The constructs of empathy and equity will continue to shape the service economy in an increasingly complex world of competing interests, opinions, and expectations. — Hetal and Nish Parikh, Rangam Consultants
The worst thing someone can say to me is, ‘Why can’t you just be normal? — Dan Schneider, CEO, SIB
About 70% of the 5.5 million adults on the autism spectrum in the U.S are unemployed. Only 1 in 7 of them holds a full-time job. “The unemployment rate is chronic, which is not a reflection of the talent pool, it’s just a reflection of these people not getting through the door,” shares Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer.
But it is not just neurodiverse people who are missing out; the companies are too. In an increasingly digitalized world, an extraordinary capacity for pattern recognition, attention to detail, loyalty, and strong mathematical and technical abilities are traits that define an ideal candidate.
They also sometimes makes the news for taking different approaches, such encouraging those who make mistake to buy ice cream for their colleagues and offering a $50,000 retention bonus in a downturn. Meet high school drop out, successful serial entrepreneur, and 38-year-old CEO of SIB Fixed Cost Reduction, Dan Schneider, who shared on Fox Business late last year that he had recently been diagnosed as on the spectrum. As reported, “while Schneider is able to process information quickly — a strength that benefits him in running SIB — the way he does so has sometimes been misinterpreted by those around him.” “I will ask a lot of questions rapidly because I am processing the information so fast,” Schneider said. He figured that to stop offending his employees, something he never meant to do but quite often did, the solution seemed obvious: opening up about his condition. “Sometimes the solutions are right there but you have to be willing to not just go with what the common thought process is,” he said.
As the pandemic forces us to rethink processes and redefine the concept of structured workplaces, firms need creative and diverse employees who think differently and can reshape standardized, and often antiquated, practices. As studies have shown, companies that employ people with disabilities can indeed turn social issues into business opportunities that translate into higher revenues, product innovation, and new markets.
Finally, bringing in neurodiverse individuals can change company culture for the better and elevate management skills — learning more about the individual’s needs and strengths. It requires that managers be more thoughtful and deliberate about who is on their team and to leverage the skills and approaches of the neurodiverse talent in a way that is complementary to the team and take their needs into consideration. It requires the same carefulness among team-members and builds empathy.
The goal is not to make neurodiverse hiring the exception of the rule but an integral part of a comprehensive and deliberate hiring strategy and management philosophy.
Rangam’s path to impact: A long, steady road to building access
When soon-to-be-married Hetal and Nish Parikh founded Rangam Consultants in 1995, the idea of hiring the differently-abled was revolutionary. Since then, their firm has grown to 500 employees and has been placing neurodiverse candidates Fortune 500 jobs since 2015. A week after Rangam’s 25th anniversary, their neurodiverse hiring program had a major expansion: the launch of a neurodiversity and employment-related solution in partnership with global staffing giant, Kelly. For five years, Rangam has provided this program within their existing client base. The new partnership with Kelly expands employment opportunities that have been largely untapped by the neurodiverse talent pool.
Nish has always pushed the limits and thoughts outside the box to create new opportunities for business growth, community services, and social welfare. Rangam evolved into a rapidly growing staffing business and software development firm creating innovative workforce solutions such as The Spectrum Careers job portal for individuals with autism and SourceVets for military veterans. Rangam developed The Spectrum Careers in partnership with Autism Speaks to cover the employment needs of thousands of people on the spectrum becoming adults every year. Nish used his tech background to develop SourcePros, an innovative talent management solution providing a centralized mechanism for recruiters to carry out their tasks quickly and efficiently. Today, SourcePros puts Rangam among the top five performing vendors with its Fortune 500 clients.
New business approaches require new minds
To fully harness the talent on the autism spectrum and other neurodiversity, Rangam has developed SourceAbled, an integrated and inclusive recruiting solution that combines technology, training, and education to autistic candidates, while providing employers with subject matter expertise and a diverse network of qualified talent. In the process, the Parikhs have found that involving and getting the buy-in of a larger community of internal and external stakeholders has been among the most critical ingredients in achieving real impact.
