Microsoft joins Freddie Mac, SAP in Autism Hiring Initiatives

This month, Microsoft announced a new addition to its diversity and inclusion initiatives: As part of a new pilot program, the tech company will launch an effort to hire people with autism in full-time positions.

The program, which will match autistic workers with positions at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, is part of a growing trend of companies looking to hire employees who are on the spectrum. Fortune 100 financial firm Freddie Mac and German-based software company SAP are among those who have launched programs to further this goal.

Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft’s vice president of worldwide operations, announced the initiative in a blog post on the company’s website, writing that the primary aim of the initiative is continuing to hire the best possible talent.

“Microsoft is stronger when we expand opportunity and we have a diverse workforce that represents our customers,” Smith wrote.

As part of the new program, Microsoft will work with Specialisterne, a Danish company with a mission of helping people with autism find meaningful employment. Specialisterne already partners with SAP as part of its Autism at Work initiative. Jose Velasco, who heads the program, said the company provides necessary methodology for recruiting, training and retaining new employees with autism.

Velasco said SAP’s partnerships with Specialisterne and other organizations have been vital to the success of Autism at Work. At its Palo Alto campus, for example, SAP sources potential employees through the State of California Department of Rehabilitation, which recommends candidates with the right skill sets for the available positions. Once candidates have been identified, local nonprofit Expandability assists with the training and job coaching functions of new employees with autism.

“What we have found to be a really, really fantastic thing is the partner relationships we have, both from a day-to-day support of our new colleagues as well as from a financial sustainability perspective,” Velasco said, noting that the Department of Rehabilitation provides funding for pre-employment training. “Partnerships like these allows for companies, large or small, to tap into this type of program without significant or very large investment.”

Freddie Mac also utilizes community partnerships as part of its internship program for recent college graduates with autism. Diversity manager Megan Pierouchakos said the mortgage lender works with the Autism Self Advocacy Network to identify likely candidates and train managers, as well as determine which job characteristics are best fitted to employees with autism.

“For example if we had a position that required 70 percent of a person’s time on the phone or in meetings, the question was raised if it could work where maybe you decrease that or move it to somebody else on the team, and then move more quantitative work or work that a person on the spectrum would be successful doing into that job description,” Pierouchakos said. “It’s thinking about ways to reallocate duties and make sure that the role is one that the individual would be successful in.”

And both programs have shown that individuals with autism can be very successful in a variety of roles. SAP, which hires chosen candidates into regular, full-time positions, has placed autistic employees in jobs including software developers, graphic designers and IT support. And since the launch of its internship program in 2012, Freddie Mac has hired three interns as full-time employees.

Moreover, Pierouchakos and Velasco emphasize that these employees are hired not just because they are the best person with autism for the job — they are the best person for the job, period.

“The majority of the people we bring in to intern not only have bachelor’s degrees but have pursued multiple master’s degrees,” Pierouchakos said. “They’re highly educated, but they’re underemployed. One of our new employees was in New Jersey working at Six Flags before coming to Freddie Mac, and now is a data analyst in our IT department.”

Velasco said that as long as companies are willing to provide a solid support network for employees on the spectrum, autistic workers can become a key part of any organization’s workforce.

“You get the benefit of people who are bringing in tremendous skills and experience,” Velasco said. “Everybody wins.”