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Diversity as a business strategy

Diversity as a business strategy

...and how tech firms can take the lead in hiring differently-abled staff

Suitable job roles for autistic persons include programming, testing, graphic design, data analysts, auditors and cybersecurity

Catherine Trezona, Altogether Autism.

“You know the truism that the benefits that are good for autism are good for everybody? That is a great message for employers,” says Catherine Trezona, national manager at Altogether Autism.

“Everybody benefits because everybody wants the small changes that employers make to ensure their workplace is autism friendly,” says Trezona, whose organisation provides a free nationwide autism spectrum information and advisory service.

“Everybody wants clear instructions, systems that make sense, and support for the work they are trying to do.”

She explains that Altogether Autism is an evidence-based organisation, and draws information from published research and surveys they conduct, as well as clinical best practice and experience.

She says autistic talent can work in any industry, including information technology.

“The research show us attention to detail is often very strong in people with autism.”

More specifically, in IT, suitable job roles may include programming, testing, graphic design, data analysts, auditors and cybersecurity, she says.

These could also be jobs that are detail oriented, use pattern recognition and are dependent on accurate code.

“There is very strong evidence of the autistic brain being very good at spotting errors,” she says.

She adds: “We know we need a different way of looking at the world, we need different solutions and that comes with that neurodiverse mindset.”

She says these jobs could include  those that are “not just strictly in pure IT” such as sales, marketing and graphic design.

Disability is viewed as the ‘hardest’ of the diversity spectrum to solve or even interact with...most businesses just pick lower hanging fruit, and disability just gets ignored

Adrian Coysh, JobCafe

When autistic employees are appropriately supported, their managers report high levels of productivity and accuracy in their work, says Trezona.

As to how local organisations view these job candidates, she says, “We see a lifecycle or a culture progression from apprehension and then to awareness and eventually we want to go into appreciation.”

“At the moment in New Zealand, we are still in the apprehension and awareness stage.”

But with literature, evidence and stories around employing differently-abled people, she says, “the awareness is increasing.”

“We work with Specialisterne in Australia, we have a tried and true way of working that will be successful for the organisation and for the autistic employee,” says Trezona.

Specialisterne, Danish for ‘The Specialists’, is a social business that provides assessment, training, education and IT consultancy services. It was founded by Thorkil Sonne, whose son is on the autism spectrum.  

She says there is a high demand coming from businesses that have experienced the success of a programme that Specialisterne uses.

Specialisterne is now a global foundation and has worked with clients in Australia such as Westpac, where eight autistic employees have been placed last year across three Sydney sites in roles including risk, finance and IT.

Specialisterne has also placed persons on the autism spectrum to work at SAP, the Department of Health and Human Services (Victoria), and the Australian Government Department of Human Services in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra.

‘We just need organisations to be brave enough to take a step in the New Zealand space and say, ‘work with us’ and we will work with them every step of the way.”

She says they are also talking to the state sector, as the government is a big employer of IT talent. “We hope they will lead from the front.”

Employers that do not proactively offer technologies, environments and practices to promote full participation of people with disabilities will not only miss out on a rich and untapped labour pool, they will also risk losing ‘employer-of-choice’ status: Gartner
Employers that do not proactively offer technologies, environments and practices to promote full participation of people with disabilities will not only miss out on a rich and untapped labour pool, they will also risk losing ‘employer-of-choice’ status: Gartner

She says another area that is a really good fit for autistic talent is in agriculture.

“Many autistic people are noted for their attention to detail and good record keeping, as well as having an affinity with animals,” she says. These skills are important in the livestock industry.

She points to the case of Dr Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. It is estimated half the cattle in the United States are handled in facilities designed by Grandin.

We have a huge agriculture industry in New Zealand, notes Trezona. “If you are able to track your product from farm to supermarket, you need really good records to say that animal was in this sort of health on the day it was slaughtered.”

“If there is any query, you can say my team has kept such good records and there was no problem with it when it was on my farm.”

She cites SunPork Farms in Australia which has started the Autism and Agriculture initiative with Autism CRC and Specialisterne Australia. The project aims to improve animal welfare by creating opportunities in animal care for adults on the autism spectrum.

Working with Specialisterne Australia, nine autistic adults in South Australia and seven in Queensland were employed within SunPork Farms during the pilot programme. The candidates received mentoring and workplace support to work in the agricultural industry.

Trezona says at the moment, Altogether Autism has a pool of over 125 autistic people with a wide range of skills and many of them have a strong interest in working in IT.

Inclusive, impactful, innovative

SAP, which has launched Autism at Work programme in its global offices, including New Zealand, has a headstart among organisations in tapping the skills of persons with autism.

The programme has “clearly helped us to move to become an inclusive culture,” says Anka Wittenberg, chief diversity and inclusion officer at SAP, during a recent visit to Auckland.

“In the teams where I have people with autism, the communication is a lot better, it’s more inclusive, and with that a lot more impactful, less stress and more innovation,” says Wittenberg.

In the teams where I have people with autism, the communication is a lot better, more inclusive, more impactful

Anka Wittenberg, SAP

She explains a person with autism usually doesn’t learn to understand sarcasm or what’s said between the lines. “This has helped us to create a corporate culture that’s opening up for the individual’s needs,” she says.

