World Autism Awareness Day – A Playbook to Inclusive Hiring

Over the past year, there have been tremendous efforts around the importance of inclusivity, especially in the workplace. As we honor World Autism Awareness Day and celebrate the 6-year anniversary of Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program, we reflect on how the program started, voices from employees, and playbook examples of how companies can create a more inclusive culture within their organizations, starting with hiring more people with disabilities.

“If the last year has taught us anything it is that we can always do better to be more mindfully aware of others, inclusion in its simplest form,” says Todd Ellis, a member of the Neurodiversity Community at Microsoft. “The expansion of the Autism Hiring Program speaks to commitment towards cultivating a diverse workplace through actions that underline our core mission. The winds of change are blowing, and often change is imperfect but we grow by leaning in and empowering everyone else to do likewise – these are very exciting times.”

As we reflect on Microsoft’s inclusive journey, we’re excited to announce the Microsoft Autism Hiring program has expanded to all aspects of Neurodiversity, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, and other cognitive disabilities and is now called the Microsoft Neurodiversity Hiring Program.

When we started the program, we were not alone in our journey. Shortly after the program launched, we paired with EY, JPMorgan Chase, and SAP to create the Autism at Work Employer Roundtable powered by Disability:IN in 2018. The goal was to share learnings, create a network to discuss building, sustaining, and attracting talent, as well as to serve as an incubator of sorts for other employers looking to start their own inclusive hiring programs.

In 2019, the Autism at Work Employer Roundtable paired with the University of Washington to develop the Autism@Work Playbook. The playbook provided a turnkey framework to jumpstart an inclusive hiring program. Currently, we’ve launched a new version of the playbook that includes a chapter on adapting to remote hiring models and how to provide employee support in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since its inception, the Roundtable has provided support to over twenty-five employers seeking to launch their own corporate neurodiversity hiring initiatives.

Evolving the Candidate experience:

Prior to the pandemic, inclusive hiring events at Microsoft were traditionally hosted in-person at our Redmond, WA campus. For many candidates that meant flying from their hometown, staying in a hotel, and navigating through Microsoft’s campus. When the pandemic started, we quickly transitioned the program to an all-virtual hiring experience by leveraging Microsoft Teams to facilitate our week-long hiring event and utilized built-in accessibility features such as captioning and Teams chat messaging.

To replace in-person team-building activities, we developed Minecraft worlds with customized challenges for our candidates to work through together in small groups. The activity allowed candidates to showcase communication skills, teamwork, problem-solving and leadership, through a digital platform.

Minecraft image of Microsoft campus
As part of the skills assessment during the interview process for the Neurodiversity Hiring Program, candidates use Minecraft worlds to work together as a team.

No program is without flaws, especially during a global pandemic, however, we’ve heard from candidates that the experience allowed them to feel more comfortable and allowed them to showcase their talents through a digital platform in the comfort of their homes and by using their preferred communication styles.

For instance, to replace in-person team-building activities, we developed Minecraft worlds with customized challenges for our candidates to participate in small groups. The challenges are designed to support team-building and give candidates an opportunity to collaborate with one another while showcasing their talents through workability exercises that play to their strengths.

Transitioning to fully remote work has been an adjustment for most people. For new employees, the adjustment also meant they needed to onboard virtually. In support of those efforts, we re-evaluated our current processes and made changes such as:

  • Increasing the number of times an employee meets with their job coach to better provide support and guidance on best practices for working remotely.

  • Holding regularly scheduled open office hour calls where employees and managers can join as needed to connect with one another and share ideas for what was working to help them be more effective.

  • Encouraging more team building and connections across the community at Microsoft, such as facilitating activities like virtual game nights to give employees a chance to get to know each other in a relaxed way.

“It has been great having a virtual meetup where we can hang out for an hour or two and play games,” says a co-creator of the Virtual Gaming Nights. This has especially been helpful during the pandemic where social isolation is high, and it’s nice to sort of develop that sense of normalcy that we may not get from other activities quite yet.” 

We have more to do and learn and we are eager to continue to grow through this journey. On this date, we honor the Neurodiversity community and will continue committing to efforts tied to a more inclusive culture.

To learn more about Microsoft’s efforts towards inclusive hiring for people with disabilities, please visit our Microsoft Inclusive Hiring for People with Disabilities website.