When Baerbel Ostertag moved from Germany to Vancouver to take a job as SAP Canada’s head of human resources, her new colleagues helped ease her transition considerably. “It was easy to blend into this new role because Canada is so diverse and open-minded,” Ostertag says. “Everybody was very open and inclusive.”
That ability to welcome change and accept differences uniquely positioned the Canadian offices of SAP to serve as a testing ground for Autism at Work, a pilot program the company started with the aim of hiring individuals on the autism spectrum. It’s expected to expand the company’s talent pool significantly, and it’s “one of the projects I am most proud of being involved in,” Ostertag says.
The program began in May 2013, with the goal of recruiting autistic individuals as one percent of the company’s workforce by 2020. As a leader in business software, SAP employs more than 65,000 people and is always searching for skilled individuals to hire, and this task is especially difficult in the competitive IT field. “We are constantly looking for new talent with competencies relevant for us as an organization,” Ostertag says. “We might be a little further ahead because we are open-minded about where we find talent.”
In order to ensure that it doesn’t pass up qualified candidates, SAP has revamped its selection process to screen qualified autistic job seekers. “Normally, we are looking for candidates that are communicative, have good eye contact, are easygoing, and speak comfortably,” Ostertag says. “From our experience, individuals on the autism spectrum do not bring that to the table. They are not the best communicators. Automatically, they might fail for the wrong reasons.” However, certain roles, including data analysis, quality assurance, and technical support, require strong focus and a great attention to detail, which are traditionally in the skill set of individuals with autism.
So far, the program has brought about a great deal of change within the organization—even beyond the addition of new talent and the diversification of the workforce. “People on the autism spectrum need a different communication style,” Ostertag says. So SAP has conducted training sessions aimed at educating employees about how to communicate effectively with autistic colleagues, encouraging them to speak more directly, to not use sarcasm, and to avoid “playing politics.”
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“A lot of my work is aimed at positioning SAP as one of Canada’s best employers. A key component in that is to focus on the right topics, not just benefits like free parking but fostering the career development of employees and driving new career initiatives.”
In addition, several employees have come forward to get directly involved with the program in some capacity. Many are supportive of SAP’s forward-thinking initiative because they themselves have autistic family members. “It’s been a huge benefit for everyone and a real win-win in creating positive attitudes and improving the workforce,” Ostertag says.
In order to ensure the success of Autism at Work’s screening and onboarding process, SAP partnered with Danish company Specialisterne. “It has been a tremendous experience working with our partner,” Ostertag says. “In my opinion, many companies could benefit from this type of hiring experience, especially with the right partner.”
Ultimately, she believes that regardless of size, an organization that is willing to invest more time in training and awareness will find that including autistic individuals as part of the workforce pays huge dividends in terms of employee engagement. And helping individuals meet their career goals is one of the main reasons Ostertag came to Vancouver in the first place. “It was not the easiest thing to uproot my family and move to a different continent,” Ostertag says, “but it’s part of my individual career-development story.”
All employees are looking to develop their own careers, too, and Ostertag enjoys helping them find their path. “When I talk to people [that] I mentor individually or in front of a group, I always share my personal history,” she says. “It makes it easy for me to stand up in front of employees and authentically talk about ‘driving your own career’ because I am leading by example.”