Chargeback loves obsessive employees. The Utah-based company investigates and documents credit card disputes — every time someone claims a card was used without their permission — and so its analysts must be persistent and nitpicky, with a sharp eye for detail that not everyone has.
That’s why its president, Khalid El-Awady, recently hired a 36-year-old analyst named Carrie Tierney. She breezed through training and handles technical data, computer requirements and repetitive tasks with ease, in about half the time new analysts usually take. “We’ve been very, very impressed,” says El-Awady. The experience has convinced him to consider more employees with Tierney’s abilities — and, by medical textbook standards, disabilities.
Tierney is on the autism spectrum. But her hiring is not unique. She represents a vanguard in the war for talent, in which American companies — mostly large, but some small, too — are increasingly recruiting what they now call neurodiverse workers. It’s still the early days, but more and more companies say these individuals have proven to be a competitive advantage due to their creative, detail-oriented and technically adept traits. “It’s fertile ground,” says Susanne Bruyère of the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University.
As companies discover the value of having autistic employees, many are making major changes to their hiring practices. Today, roughly 50 companies in the U.S. have a workforce that’s primarily made up of autistic workers, says Michael Bernick, a former director of California’s labor department who is now counsel to Sedgwick law firm and writes about neurodiversity.
Software giant SAP plans to make 1 percent of its workforce (about 650 positions) people on the autism spectrum; Jose Velasco, head of SAP’s autism program, calls these workers “underutilized” and says they “bring diverse thinking to fuel innovation.” JP Morgan Chase has an autism-hiring program, and Microsoft has hired 31 such workers full-time over the past two years.
Companies stress that they aren’t acting out of a sense of social responsibility. Microsoft says autistic candidates are an “untapped pool of talent.” The director of JP Morgan’s program has described some characteristics of autism as “ideal assets in the workplace, particularly in industries like tech and engineering.”
“We’re not doing this as a diversity and inclusion program; it’s actually filling a very specific business need,” says Hiren Shukla, national process improvement leader at EY, an accounting and professional-services firm. The company launched a pilot last year in its Philadelphia office, hiring a few autistic employees to explore how best to work with them; it was so successful that it’s since been expanded to the Dallas office as well. Now EY has 14 neurodiverse employees working in areas including cybersecurity, automation and data analytics. “These aren’t specialized roles we created for them. We put them into existing roles,” says Shukla. “We think this is a very innovative way to help with the war on talent but also, more importantly, to bring creative talent.”
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