16 minute read 10 May 2019
Business colleagues discussing

How neurodiversity is driving innovation from unexpected places

By

Karyn Twaronite

EY Global and EY Americas Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer

Driver of diversity and inclusiveness programs to provide equitable opportunities and experiences for all. Passionate advocate for creating a sense of belonging.

16 minute read 10 May 2019

A neurodiverse world is a better working world. 

To drive sustainable growth in the 21st century, businesses need to continually innovate and identify new sources of talent. Leading companies are finding that people on the autism spectrum can spur innovation and often have the very skills they’re looking for. Companies are also discovering new benefits for their brands, customer relationships, employee engagement and more.

Though many people with autism are intelligent, well-educated and eager to work, they often face interpersonal challenges that make it difficult to get in the door. According to a Drexel University study, 58% of young adults with autism are unemployed. This can lead to isolation, financial insecurity and social and economic dependence on family, government and community-based organizations. However, some employers are turning these challenges into opportunities.

Read on to learn how EY is helping diversify its talent pool, excite its workforce and drive innovation and productivity by hiring neurodiverse professionals.

Neurodiversity in a connected world

The business world is rapidly changing, fueled by increasingly sophisticated technology and an accelerating pace of innovation. As businesses adopt applications like AI (artificial intelligence), robotics and process automation, they become more data-driven and connected. Strong analytics and cybersecurity are critical for effective, stable operations. However, there’s a shortage of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) talent needed to do this vital work. Moreover, the overall workforce is shrinking.

Organizations need to maximize their human resources by enabling their most highly skilled workers to focus on the highest value activities. One of the ways they’re doing this is by streamlining and automating labor-intensive processes. STEM skills are needed to do that work too. Leading companies such as SAP, Microsoft, HPE and professional services firm Ernst & Young LLP are addressing strategic business issues by leveraging an often-overlooked pool of talent — people on the autism spectrum.

Neurodiverse individuals are often technologically inclined and detail-oriented, with strong skills in analytics, mathematics, pattern recognition and information processing — among the very skills businesses most urgently need. They thrive on predictability and can be especially tenacious and loyal workers who prefer to stay with one organization rather than move from opportunity to opportunity. Companies are finding that people with autism approach problems differently and that their logical, straightforward thinking can spur process improvements that greatly increase productivity.

Statistics per National Autism Indicators Report by Drexel University:

  • Fewer than one in six autistic adults is in full-time employment.
  • Less than 16% of survey participants have full-time paid work. This figure has hardly changed since 2007.
  • 51% of autistic people in work said their skills were higher than those their job required.
  • Only 32% are in some kind of paid work. More than three-quarters (77%) who are unemployed say they want to work.

EY’s neurodiversity initiative had four key phases — scoping, getting buy-in, building and measuring.

Driving innovation through neurodiversity

To consistently deliver high-quality services to clients, EY professionals must perform a wide array of detailed tasks, calculations and processes. Technical professionals handle some of these activities, including data collection and analytics, engagement economics, and document tracking and control. They generally work for one client and are based at the client’s office alongside colleagues focused more on client relationships, higher-level analytics and complex business issues.

To drive even greater efficiencies, EY took the specialization one step further. In Philadelphia the firm set up a new Center of Excellence (CoE) where a team of EY office-based professionals handles some of the most time-consuming, repetitive tasks for a number of client engagements across various areas of the business.

Getting buy-in from the business

Though the idea for exploring neurodiverse talent originated with senior firm leaders, testing it out required buy-in from many constituents – an executive sponsor, local office leadership, a range of functional stakeholders and the business owners in the lines of business the new hires would be supporting.

The project team prepared a high-level budget for their sponsor. After securing approval, they began soliciting support from the senior leaders of the lines of business and finally, from the highest levels of leadership in the Americas firm.

My son has autism. At a recent event, I shared how delighted I am that EY is not only hiring, but collaborating with other employers to expand career opportunities for individuals with autism.
Yvonne Metcalfe
Principal, International Tax Services Americas Member, EY Americas Inclusiveness Council

The pilot

In 2016, Ernst & Young LLP hired four individuals to work in a new Philadelphia Neurodiversity Center of Excellence (CoE). Philadelphia was chosen as a pilot location for its proximity to universities with good STEM and autism-specific programs, its location midway between DC and NY, and its history of generating strong candidates for SAP’s Autism at Work program. The office also had suitable workspace and a highly supportive leadership team. Creating the CoE took several months, divided into four stages.

Building a Neurodiversity Center of Excellence

1. Sourcing

An external vendor, Specialisterne, sourced candidates for Philadelphia; additional candidates were identified through employee referrals, parent and advocacy groups, universities and personal contacts. After learning a lot about sourcing during the pilot, the project team determined they’d manage sourcing for any additional hires and/or other CoEs.

2. Screening

Specialisterne screened Philadelphia candidates via phone and then brought them into the office for a half-day of group activities — a “hang out” designed to assess critical thinking, technical skills and teaming. This was followed by short informal interviews with the project team.