“The language has changed in the teams, the way they communicate. They are not using sarcasm any more. And guess what, it also helps me if I have people from very different backgrounds working together."

Adrian Coysh, Auckland partner at JobCafe, knows the challenges organisations face as they work to integrate persons with autism and other differently-abled staff into the workforce.

“Disability is viewed as the ‘hardest’ of the diversity spectrum to solve or even interact with, and the resultant outcome for many businesses has been to do nothing,” he points out.

“Pretty much, most businesses just pick lower hanging fruit, and disability just gets ignored,” he says.

“However, many businesses just don’t know they have employed these people which often have invisible disabilities - especially mental illness, which can also be gained on the job through stress.”

JobCafe, which he joined following a career in executive recruitment, is a social enterprise which helps find employment opportunities for Maori, Pasifika and people with disabilities.

He notes that as a demographic, disability is the second largest group in the diversity spectrum after gender. It is, he says, greater than the combined population of Maori and Pasifika people.

The latter, he says, are also unfortunately disproportionately represented in disability statistics, as a result of their  well-documented overall poor health and financial situation.

He says it is estimated that only 16 per cent of people are born with their disability, which means that the majority of people have illnesses, accidents or genetic conditions which they encounter during their lives, which might require a change in employment if they are unable to continue in their previous job.  

Catherine Trezona, national manager at Altogether Autism: “Everybody benefits because everybody wants the small changes that employers make to ensure their workplace is autism friendly...Everybody wants clear instructions, systems that make sense, and support for the work they are trying to do.”
Catherine Trezona, national manager at Altogether Autism: “Everybody benefits because everybody wants the small changes that employers make to ensure their workplace is autism friendly...Everybody wants clear instructions, systems that make sense, and support for the work they are trying to do.”

“This has ramifications for employers as well, because the rate of disability increases with age and we are all statistically living and working longer, which means that disabilities that previously mostly occurred in retirement are now affecting people still in employment.” says Coysh.

He says some of the things HR professionals in these organisations can do is to understand the lives of disabled people better.

“Assist and support your disabled staff and your employees caring for their family members who are disabled. They may live with constant stress (including financial), and may have more doctor's appointments,” he says.

Companies can also provide internships and part-time work for school and university leavers.

“This provides valuable work experience, as well as income. Often, graduates looking for their first career move have CVs with little or no work experience, which can immediately further disadvantage them against non-disabled graduates.”

As he points out, New Zealand is missing out on the skills and capabilities of a hidden talent pool of disabled people.

“Business has been slow to understand that employing more disabled staff allows them to be more attuned to the needs of the disability community, reach a wider market, and attract another talent pool with new skills and perspectives,” he says.

By being more inclusive, solutions developers can create smarter systems that attract and cater for all

Tony Cutting, JobCafe

Some employers already get this and see that this hidden talent pool can fill their recruitment needs and skill shortages, he adds. “This is also helping them to prepare for an ageing population and the changes that will occur within their workplace.”

Tony Cutting, founder and partner at JobCafe and talent management consultant, talks further about diversity and its impact on the enterprise.

“We know that more Maori and Pasifika input into our technology will significantly help in the development of systems that consider the wider population, as would inclusion of other diversity groups,” he says.

The same is true with hiring people with disabilities, many of whom have the ability and drive to be great IT professionals, he says. “By being more inclusive, solutions developers can create smarter systems that attract and cater for all.”

“In all sectors of the population there are people with talent, ideas, abilities to contribute; but to attract them, you need to commit to building teams who understand diversity and work well together and understand the benefits you get when you are inclusive of everyone’s culture, customs, protocols and abilities."

‘Employer of choice’

Gartner notes how the current focus on workplace diversity is widening from being centered on gender and ethnicity.

As people with disabilities become able to perform any job, employers will come to include people traditionally left on the margins, says Gartner in its report From Disability to Superability, Society and the Workplace Are Changing.

“People with disabilities, who were traditionally shut out of some jobs, are using the same technologies that made the digital workforce possible to erase boundaries.”

“The gig economy and flexible work arrangements create new opportunities for people with disabilities, who may need or prefer to primarily work from home or to unconventional or sporadic schedules,” says Gartner.

Gartner says younger workers, including millennials and those from generations Y and Z, have expectations of equal opportunities for people of all abilities.

“Employers that do not proactively offer technologies, environments and practices to promote full participation of people with disabilities will not only miss out on a rich and untapped labour pool, they will also risk losing ‘employer-of-choice’ status,” says Gartner.

The Altogether Autism team: Jenny Gibbs, Altogether Autism consultant clinical psychologist; Catherine Trezona, national manager; and Liliya John, researcher
The Altogether Autism team: Jenny Gibbs, Altogether Autism consultant clinical psychologist; Catherine Trezona, national manager; and Liliya John, researcher

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Tags leadershipdiversityGartnerSAPautismdisabilityinclusionAutism at WorkAnka WittenbergCatherine TrezonaAltogether AutismAdrian CoyshTony CuttingJobCafeTemple Grandin. continuous learning

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