Why we're championing Autism at Work
Diversity & Inclusion For six years, software corporation, SAP Ireland, has been hiring people with autism through a pioneering employment programme. We find out more from three people connected with it.
Liam Ryan, MD, SAP Ireland
When did you first realise the need for SAP's employment programme (called Autism at Work)?
A successful pilot of the programme took place at SAP offices in India seven years ago. The MD of the Indian office had researched autism and realised that people with the condition can flourish in industries like ours. He introduced me to a company called Specialisterne, which source candidates on the Autistic spectrum with IT skills and then matches them with specific organisations.
Why was Ireland a good place to implement it?
We recruit a high percentage of our staff from colleges, so we already have well-developed training and mentoring programmes in place. When we partnered with Specialisterne, we knew they could recruit suitable people for us; but we also knew they would increase awareness of autism throughout our organisation and teach us what we needed to do to help and support those colleagues with the condition.
What results have you seen from the programme?
Firstly, it's a very sustainable programme, both from a training perspective and a cost and financial perspective. Secondly, Autism at Work has highlighted an important lesson: people with autism are able to take up any role within our organisation, including senior roles. We have colleagues who are presenting in front of customers, for instance, and others who are in managerial positions. For the programme to work, however, it's important it is sponsored at a senior level.
Kristen Doran, HR Business Partner and
D&I Lead, SAP Ireland
How has Autism at Work improved employee retention?
Firstly, the individuals we hire through the programme are loyal and committed to SAP thanks to the positive impact that employment has had on their lives. In essence, they appreciate what the company is able do for their careers. There's a secondary benefit, however, because the rest of our employees tell us that they are extremely proud to work for such an inclusive organisation. So it benefits everyone.
What support do employees on the programme receive?
When people with autism join us, we team them up with a 'buddy'. Obviously, their manager supports them, too — plus they have access to a mentor if needed. Also, once Specialisterne have sourced and placed the candidates with us, they continue to play a key role by supporting both the individuals and their managers. It depends on the person as to the amount of support they receive — and when they receive it.
What have you learned about diversity and inclusion since the programme began?
All companies know that diversity and inclusion can help foster innovation and creativity. I have seen it come to life through this programme, with the different perspectives that people on the autism spectrum can bring to a particular problem. This isn't a philanthropic endeavour. It's an opportunity to hire people who have valuable skills which are scarce in the market. The program very effectively meets this business need and has the additional benefit of contributing to the diversity of our workforce.
Patrick Brophy, Quality Specialist, SAP Ireland
How did you first hear about the Autism at Work programme?
I struggled to find employment for three years before joining SAP. The trouble was, whenever I was selected for interview, I would often misinterpret the questions I was being asked. Then I was introduced to Specialisterne, who are pioneers of supporting autism in the workplace. They supported me and set me up with interviews with SAP. I got the job, and I've been here since 2013.
Now that you have the support of the programme, where do you see your career heading?
Through Autism at Work, I received a lot of support at the application and interview stages — and also when I first started at SAP. It was a bit like riding a bike and then taking the stabilisers off. Suddenly you're away, riding solo! In my case, the Autism is very mild. However, the stabilisers helped in getting my foot in the door and my nerves with settling in. I haven't needed additional support for four and a half to five years. I take each day as it comes, but over the next five years I would like to become a Senior Quality Specialist and ultimately Quality Expert.
What advice would you give to others with autism who are looking to progress in their careers?
If you're struggling to find work because of your condition, get in touch with an organisation that can help you. It's the difference between having a job — and not having it. Autism at Work is effective because it helps customers and colleagues understand what autism is and how it can affect those diagnosed with it; but it also highlights the strengths they have.