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Leon Kaye headshot

SAP Pledges to Hire Adults with Autism For 1% of Workforce

By Leon Kaye

This week SAP announced that one percent of its workforce will eventually be adults diagnosed with a form of autism. That number could eventually be as high as 650 employees spread across 60 of its locations where SAP runs laboratories as well as research and development operations. What started as a pilot project in India will morph into one of the more compassionate, creative and necessary job programs within the private sector.

SAP's announcement is important for several reasons. If you think it is difficult to pass a a human resource screening because you are over 40; have a spotty resume because you are entrepreneurial, lived abroad or took time off to raise a child or assist an elderly relative; do not have a college degree; or have been unemployed for six months or longer . . . then you can imagine what adults with autism face. Furthermore, SAP's move is a call to the HR profession to wake up and end its (despicable) practice of finding reasons NOT to hire someone and look at applicants as human beings and find a reason TO hire them instead.

And with one in 88, or as many as one in 50 adults in the U.S. currently coping with a form of autism, SAP's initiative is a big step forward to meeting the needs of this growing population.

The story starts with Thorkil Sonne, who with his wife, suffered through countless assessments of their now 16-year-old son, and was told their child would "never fit into the labor market despite his skills.”

Sonne decided that his son was not the problem, but it was society, and that it was time to change society for the better. Hence, an eventual partnership with SAP would develop and thrive.

SAP first started ramping up work with autistic individuals in India two years ago. Project Prayas, an SAP Labs initiative in Bangalore, focused on the education, employment and professional development of autistic individuals. It did not take long for SAP's managers to figure out that for the most part, adults with autism could perform well in jobs that involve a high degree of repetition, such as testing and QA analysis. The key point to remember, however, is SAP did not hire these adults because of any disability--they had skills offering business value to the company.

10 years ago, Sonne realized those with autism had a unique skillset that would make them beneficial to certain companies. He founded a consulting firm, Specialisterne, that hires high-functioning autistic adults to perform a variety of detail oriented, repetitive tasks--not out of charity, but because they are often the best qualified.

But Sonne will not stop with just a few dozen employees. His goal is to find one million jobs for those with autism and change global attitudes towards this disability--and show that in the end, autistic workers have plenty of ability but just need an opportunity to shine. To that end, Sonne founded the Specialist People Foundation, which operates on the “dandelion model.” Where may sees those yellow weeds, others see salad; and so when it comes to autism, where many see limitations, Sonne views potential.

Sonne and his family have since moved to Delaware, where he opened the North America headquarters of his company. And, among the companies he will partner with is SAP. According to SAP’s Anka Wittenberg, Specialist People will work with SAP to help develop processes to interview, test, assess and eventually place candidates who apply for jobs with SAP. For now the program is a pilot in the New York and Chicago areas.

“It’s not about building bridges, but removing the divide,” said Sonne as we wrapped up our talk at SAP’s annual conference in Orlando yesterday. He was boldly optimistic that “innovating from the edge” can force businesses to reassess their hiring practices. Sonne noted the hiring of autistic adults was a jolt to a business community that prefers order in the workplace.

And while one cannot generalize autism, such a mindset is odd considering most autistic children and adults prefer order--which makes them compelling candidates for jobs required a high level of detail and repetition.

This road will be a long one for SAP and Specialist People--after all, in the years Sonne ran his consulting firm, many who applied for jobs were not hired. Nonetheless, the hope for a promising career instead of a life of rejected job applications should inspire other companies to step back and evaluate whether they should be part of Sonne’s very bold plan.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

Disclosure: SAP paid Leon Kaye’s expenses to attend the SAPPHIRE NOW Conference this week in Orlando.

[Image credit: Specialist People Foundation]

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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