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How Microsoft is helping other companies hire people with autism

April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism Spectrum Disorder affects one percent of the world's population, about 3.5 million, or one out of 59 American births according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Autism Society.

Autism Spectrum Disorder encompasses a range of conditions that present challenges with speech, social skills, non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. On the flip side, many people with autism possess unique strengths in other areas that enable them to excel in certain disciplines.

Unfortunately, according to Easter Seals, 80% of people with autism are either unemployed or underemployed. Consequently, the skills and contributions that they would bring to many companies and to the products and services those companies offer are lost.

To address this untapped resource and to foster a culture of empathy and inclusion, Microsoft — on Autism Awareness Day in 2015 — established its Autism Hiring Program. This year, parallel to its commitment to open sourcing its technologies and tools to create a "Microsoft platform" that companies integrate into their businesses, the company is "democratizing" its Autism Hiring program. The goal is to bring more people with autism to the workforce so that they and the companies they join can achieve more.

Building Empathy into company culture

Microsoft's Autism Hiring Program was designed to circumvent the social interaction challenges of the traditional interviewing process that are a barrier to many people living with autism. Rather than sitting with an interviewer for a set period of time, the Autism Hiring Program is a multi-faceted, multi-day process that allows the strengths of people with autism to shine. This hands-on academy focuses on team projects, skills assessments, and workability. Candidates meet hiring managers, various teams and they also learn about the company.

Initially, the program was most successful with bringing a range of engineers, analysts, and scientists to the company. As the program has evolved, however, so has the diversity of skills that have been added to the company through the program. People with autism are now being hired to more socially interactive roles such as customer support.

Microsoft is making empathy a part of its culture.

Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella, inspired by his personal experiences raising a son with severe Cerebral Palsy, has made empathy, inclusion, and inclusive design an integral part of Microsoft. His passion for making all technology accessible to all people transcends Microsoft, however.

His cross-platform app strategy, platform agnostic cloud strategy, and open source development strategy address the technical side of making technology universally accessible. Bringing to other companies what it has learned about making the workplace and hiring practices more inclusive and diverse addresses the cultural side of making technology universally accessible. A workforce comprised of market representatives is better equipped to produce products, from conception forward, that meet the needs of all people.

Thus, Microsoft's Autism Hiring Program has not only expanded beyond its headquarters origins in Redmond, WA to pilot programs at its campuses in Fargo, ND, and Vancouver, BC, but to other companies looking to adopt the inclusion practices.

Democratizing empathy

Microsoft's Neil Barnett, Director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility at Microsoft, said (opens in new tab) of the Autism Hiring Program expanding to its Fargo, ND and Vancouver, BC sites:

We look forward to seeing the program grow in these regions and continue to expand.

To facilitate the goals of the program beyond Microsoft, the company has become a member of the Autism @ Work Employer Roundtable. This is a group of 16 organizations with strong autism hiring programs that are working "to expand employment opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum." The group also collaborated to create the Autism @ Work Playbook to help other employers begin or expand their inclusive hiring efforts. The Playbook addresses recruiting talent, facilitating the interview process, career development, training and more.

This work is complemented by meetings with hundreds of services providers, employers, and government agencies throughout the year such as the Autism at Work Summit that will be hosted in Redmond, WA by Microsoft in May. SAP will host another later this in the Fall.

Embracing everyone

Many Microsoft enthusiasts have criticized Nadella's cross-platform cloud strategy that places Microsoft and its technology as part of a wholistic cloud-computing platform rather than the exclusive platform approach that made it a success in the past. However, in a world that is "shrinking" and where computing platforms and technologies increasingly overlap, Microsoft is making bold, forward-looking moves. Its strategy to become the industry standard, and reference point for inclusion does the same.

Not only does the cross-company inclusion effort parallel its successful cross-platform strategy, but it pushes the message of empathy and of recognizing the value of people with disabilities. It also provides a structured approach to hiring and supporting people with autism and other challenges that other companies, like its aspirational Surface devices, use as a reference point.

Beyond the altruistic rewards, this level of inclusion has a direct impact on meeting the needs of a diverse market, thus beneficially impacting Microsoft's bottom line. Furthermore, the goodwill, garnered by being viewed as an industry leader for inclusion pays intangible dividends that may affect the company in various beneficial ways.

A vision materializing

Finally, Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft's corporate vice president of worldwide operations said, "My hope for the future is that we won't see this as a program, but instead a natural way of recruiting key talent in our organizations."

