workplace. Wittenberg invited a doctor who is autistic to share what a typical workday looks like from her perspective. Professors and autism researchers also came and gave presentations about the disorder.

The first information session, which included 400 employees, took place at SAP’s headquarters in Walldorf, Germany. The response was positive. “In one day, I got a couple hundred emails from employees at SAP saying how proud they were to work for this company,” Wittenberg said.

The next step came in the form of beginning to identify the work teams that could benefit from the skills of an autistic employee. Wittenberg said this included every department from design to human resources. While no department is prioritized, there are certain positions that better align with the strengths of people with autism.

Though the majority of candidates have been placed in development roles, Wittenberg said SAP has also been able to match candidates into marketing, communications and operations.

“Right now we have them employed in software testing and quality assurance, but we see more and more that the specific strengths that people with autism bring to the table are really an added value in many different areas of the corporate world,” she said.

Once teams were identified at the program’s launch, they were taken through onboarding training to address the challenges of working with autistic people . One of the first things potential team members learned was to avoid using sarcasm.

Wittenberg cited an example of greeting an autistic employee who may have arrived late by asking if he had slept well — a quip most people would interpret as a hint of disappointment for showing up late for work.

“The autistic person would likely respond, ‘Yes, I did sleep well,’ or ‘No, I did not sleep well,’” Wittenberg said. “They do not understand how to read between the lines.”

To alleviate other communication issues, SAP set up a support system for employees working with autistic people. A vital aspect of this support system is the assignment of a “buddy” to each autistic team member. Each buddy is supported by a mentor who has a close relationship with someone with autism — many SAP employees have friends or family members with the disorder — so they have a communication expert for additional support.

“It is very much to ensure day-to-day contact,” Wittenberg said. “If there are any challenges, from daily tasks to needing someone to go to the canteen with, this is his or her one person to go to.”

Show, Don’t Tell

The program began in India and since launched in Ireland and Germany. In 2014, the focus has been on North America, with programs launching in Montreal and Vancouver in Canada; Palo Alto, California; and Philadelphia.

While each rollout is unique, a set of standard practices have helped make the program scalable. These range from preparing an office for the arrival of an autistic employee to sourcing and evaluating a potential hire’s skills. Each requires a nontraditional approach to talent management.

The first hurdle to overcome was recruitment. Given the underdeveloped social skills typically associated with autism, it was clear from the outset that a traditional interview was not an effective way to judge talent for the program.

“I’ve been in HR for over 20 years, and we usually recruit by looking for qualifications like good communication skills and high team players,” Wittenberg said. “If I was to use this approach going forward, I would never have people with autism get through the mainstream recruitment process.”

To deal with the recruitment nuances of hiring autistic workers, SAP leaned on its partnership with Specialisterne. SAP provides the company with a job description of the position its trying to fill. Specialisterne has relationships with state governments, so upon receiving a job description the company contacts each state’s Vocational Rehabilitation office for a list of available autistic people who could meet the personnel requirements.

The way Specialisterne sources its talent pool is vital because of the legal implications surrounding the Americans with Disabilities Act. Hiring someone with a disability is similar to affirmative action hiring, said Kathy Dudley Helms, an employment law expert at law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Columbia, South Carolina.

“Where you could potentially run into problems is if you have two equally qualified people and you hire one because they’re autistic,” Helms said. “Assuming they are equally qualified and you are making the decision based on a disability, then that could be reverse discrimination.”

Because SAP conducts hiring through a specialized consultancy whose mission is to provide jobs to those with autism, the action is compliant with employment law, Helms said. “What they’re doing is perfectly legal,” she said, “because they know where to put their message where these folks are going to see it.” In other words, SAP is not advertising these jobs publicly.

When Specialisterne has gathered a talent pool for a particular position, the company takes all the potential hires through a comprehensive four-week assessment and mentoring program. “Not all people on the autism spectrum have the same kind of combination of skill sets, so it’s important for us to determine the profile of each individual,” Sonne said.

The first week is dedicated to establishing each candidate’s skills. This process takes place on-site at SAP. “Many of the people with autism have never been in a corporate setting before, so it’s a big change,” Sonne said. “We want to make sure that they will be comfortable with colleagues and managers and be able to deal with the corporate setting.”