Get stakeholders’ buy-in from the beginning. Even if the decision of hiring neurodiverse talent is made by senior leaders, implementing it requires buy-in from many internal stakeholders, ranging from executive sponsors to hiring managers. Relying on a couple of “senior neurodiversity ambassadors” is simply not enough — any of them quitting the company would leave new hires and employees in “limbo.” Rather, neurodiversity awareness, customized neurodiversity training, and ongoing support from external coaches and service providers are key to enabling employers to hire, onboard, and work effectively with neurodiverse employees in the long term.
Widen the recruiting net from sourcing, screening to assessment, and training. To offer companies reliable sourcing pools of qualified talent with unique abilities, efforts such as the Stanford Neurodiversity at Work Program and SourceAbled connect employers with autistic candidates, while involving a larger community of support providers catering to the needs of neurodivergent individuals and their families.
Adapt interviewing processes. For neurodiversity initiatives to be successful, businesses cannot simply apply their classic “one-size-fits-all” recruiting methods. Individuals on the autism spectrum often communicate and process information differently. Nish explains: “At Rangam, we are reframing the mindsets. Screening matters. We are used to ‘screening out’ candidates until someone matches the criteria defined by the client. ‘Screening in’ is really what we do at Rangam. It is an empathetic consultative approach because both sides put themselves in each other’s shoes. […] by partnering with us, Kelly recognizes that our approach is workable and a great idea.”
Ensure unbiased matching, screening, and assessment using approaches such as blind-tests, games, or team-based work simulations. Making technology accessible is also a key consideration for companies seeking to create a level playing field for applicants with disabilities. Firms such as Ernst & Young (EY) are involving employees with disabilities in the design and testing phase to build accessibility into the initial design process. Engaging autistic workers in technology development from the beginning, rather than retroactively “fixing” it, can save significant time and resources. “In addition to hiring neurodiverse talent with various skillsets for our customers,” Nish says, “we also hire them for in-house operations. They are part of our delivery and technology development teams. They help candidates with disabilities and autism find meaningful jobs through the SourceAbled program.”
Invest in onboarding and support. Customizing onboarding processes can require little effort from companies while having a huge impact on new hires. Well-communicated onboarding plans, logistical and accommodation support, or detailed written (rather than verbal) instructions, can make a considerable difference for new hires on the autism spectrum. To create a welcoming and safe environment, individuals with an understanding of autism should be involved in onboarding support, alongside those who have met with the candidates throughout the sourcing and selection process.
Another key element in helping new hires acclimate to their new role through the onboarding process and beyond is the use of small cohorts. Working in a small group promotes a safe and trusting environment, builds meaningful relationships, and creates a sense of belonging and community.
Offering to pair new hires with a buddy and external support providers (e.g. therapists, coaches, accommodation counselors) can also be a game-changer for their career development and help them navigate any interpersonal and life-management issues.
Share the case to make the case. Demonstrating the value of neurodiversity programs based on business metrics can be a key driver of success by gaining broader stakeholders’ buy-in and building a strong business case. Metrics may range from innovation and corporate culture to retention. Companies such as SAP, Microsoft, and JPMorgan have extensive programs and best practices. EY compared the work produced by both neurodiverse and neurotypical employees. Neurodiverse employees excelled at innovation, identifying process improvements that cut the time for technical training in half or even learning processes automation far faster than the neurotypical employees they trained with. Employees more broadly take pride in working for an organization building a more inclusive and diverse workplace. Finally, many employees may have family members or friends with autism and know firsthand how neurodiversity programs can change lives and promote socio-economic mobility.
Drive empathy with empathy
Business is not only about making money. It is also about humans and this unique ability that we all have: Empathy. We can, all together, build an empathy-driven business culture to impact the lives of an incalculable number of people and their families. Hetal explains: “Today, Rangam is what it is because of the people with whom we work. Our team of empathetic, out-of-the-box thinkers take pride in what they do and connect intuitively with our mission of finding ‘Employment for Everyone,’ inclusive of individuals with disabilities and veterans.”
Despite the COVID-19 crisis, Rangam continues to enable people with neurodiversity to access new employment opportunities. “We are bringing a change in talent acquisition and corporate HR,” says Nish, “by reinventing the way jobs are identified, candidates are screened, interviews are conducted, applicants are hired, and employees are retained. In doing so, we are creating a culture of inclusion and empathy in the workplace of the future.”
Authors Bahia El Oddi and Carin-Isabel Knoop promote human sustainability and access.