We may not be there yet, but as Microsoft "democratizes" its autism hiring practices to other companies, it seems to be well on its way toward her goal.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

21 Comments
  • I'm sure Bleached is going to complain about how MS isn't helping the right way, and troll about how Google is helping people with autism better🙄🙄🙄
  • And your friend Steve will be along soon to tell everyone about his fake son 😉
  • As an older autist, working for Microsoft would be a dream come true for me. I have been trying for years to get into software development (I've been an IT guy, I've worked on my own software development, got my BS in CS, and currently working in software QA), and actually went through part of Microsoft's process a couple years ago when I learned of the program. In doing my research of the area, however, the price of real estate scares the crap out of me, and I cannot imagine what it would cost me to live there. The house that I paid $90,000 for 7 years ago would cost me nearly half a million dollars there, if I were to try to find a similar neighborhood to put it in, and I'd have to drive an hour to get to work. That's the part that scares me away from Microsoft.
  • I feel sorry for you. To know where you want to go and that you have the skills, but that you are limited by distance or your income to live your dream. At the beginning of this video, I thought: "It would be nice if they had this in Europe as well" until I heard the guy talk about his mad math skills - then I immediately gave up because I struggle just learning a new skill every year, like a programming languague. But I wish YOU the best of luck in the future and hope that your dreams will eventually come true 😊
  • Please don't feel sorry for me. I will find my success, and my dreams. I haven't seen the video, because YouTube is blocked here at work, and I forgot to look while at home last night, so I'm not sure what you're referring to. Not all of us have mad math skills. I do, but not everyone does. I recognize the fact that I am very gifted. I can learn to do anything that I desire to do, and while there are struggles, now that I am aware of my differences (only diagnosed 2 years ago, and I'm 51 years old), I'm able to manage them better. Just that awareness made a big difference for me. I do thank you for your wishes, though. They are much appreciated.
  • Aww... Okay then, if you say so :)
    I'm austistic as well, but I am one of those who do not have those skills - Unfortunately. At least I am beginning to grasp the basic of C# - after attempting to learn it for 4 years. So there's hope 😋
  • Love this piece. I'm very happy that companies are taking this serious. As a brother and father of people with autism is great to see that there are opportunities opening up for them and they are getting a fair shot at the world. Good on you Microsoft. Thanks for the article Jason.
  • Makes sense.. since steve balmer was at Microsoft too😊
  • For future articles can you use the terminology Autistic, not "with autism". "With autism" is the terminology favoured by those who view autistics and autism as a negative that needs to be removed/cured. It's also used by groups with minimal to zero autistic presence who feel they have to talk for us, not give us the opportunity to talk for ourselves.
  • I've never heard that saying "being autistic" vs. "with autism" had an interpreted meaning of one being more negative than the other. That's not to dismiss what you are saying, though!
    But I just wanted to let others know that it's not the case in the country I live in 🙂
  • There are those of us in both camps. Myself, while I prefer "I'm autistic," or "I am an autist," I really don't give it much thought if someone says "with autism." I view it as someone who is just ignorant of our preferences. Not a big deal in my book, but some definitely find it offensive. I will say that if you really think about it, "with autism" tends to give the connotation that autism is a disease that needs to be cured, that there is negative connotation associated with it. Autsim is no more a disease than neurotypical is. It is a difference in how the brain is wired, how it was formed from creation. There is nothing to cure, nothing to fix. We are simply different. Not less, but different. Too many think of us as defective. In fact, I have spent most of my life thinking of myself as less than successful, at times as a failure. I was not aware until about five years ago that I am on the spectrum, and two years ago was diagnosed. I'm 51 years old, so I spent a whole lot of my life with a low opinion of myself, simply because I seemed to struggle so much more, for so much less success, than others. Only in the past month, really, did I come to the conclusion that I'm not a failure, but I've succeeded at overcoming that which I had no idea that I needed to overcome. And now that I know that the differences are there to overcome, that makes it much less a struggle. No longer do I have to pretend to be like everyone else. I can be me, without remorse. My managers are aware of my condition, and it makes life so much easier to be able to take a little bit of time to form my thoughts into something that is comprehensible, that I can properly enunciate, rather than have to rush to find an answer for a manager who is impatient because he mistakenly thinks that I can't think on my feet. The struggle is real, to fit into a world of neurotypicals, when you are of the neurodivergent variety of the human race. The world takes all of us to spin round and round, though. To be clear, I am not taking any offense to what you've said. I'm just trying to increase the awareness.