Once their comfort level is established, the second week focuses on the ability to work within a team. Standard IT industry practices, including the scrum project development strategy common among developers, are introduced. The scrum is intended to increase creativity, teamwork and the team’s ability to adjust projects. So if an autistic candidate is able to function within that framework, the likelihood that he or she will find on-the-job success is increased.

In the third week, Specialisterne uses Lego’s Mindstorms robots to evaluate a potential autistic hire’s technical skills in the areas of software testing and quality control. The robots are customizable and contain sensors that can be programmed to carry out tasks like following a line. Using them in the interview process allows autistic candidates to demonstrate their technical abilities instead of having to explain them verbally.

“We cannot assess them on their communication skills or in regards to the team player role that they could bring to the company,” Wittenberg said. “Here, we’re able to evaluate not only how they are interacting with each other, but also how they were approaching the challenges that were given to them.” 

Sonne said the robots also help assess the candidates for the elevated skills normally associated with the disorder: good memory, attention to detail, ability to perform with high accuracy under repetitive work situations and the ability to think outside of the box.

Then in the final week of training, those who have successfully completed the program are placed in an actual work environment. The autistic candidates are introduced to hiring managers, who then introduce between managers and potential colleagues. This helps reduce the barrier between the training andactual employment.

According to Sonne, 14 candidates in 2014 have entered the program in hopes of being placed in either SAP’s Palo Alto or Pittsburgh offices. At the end of four weeks, 12 of those autistic candidates transitioned into full-time employment.

George Brown is one of those new hires. He was hired as an information developer at SAP’s Palo Alto office. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in management information systems fromSan Jose State University in 2004, he envisioned a career with the technology company based on his passion for enterprise resource planning software systems.

As one of the first autistic hires to go through the unique interview process, Brown said his favoriteaspect was getting to work with the Lego robots.During the training, he was challenged to use block programming to program both the motor and sensory components of the robot.

Given his diagnosis, Brown said the most challenging aspect of the training program was learning the scrum model. “I have an issue of always wanting to take charge and ownership of things,” Brown said in an email (SAP declined a request to interview him by phone). “I learned how to operate as a team member instead of the leader.”

Despite his initial discomfort, Brown said the training ultimately made the transition to full-time employment easier. On his first day, he went through typical employee orientation without a hitch.

“I feel that the transition to working full-time is nothing more than getting into a habit,” Brown said. “We are creatures of habit, and we need to establish good habits while getting rid of bad habits. Life becomes easy if you have good habits. Life is hard when you have bad ones.”

Brown credits his mentor and co-workers for making the transition and day-to-day life in the workplace productive by using a technique referred to as “one minute praising” — a practice of providing real-time feedback that is short and to the point.

“My mentor showed me the standard operating procedures of our department and how we did things,” he said. “When I did something right, he praised me. If I did it incorrectly, he told me the right way of doing things.”

Filling a Real Need

Wittenberg is quick to assert that even though the program is infusing diversity into SAP, the company is not simply trying to meet a quota. Autistic workers, she said, are being hired because of the skills they can bring to the company. “We do this because we strongly believe that everybody brings a strength to the table,” Wittenberg said.

With the program still in its pilot phase, SAP said it has not yet collected enough data to determine the program’s success. Having just reached the one-year mark, the company said its focus remains on developing a consistent rollout process so that the program can be scaled to meet the needs of any of its office environments.

“We got extremely positive feedback from our employees,” Wittenberg said. “They say they are proud to work for this company and that they have a very purposeful work environment.”

“My manager, mentor and co-workers have been awesome to me,” said Brown in the email. “I could not ask for a better company and department to work for.”

For Sonne, SAP’s effort is just another example of a company aiming to have its workforce demographics represent society at large. “Many companies want to have diversity that reflects the society that they are part of,” he said, “so it’s natural that they would want the same in their employees to have a diverse workforce.”

That isn’t to say that the benefit of hiring people with autism doesn’t have the potential to provide a unique contribution to business.

“Innovation comes from the edge,” Sonne said. “If we bring people from the edges of mainstream into the companies, we can really boost the innovative capacity.”