Should employers dare to be different by hiring 'outliers'?

Recently, I've been struck by a powerful article in the Harvard Business Review. It focused on software giant SAP's targeted decision to hire 650 new employees with autism. In a world where only 15 per cent of autistic people have full-time jobs¹, this might seem a charitable gesture at first glance. But far from it. SAP recognise that many people with autism have an exceptional ability to focus on detailed, if repetitive, work such as software testing. It highlights the value of people who think and behave differently, even if it takes a little workplace flex to enable them to fully contribute.

From a customer experience (CX) perspective, companies have been drilled into engineering their products and services for consistency - whatever channel or day of the week. It's easy to jump from this starting point to include employee uniformity too. I've observed many firms training their new employees in order to 'embed our brand behaviours'.

Yet I believe that both customers and employees highly value the presence of authenticity - of being true to themselves, genuine in their words and deeds. SAP's hiring decision illustrates that individual authenticity need not rule out an employee - indeed it can be celebrated. The key is to get the context right - to be able to flex enough in some areas to enable the overall company to be stronger.

This kind of thinking is by no means an abstract concept - it has practical applications, perhaps even within your own company right now. A few simple examples might be:

  • How might new graduate intakes be used to challenge a company culture before they become embedded into it?
  • What specific insight from disabled customers could be used to improve the experience for all, perhaps of shopping at a store, or visiting an office?
  • To what degree does your firm welcome prospective new suppliers' ideas to your business vs. requiring them to conform to existing policy?

'Difference' in the workplace is easy to see as something to be overcome. Even the National Autistic Society's slogan is limited to "Accept difference, not indifference". But I think we can go further - by perceiving it as something to actively seek out, to embrace and get the most from. Bravo, SAP - you're already there, and hopefully the rest of us will follow.

Read the HBR article here



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