Going forward, the project teams decided to bring screening in-house. Hiring managers now conduct the initial phone screenings. Candidates who pass the phone screening complete an online skills and critical thinking assessment created specifically for the CoE. This is followed by a video interview and then an invitation to attend a weeklong, in-person orientation, training and evaluation experience called a SuperWeek.

3. Assessment and training

In the pilot, candidates who were selected to advance following the hang out and interview attended a three-week interpersonal skills training. The highest performers were extended job offers. Going forward, the project team customized that training and condensed it into the SuperWeek, which combines team-based work simulations, interpersonal skills development and introductions to the role and firm. The highest-performing candidates receive job offers at week’s end.

4. Onboarding and support

Onboarding and training is conducted by hiring managers who’ve taken formal training in autism, have gotten to know the candidates throughout the sourcing and selection process and have experience supervising EY’s neurodiverse professionals in Philadelphia.

Measuring success

In evaluating the pilot, EY considered business metrics only. Though they expected positive impacts on people and brand, they knew the program would be most sustainable if it could demonstrate value on the basis of hard measurements like work quality, efficiency and productivity. The pilot achieved that and more.

I love working with EY because programs like this demonstrate the firm’s commitment to being a purpose-driven company.
Steve Peck
Senior Vice President, Global Strategic Initiatives, SAP

Neurodiverse teams teach EY people every day to be better managers and colleagues. They instill pride in EY’s culture, set the firm apart as an innovator and a leader, and help the people of EY build a better working world.

The impact on innovation

After nine months, EY compared the work quality, efficiency and productivity generated by neurodiverse and neurotypical account support professionals. Quality, efficiency and productivity were comparable, but the neurodiverse employees excelled at innovation.

  • In the first month, they identified process improvements that cut the time for technical training in half.
  • They learned how to automate processes far faster than the neurotypical account professionals they trained with. They then used the resulting downtime to create training videos to help all professionals learn automation more quickly.

The impact on leadership

The professional’s role has been largely learned informally on the job. To make it more understandable to people with autism, the team needed to break apart every process into logical steps and explain them in sequence in clear, straightforward language. The documentation produced for neurodiverse account professionals is now helping all account professionals learn faster and become productive more quickly.

To communicate effectively with people who have autism, managers needed to learn to communicate in specific ways. The idioms many people take for granted in everyday conversation can confuse people with autism because they often interpret expressions literally. Working with people on the autism spectrum has made managers more patient. They’ve learned to avoid abstract language and use shorter, more precise words. This has made them better communicators and more inclusive leaders, which is especially important in EY’s increasingly diverse workforce where professionals are often from different countries, cultures and backgrounds and may use language in different ways.

The impact on pride

EY people have been tremendously energized by the organization’s commitment to hire neurodiverse individuals. Many have family members or friends with autism and know firsthand how a program like this can change lives. People at all ranks, from junior staff to senior partners, have reached out to express their pride and offer their support. They’re exploring applications for their practices, becoming buddies, discussing EY’s program with clients and assisting with new CoE launches. They’re excited and grateful to feel a part of how the firm is helping build a better working world.

The impact on purpose

EY’s neurodiversity program has received considerable media attention. It demonstrates EY’s commitment to building a better working world and strengthens EY’s brand position as a leader and innovator with an exceptionally diverse and inclusive people culture. Collaborating with other companies who have or are exploring neurodiversity programs has helped create new relationships and enhanced existing ones. It’s a fresh conversation that touches both the business and EY people in very personal ways.

The enthusiasm from our office has been just tremendous. After the pilot team spoke at one of our town halls, people waited in line asking how to get involved.
Chris Bruner
Philadelphia Office Managing Partner

Key success factors

  • Senior executive, business leader and stakeholder buy-in
  • People and budget to build and run the program
  • The right kind of work environment
  • A long-term mindset

Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence expand and evolve

In June 2017, EY launched its second Neurodiversity Center of Excellence (NCoE) in Dallas. Armed with lessons learned from the pilot, the NCoE leadership team handled national and local sourcing, screening, interviews and candidate assessments. They designed and delivered customized training, extended offers to successful candidates, and invited EY executives to meet the new hires and discuss their work.

Driving quality and efficiency

Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence are expanding their scope of services to meet new and growing business needs. The Dallas team focuses on cybersecurity, robotic process automation and complex analytics. They’ve worked on activities including writing code to automate expense processes, using data analytics as part of transaction due diligence, and creating scenarios to understand how blockchain could impact the business. We’re seeing new kinds of positive outcomes as well. The pilot proved that neurodiverse individuals could perform as well as their neurotypical peers, and at the same time, generate key process improvements. In Dallas, they demonstrated that they could also perform a wide range of highly advanced tasks with remarkable quality and efficiency.

Summary

The world works better when we include everyone.

About this article

By

Karyn Twaronite

EY Global and EY Americas Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer

Driver of diversity and inclusiveness programs to provide equitable opportunities and experiences for all. Passionate advocate for creating a sense of belonging.