CPA INSIDER

How a pilot program is promoting neurodiversity at a Big Four firm

The program at EY recruits workers with autism.
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

People with autism face staggering unemployment rates, a difficult reality that organizations like EY are working to reverse by turning to the autism community for new hires.

The firm launched a yearlong neurodiversity pilot in 2015 to recruit and train individuals on the autism spectrum. In an effort to bring in new perspectives, the firm hired four young employees in account support associate positions in the Philadelphia office. The individuals in the pilot exceeded expectations, and now the firm plans to expand the pilot, said Lori Golden, EY's abilities strategy leader, who works to bring those with disabilities into EY's workforce.

"We have gotten fantastic innovative ideas in a very short period of time from individuals that think a little differently," she said. In one instance, an associate from the pilot gave suggestions on how to make the training process more efficient, which led to changes in the training modules EY uses across the firm.

What is autism?

Autism is a condition with a range of characteristics but marked by challenges with communication and social skills, and sometimes repetitive behavior or sensory sensitivities, according to Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization for those with autism. Also called autism spectrum disorder, it manifests differently in each person. Some only have slight disabilities, whereas others are nonverbal or otherwise seriously affected.

Many companies and firms, like EY, are moving to make their workforces more neurodiverse by bringing in a talent pool that includes those with autism or other neurological conditions such as dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and Tourette syndrome.

Though communication and social interactions can be difficult, many with autism excel at data analysis, looking at problems from different angles and spotting solutions that may elude others. Data analysis is a needed skill in accounting, and those with autism can excel in environments that meet their needs—often a quiet workplace without significant distractions.

"It's an untapped resource pool," said Zoe Gross, the director of operations at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. "As a business interest, it makes sense." The accounting profession has taken notice, with neurodiversity efforts underway at many firms.


Challenges and benefits

Many with autism excel in professional settings, with the ability to approach complex issues in different ways and attributes that translate well to workplace demands. Despite that, those with autism face unemployment rates of more than 80%, according to Autism Speaks, largely because of communication challenges and false beliefs that those with disabilities can't perform at the same levels as those without disabilities.

"Companies are learning now through anecdotal stories that misconceptions about people [with autism] not being able to work are untrue," said Leslie Long, Autism Speaks' vice president of adult services. "We are overcoming that myth."

Casual social interactions at the office can be a particular challenge to those with autism. Education about neurodiversity in the workplace helps co-workers understand the very real challenges some have in social situations, and not take avoidance of office watercooler talk as a slight, experts say. 

Recruiting at EY

To seek applicants with autism, EY reached out to a not-for-profit for help, Golden said. Instead of typical interviews, the firm had applicants participate in a group exercise using Legos to build robots. The exercise was designed to lessen the pressure that may come in a typical face-to-face interview, and the Lego project also gave recruiters a glimpse into how individuals solve problems and work in team settings, Golden said. "We were looking for the skills more than anything," she said. Once EY hired four people, the firm allowed for a month of training, which included extensive discussions of how people communicate in office settings as well as specific EY office culture.

The firm, which usually encourages associates to change their workstation based on projects, made sure those in the pilot had dedicated workspaces in quiet areas. 

As one of the pilot program's first hires, Sam Briefer knows firsthand how well the program works. A marketing major in college, the 25-year-old is enjoying his job as an account support associate and has quickly become an integral part of his office. "More and more companies need to see the positives of taking in individuals, like myself, that can provide an equal, if not greater, quality of work than the employer's expectations," Briefer wrote in an email.

He hopes other companies replicate the EY program. "My hope is that with this program and with getting the word out will encourage other companies to provide the same opportunities to those that EY has given to me," he said.

Tips for other organizations

Long said companies interested in diversifying their labor pool shouldn't be intimidated by the involved process large firms such as EY have undertaken. "Sometimes we make it more complicated" than it needs to be, she said. Small or midsize companies can talk to local vocational rehabilitation groups or national groups such as Autism Speaks about how to make a workplace accommodating. 

Here are some tips on bringing neurodiversity to the workplace:

  • Reach out to the autism community. Autism Speaks collaborates with Rangam Consultants Inc. to host a job board for employers to post openings and for those in the autism community to post their own employment interests. TheSpectrumCareers.com also has tips for prospective employers on how to make workplaces more accommodating and other resources. Firms and other organizations can reach out to vocational rehabilitation groups or autism support centers at local high schools and colleges to get the word out about openings.
  • Rethink the hiring process. Though an individual with autism may be fully capable, or even overqualified, for a job, he or she may not have the communications skills to convey that in an interview setting, Long said. Having a job trial, or looking at video résumés that showcase individuals' skills, can give a fuller picture of abilities than interviews, Long said. "People on the spectrum have changed our thinking about how you really learn if someone can do the job," she said.
  • Don't limit opportunities. Many of the hiring programs for those with autism have been in information technology or STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Though plenty with autism are attracted to those areas, people with autism have a variety of interests and abilities, just like people without autism, Gross said. Firms should look at hiring in all areas, and not limit openings to jobs concentrated on number crunching. Workplaces can also benefit from extending opportunities to people of various intellectual abilities, Gross said.
  • Be prepared to make accommodations. The accommodations themselves may not be significant. It could be as simple as finding a quiet or low-traffic workstation for an individual. Briefer recommends employers listen to new hires about what they need. Not making needed changes isn't an option; workplaces are required under federal disability laws to make reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities, not just those with autism, Long said. Consider arranging for a new staffer to shadow a veteran staffer to observe how the office functions.
  • Look for office champions. Many individuals have personal connections to autism and may be interested in helping new hires adjust to their job. Firms looking to increase their neurodiversity can hold brown-bag lunches about their plans and give existing employees opportunities to help.

All employees, regardless of any disabilities or conditions, do their best when in workplaces that consistently provide resources, support, and clear instructions about expectations. By intentionally accommodating those with autism, businesses will find new staff who often look at the world in different ways and bring different perspectives and solutions to the work, Long said.

"You want people to think differently," she said.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in Chapel Hill, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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