Redefining Talent for a More Productive Workforce

Beth Schulz

Business leaders today are measured first and foremost by their performance numbers. The revenue and profitability lines on the graph must always bend upward.

So, when leaders face the additional mandate to diversify their workforce, it can feel doubly challenging. How can organizations expand who and how they recruit, attract and train while they must continually hit their growth marks? It can feel like an impossible task.

What we’ve discovered at CAI is, in fact, it is possible. Improving productivity and increasing the diversity of the workforce can be mutually inclusive goals – one helps accomplish the other. It begins with widening how we think about talent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 59 children in the U.S. are diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. Many on the autism spectrum have higher-than-average abilities with skills in pattern recognition, memory, or attention to detail. Yet nearly 90 percent of adults on the spectrum are either under- or unemployed.

Diversity initiatives are typically applauded in the board room. Few leaders would denounce an effort to broaden their company’s talent pool or give up the significant potential impact to their company’s reputation or branding. The challenge starts after that – when it’s discovered that finding, selecting and integrating individuals on the autism spectrum into the workplace is not easy – that the culture is not immediately ready to receive and make the most of neurodiverse employees. This is where organizations can falter.

But the fact is, while neurodiverse individuals often need support in the workplace to make the most of their abilities, the task is not insurmountable. In many cases, the challenges are manageable and, in most cases, the returns are substantial. Say, for example, an employee needs appropriate communication to understand the impact of a coming change. The accommodation is a somewhat simple but necessary face-to-face meeting that clarifies the expectations relevant to their role. In our experience, individuals on the autism spectrum will meet and often exceed the performance of their off-spectrum peers when they have the support to feel comfortable in the workplace.

Of course, this is elemental. To realize the greatest potential from this untapped talent pool, companies must first expand their notions of talent from the beginning. And, for most organizations, this means having to rethink recruitment, selection, skill development and performance management practices. It also means creating a plan for cultural integration and on-the-job supervision that supports autistic employees as they join and become full contributors in the workplace.

Typical HR processes in large organizations – though they do not deliberately exclude differently abled people – have a way of weeding out individuals who may not comply with what businesses have generally come to think of as social and cognitive norms. The conventional interview is the perfect example. Essentially, the interview process tests a person’s ability to be instantly comfortable with a strange person in a strange room, talk about oneself in a way that demonstrates social and emotional confidence, and generally live up to an unspoken code of professional conduct that may or may not reveal a person’s actual abilities.

While companies have long valued personality – in addition to certain skills or experience – and a sense of “cultural fit” when assessing candidates, today’s market requires innovative teams made up of people who experience things and may express themselves differently and who can demonstrate thinking that is “outside the box.” This means expanding notions about what we value and how we tease out the potential contributions of different kinds of applicants. It also means supporting differently abled employees over the long term, so those potential contributions become reality.

That potential is what CAI’s Autism2Work program is designed to tap. It starts with an intensive, interactive job readiness training program – in place of the traditional interview – to allow candidates’ strengths and capabilities to come to light in a low-anxiety setting designed to model the actual work environment and assess the competencies required to be successful in a specific role. It continues with training and support for the neurotypical employees who are preparing to welcome and work with neurodiverse employees. Making sure existing employees know what to expect is an essential element – and one that many say makes the greatest difference in the long-term success of any diversity and inclusion goal. And it doesn’t end there. Support for Autism2Work employees is ongoing and customized to individual workplaces, built to meet specific business objectives.

Where there is a corporate will to embrace neurodiversity, Autism2Work provides the way – the structure, the proven methods and the machinery to bring it to life. Our work gets to the heart of what productivity really means – helping people reach their true potential – so leaders can embrace a new definition of talent and usher in a new wave of value for their organizations.

Children in the U.S. diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder 1 in 59
Adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder that are underemployed or unemployed 90%