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Dallas Is Ground Zero for Empowering and Employing the Neurodivergent Workforce

EY's program began here and views neurodiversity as a strength, not a box to check.
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Courtesy: iStock

Daniel Fiaccone graduated from college with two degrees and the ability to write multiple coding languages but ended up doing manual labor and working in a warehouse. He didn’t mind the work and found ways to improve the processes, but he hit a wall on advancement and wasn’t performing to the top of his abilities. Today, he is an associate at EY who codes, analyzes data, and works in risk management for the global consulting firm EY. The job helped him pay off his loans and buy a house for his mother. So how did it happen?

Everywhere you look over the last six years, corporations are discussing the war on talent, the inability to fill positions, and shortages in key areas. But neurodivergent workers may be the answer. The increasingly tapped labor supply is often capable of doing the job if given the proper preparation and structure.

A Drexel University study found that 58 percent of young adults with autism are unemployed, resulting in financial struggle and social isolation. It found that fewer than one in six is fully employed, more than half of those surveyed said their skills were higher than what their job required, and 77 percent of those unemployed said they want to work.

EY’s global and Americas Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence Leader has been thinking about this issue and realized the problem had more to do with the screening process than the candidates’ ability. “What became obvious was that most of the world has been built by neuro-typicals who converge in the way we think, talk, and socialize,” he says. “They think differently and are probably not getting called back.”

People like Fiaccone have untapped skills that can benefit a large corporation. When it comes to analytics, coding, pattern recognition, and processing, individuals on the autism spectrum are often more adept than their neuro-typical peers. The current labor shortage may be a reason companies should broaden their scope for future talent. Many are already doing so.

After a pilot program in Philadelphia, international consulting firm EY launched its Neurodiversity Center of Excellence in Dallas to provide training, guidance, and jobs to ND employees who could benefit the company. Dallas was the second place in the country where EY launched its center, but the effort was not a charity effort or a DEI initiative that can be marketed as a way the company is pursuing equity. The program’s goal was to find individuals with skills that could benefit the company who may have been disqualified during the typical hiring process. Return on investment was essential, and it has proved successful.

Many ND individuals on the autism spectrum have interpersonal communication deficits. Skills like eye contact, reading nonverbal cues, and the ability to connect socially are a big part of who interviews well. Without those skills, hiring leaders often miss gifted potential employees. But if the process is changed and the criteria for employment shifted, this community can be put to work in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Partnering with local universities to identify ND students who may be a good fit has led to a pipeline of candidates. Still, the program is less concerned with traditional education (which also self-selects for neuro-typical students) and more concerned with the ability to get the job done.

“We are tapping into the inherent acumen, aptitude, and interest of these individuals. It doesn’t matter if you went to school or what degree you have if you like doing this type of work,” says Hiren Shukla, EY’s Global and Americas Neuro-diverse Center of Excellence leader. “We need people who think differently.”

EY changed the way it sourced employees to bring in more ND employees. Rather than eliminate candidates because of a lack of social skills, they provided more training on teamwork, collaboration, and communication to those individuals. The investment paid off, as these employees often needed less time to receive technical training and automated processes faster than their neuro-typical peers. These employees focus on cybersecurity, robotic process automation, and analytics in Dallas. They write code to automate processes, analyze data as part of due diligence, and work to understand how blockchain will impact the business.

EY next had to change the interview process, worrying less about social skills and more about aptitude and the ability to get the job done. This often took place over several days and included instructions that clearly communicated expectations and the steps to get there. Once hired, these employees are offered continual support, making sure these employees aren’t left to make assumptions about what is expected or unspoken protocols. The training process is thorough and direct and caters to each individual. Some are onboarded in two weeks, while others take two months.

Managers were asked to make their instructions clear and direct for their ND employees, which was also beneficial. When managers rethought their communication for this population, they found that all employees benefitted from the more deliberate and straightforward communication. So not only did ND employees benefit, but neuro-typical employees received better instruction, and managers became better communicators.

While EY’s centers of excellence align with the push for greater diversity in corporate America today, it didn’t begin as a DEI effort. It was all about return on investment. EY has hired 300 individuals across all its centers, with a significant financial impact on the company. “I have to prove every year the return on this investment as a business,” Shukla says. “I’m just like any of the business leaders in the firm –running a program that is supposed to produce value.”

It isn’t just the company that is benefitting from the program. “The program has impacted me drastically,” Faiccone, who bought a house for his mother, says. “I have always had poor self-esteem and low confidence, but since joining EY, I was able to go out and date people and wound up finding the love of my life.”

James Hudgins is another ND employee at EY who is a senior associate. He graduated college, worked as a teacher, and managed an auto parts store. Growing old with the mundanity of the job led him to look for the ND program at EY, and he now speaks three different coding languages. “There’s not a moment where any project I’m working on is repetitive,” he says. “I’m always being challenged. I’m always learning new technologies, and it’s just amazing.”

The most mature team of neurodivergent employees is here in Dallas, Shukla says, but the programs are in 14 states and seven countries. EY has also been a consultant to help other international corporations, such as Procter and Gamble, launch their neurodivergent employment programs. The ND population is loyal, as well. At EY, these employees have a 90 percent retention rate.

While charity can create opportunities and experience for those who don’t have any, ND employment gains have to move beyond a free handout. These programs need to be fiscally sustainable for the business and the empowerment of the ND individuals. Seeing the ND community as a resource with unique strengths avoids tokenism and works toward true inclusion.

“The traditional diversity and inclusion conversation has been good, but it hasn’t necessarily produced action and results for a more inclusive society,” Shukla says. “What would happen if you created equity and belonging for people so that you’re not just assimilating them to an organization? What if we created this safe space that said, ‘You really can bring your whole self to work?'”


Will Maddox

Will Maddox

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Will is the senior editor for D CEO magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He's written about healthcare…

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