Companies wishing to build more inclusive and diverse workplaces should prioritise transparency and empathy when hiring neurodiverse employees.

This is according to Genevieve Koolen, HR director at SAP Africa, who says: “Introducing neurodiverse individuals into the business allows organisations to access unique skills and abilities that can bring immense value to the organisation.

“But this requires a rethink of hiring programs, recruitment processes, team management and greater flexibility to empower neurodiverse employees with career pathways that allow them to apply their unique skills and perspectives to tasks and opportunities.”

According to the Harvard Business Review, autistic professionals can be up to 140% more productive than a typical employee if they are properly matched to their job. However, studies have shown that up to 85% of adults with a college degree are unemployed, with companies’ hiring practices shouldering part of the blame.

Workplace program unlocks neurodiversity potential

To raise awareness and create work opportunities, SAP launched an Autism at Work Program in 2013 to support candidates who fall into the various neurodiverse categories. Candidates are encouraged to apply to open roles of interest for which they are qualified.

Managers with open positions can then contact the Autism at Work local lead in their country to connect with candidates in the Autism at Work pipeline. Hiring opportunities are promoted through the local partner network in addition to traditional recruiting channels.

“As a business we believe that creating a diverse, inclusive and bias-free culture makes us a better company,” says Koolen. “Having a program that embraces neurodiversity enables us to find great talent that we’d otherwise potentially miss. It also enables us to leverage the unique abilities and perspectives of people on the spectrum to foster innovation.”

Koolen cites the example of Nico Neumann, an SAP employee based in Buenos Aires in Argentina. Nico joined SAP’s finance team through the SAP Autism at Work program in 2016 and designed a tool that automates the posting of complex invoices with multiple cost allocations.

“Prior to the development of this tool, accounts payable needed two to three days to manually process large credit card statements such as American Express with over 20 000 accounting lines,” explains Koolen. “Thanks to Nico’s innovation, that processing time has reduced to 20 minutes.”

Neumann’s solution won the Hasso Plattner Founders’ Award, SAP’s highest internal award and accolade, and the highest honour or recognition an SAP employee can receive.

“Today, our workforce has 215 colleagues diagnosed with autism across 15 countries, who all contribute to the success of the business. In line with our ambition to be the most inclusive software company in the world, SAP aims to be an employer of choice for people who are neurodiverse and increase the number of colleagues with autism while maintaining our high retention rate of 90%.”

Two key actions for empowering neurodiversity at work

While stories such as Neumann’s are still rare, Koolen believes this is changing. “Companies are far more aware of the importance of building cultures that allow diverse employees to thrive, and have made significant changes to their systems and processes. While these efforts are not perfect, things are improving rapidly, in part thanks to greater understanding of neurodiversity.”

Koolen says companies seeking to build more inclusive workplaces where neurodiverse employees can thrive should focus efforts on two key areas.

Firstly, companies should train every employee – from top management to juniors – to understand and accept individual differences. “Regular awareness sessions help employees develop a deeper understanding of neurodiversity and encourage empathy with those who may view the world differently,” says Koolen. “Employees should also be encouraged to provide ongoing support to their colleagues to make it a company-wide effort, not just something driven by the HR department.”

Secondly, Koolen recommends companies relook their hiring practices to remove some of pressure that neurodiverse candidates experience during typical recruitment processes. “The traditional interview process can introduce immense stress to neurodiverse candidates and undermine their ability to convey their unique skills, competencies and aptitudes. By finding ways to relieve stressful situations, companies can easily allow neurodiverse candidates to display their full potential during the hiring process.”

Some of the ways companies can reduce stress during hiring efforts include training for interviewers to ensure they minimise unconscious bias. “Specialised skills assessments can also take the place of interviews, allowing companies to evaluate a candidate’s competence for specific tasks or roles,” says Koolen.

“SAP’s Autism at Work program also offers do-the-work try-outs instead of interviews, where neurodiverse candidates get to perform job-related tasks instead of face a barrage of interview questions. This has allowed us to identify individuals with the skills that will make our business successful while creating an environment in which unique individuals can bring their skills to bear.”