  • Sure you do Stevieboy, sure you do 🙄
  • Lol. Yall are hilarious😂😂😂😂
  • Eloquently put. Thank you again for sharing ❤
  • MattEvansc3 Noted. I'm sorry I missed that. I generally try to be aware of what is acceptable and unacceptable terminology. It is challenging at times as there are shifts and differences based on culture. And sometimes differences within groups. "People first" language is the standard I learned when I began working as a advocate and the standard I've continued to use in my company where we provide special education advocacy and when I write these articles. That's the reason (though here it seems incorrect) I used language that put the person first (person with autism) rather than "defining" the person based on their diagnosis. (Austistic). But your point is valid. Noted. And since what I learned seems inaccurate in this case and offensive, please forgive me I didn't mean to offend, I can adjust how I use the terms in the future. Thanks😊👍
  • Someone migrated to the Android from the Windows Phone and thought will stay on the MS services like Outlook, OneDrive etc. But seems in the Android ecosystem people want to use all services, including cloud... Interesting how long MS will try to push only one way?..
  • Count me as one of those who migrated to android and has now dropped outlook, Bing/edge, and OneDrive in favour of the android versions. I am now evaluating the office alternatives and might migrate to them too. That will be the end of my office 365 for home subscription. A pinprick? Sure, but how many others are like me?
  • @ Long Xuyen Check out Libre office or Open Office.
  • Call me cynical, or even mad, but I could not see Nadella caring one way or the other without his son's sad situation.
  • Good points, however I disagree that Microsoft are democratizing empathy because primarily it's driven by the CEO's personal experience. People are often inclusive when it occurs within their own social circle, when it does not they are not so inclusive. Satya Nadella has categorically stated he had a lesson in empathy, where he was scolded by an interviewer for not comforting a child. His response to the question if he saw an abandoned child was to call the authorities first thing, the interviewers response was to comfort the child first. I'm paraphrasing but that is the gist of what he said. A true empath never ever says that they were taught empathy, we are wired to care unconditionally regardless who that person is to us. If Microsoft was democratising empathy as you've put it, they would have not axed the mobile division prior to a key launch - the L950 Series. As a result they were THE most buggiest flagship phones released by a major company. They would not have scrapped the free mobile apps for office, I have to constantly reinstall the office apps because every update forces the paid version on me. These free mobile apps are probably the only releastic access many people in poverty stricken regions will have access to use. They would not have hamstrung their own departments in the pursuit of profits (Edge, Cortana to name two key aspects they have deliberately hamstrung) nor engaged in actions to increase the lethality of combat. They would have kept the factories they got with the Nokia D and S acquisition as sure fire way to ensure better conditions for workers at partner ODMs. By simply promoting better working conditions and pay in their own factories Microsoft could have lead the charge for major human rights improvements for factory workers across the world. This would have been a massive PR win for Microsoft thus ensuring and creating further brand loyalty and referals. But they didn't because they put profits before people, a company who puts profits before people is not democratising empathy no matter how much they or what they say. Additionally, if they were democratising empathy Microsoft would never have cancelled the Windows Mobile Platform as Satya Nadella is accustomed to saying - to enable people to do more and achieve more. Because by axing the Windows Mobile platform they completely removed the access to services that many people in poverty areas would have enjoyed; as the side effect of Windows phones not having high resale value over time makes them substantially more affordable for others who would not have been able to afford a smartphone. This also would have provided Microsoft a major boost in terms of usage numbers and monetisation via adverts for developers. But no, Microsoft couldn't see beyond the pennies thus decided scoop up as many pennies as possible in the fastest manner possible - Wage expense reduction - polite term or rather the accurate fiscal term for firing a tonne of people. Thus reducing the number available coding hours drastically and morale hence why we are seeing more and more issues and bugs through every single update pushed through Windows Update. As it's impossible for developers to QA every single line of code and it's inhumane to expect them to do so. So no Jason, Microsoft is not in the process of democratising empathy. If they wish to show they are doing so, they can start by listening to their employees and making their lives better first. Speaking of lives, we have the band and Microsoft Health vault two other elements that Microsoft could have used to make people's lives better. Lets not forget Emma's Watch, what happened to that? Don't get me wrong, I applaud Microsoft for making it easier for autistic individuals to obtain meaningful employment. I just disagree with the sentiment that Microsoft is democratising empathy.
  • Democratizing empathy. What?