JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work program opens doors for those on the spectrum

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The JP Morgan Chase & Co. logo is displayed in front of the company's headquarters in New York, U.S., on Friday, July 6, 2012. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg
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A majority of people with autism are unemployed — despite exceptional technical talent and professional abilities. But as prominent companies nationwide actively recruit people on the spectrum, more employers are starting to recognize the value of the untapped talent of the autism community.

JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work program has helped the company fill a talent gap in its software engineering and quality assurance departments. When the program first started in 2015, a cohort of five employees on the spectrum were hired. Within the first six months, those employees were 48% more productive than employees not on the spectrum who had been at the same job three to ten years.

“Folks who are on the spectrum are very strategic, they follow directions and they follow a timeline,” says Anthony Pacilio, global head of Autism at Work for JPMorgan Chase. “The amount of focus and dedication that they bring to the table permeates the culture. It permeates everybody around them to step up their game because they see the effort and how hard working folks on the spectrum are.”

Today, the program has grown significantly: it employs 200 people in eight countries and over 40 different job roles.

“I have calls every week with different firms who want to know how we did our program and how other big companies have done theirs, and want to start their own,” Pacilio says. “They see what we see now.”

See also:Busting the myths around disability inclusive workplaces

While race, gender, sexual orientation and religion are common diversity and inclusion focus areas, employees across the spectrum of cognitive functioning — including those with autism, ADHD, Asperger's syndrome and dyslexia, for example — are too often overlooked. More than 80% of those on the spectrum are unemployed or under-employed in the United States, according to pre-pandemic estimates from Stanford University.

“[Hiring people on the spectrum] is great for productivity and it's good business — you have a return on investment,” Pacilio says. “But there's an even bigger piece to that. For the person who wasn't able to get that job five or six years ago, we're giving them the opportunity to showcase their talents.”

Jesse Collins, a software and performance engineer, came to JPMorgan through Autism at Work in 2017 after learning about the program from his wife, who also works at the company.

“It's helped me out a lot,” he says. “It has given me more confidence in my skill set. Things that I thought maybe weren't really great attributes, I didn't realize that they were in a way really awesome. It's really empowering, especially for me.”

Collins says one of the benefits of hiring people who are on the spectrum is their “outside the box” thinking, which creates an environment for a lot of innovation. Managers need to create a welcoming environment that nurtures and encourages their skill sets in order to help neurodiverse employees thrive and succeed, he says.

“I've had two managers from outside JPMorgan who didn't [do that], and it was really rocky,” Collins says. “But now I'm coming to work being authentically me, and being supported within my team is really great.”

See also: Building a diverse workforce requires more than a traditional approach

To recruit and increase neurodiverse talent in their workforce, employers should start by reviewing their recruitment process, and identify areas that are unnecessarily specific, including job requisitions and requirements. Potential employees on the spectrum might count themselves out before even applying, Pacilio says.

“If you ask for 10 years of Java experience — when you actually don't really need it — you’re limiting yourself because somebody who's on the spectrum might see that and say ‘Oh, I don't have that,’” Pacilio says. “It's a black and white issue to them and they might not apply, even though they have the skill set to do that.”

Ensuring managers are able to be strong leaders and mentors is another key aspect of attracting, engaging and retaining employees on the spectrum, Pacilio says. JPMorgan Chase has internally led training programs where managers are trained in how to provide feedback, speak in a cadence familiar to those on the spectrum, and be direct.

“Of course employers want a manager who's empathetic, but make sure to go even deeper into that by talking to the people that they manage currently,” he says. “Is that manager clear and concise and gives direct feedback, do they have a good cadence when they give the feedback? You want to make sure that that type of manager is permeated throughout your entire organization.”

Along with companies like Ford, American Airlines and Netflix, JPMorgan Chase is also part of the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion (CEO Action), a coalition of more than 1,200 CEOs who have pledged to address the inclusion needs of their people and communities. The coalition encourages leaders to share their learnings and perspectives for developing neurodiversity programs with each other, including how they recruit and nurture talent on the spectrum, and how collaboration in the business community is critical to supporting employees.

“Collective action on diversity and inclusion from the business community matters more than ever,” says Mike Fenlon, chief people officer at PwC, one of the founding companies of CEO Action. “Creating a sense of belonging and inclusion is essential for wellbeing and performing at our best, and we know that increasing diversity and avoiding bias within our four walls is critical if we want to be part of systemic change that will impact the lives of underrepresented groups.”

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