Autism in the Workplace - Retention Strategies Panel
Autism in the Workplace - Retention Strategies Panel
On Tuesday, October 16, 2018, the Presidents Group and our partners hosted an ‘Autism in the Workplace’ conference at the Goodlife Fitness Family Autism Hub in Richmond. The conference ran from 8:30am – 3pm. There were sessions led by both professionals who have experience supporting individuals with ASD and organizations that have successfully implemented strategies to make their workforce more neurodiverse.
This is the panel on Retention Strategies.
(Jamie) I’m Jamie Millar-Dixon, I am a recruitment specialist with BC Partners in Workforce
Innovation, BC WiN for short. And BC WiN was a three year pilot initiative that concluded this past March, where we were helping employers who wanted to be diverse and inclusive, tap into a talent pool of people with diverse abilities. It’s my great pleasure to introduce our panelists this afternoon, all employers, people who have actively engaged in hiring people with autism.
To my far right is Brody McDearmid, he is the Co-owner of Meridian Farm Market, Meridian Meats and Seafood. Has hired a number of individuals on the spectrum in his business.
Next to Brody is Andreea Dumitrescu, did I do it justice? Alright, Awesome. And she’s a recruiter with Dexterra at YVR.
And then immediately to my right is Alison Magill, she’s a Manager of Broker Product and Distribution Support with ICBC, and she’s hired two individuals as Support Assistants in her department.
So, welcome and thank you for being here. So, I’m gonna give each panelist a chance to introduce themselves, take a couple of minutes to introduce themselves and introduce their experience in hiring people with ASD and highlighting in particular what motivated their organization to actively be an inclusive employer.
So, Brody we’ll start with you.
(Brody) Thank you. So as mentioned my name’s Brody, and I am the CFO with Meridian Meats and Meridian Farm Market. So my son David, he’s nine, and he has autism, I think that’s a familiar story with a lot of us here, and a lot of people who are involved in the world of autism. And David really was the motivating factor for us in starting to hire people with autism and other diverse abilities.
We wanted to create a place where people like our son could work and find opportunity and gain experience and grow and develop, so to date we’ve hired eight individuals with autism,
we’ve been doing this a little over a year now, and our retention is actually 100% on all eight, so that’s where those comments have been said before, committed, loyal, and long-term employees who are engaged.
And so that’s been our experience and we’re happy to be here and to try and help others engage in hiring those with autism as well.
(Jamie) Thank you, Andreea?
(Andreea) Hello everyone my name is Andreea, I’m the Recruiter at Dexterra, at the Vancouver International Airport, and I focus on the housekeeping and the baggage carts department. My experience has been, well I’ve been with the company less than a year however, but the team itself has been involved in bringing on individuals with autism and other disabilities as well, so it’s been very, I felt just at home being able to bring on these individuals just with the support that I have from the team as well.
(Jamie) Awesome, thank you. Alison?
(Alison) So my experience started as a Hiring Manager, we were having trouble retaining employees and retaining good employees. So someone from HR suggested to myself and another manager we attend a session very similar to this, looking at hiring inclusively in general. So, that put us in touch with Jamie, and from there ended up interviewing people, and had some of the best interviews that I’ve ever had, and it’s been a great experience and I’m looking to continue hiring inclusively.
(Jamie) That’s great. Thank you, I should let you know Alison’s experience up front as well, they did a lot of things to their recruitment process, up front in the process to make some adjustments so that people could demonstrate their very best self in that interview process, things like adjusting from those behavior-based interview questions.
(Jamie) The dreaded behavior-based questions. Things like meeting people and having those meet and greets in the workplace before heading into a formal interview, so things that really did make a difference and don’t take a whole lot of extra work to do. So now that you’ve recruited people, we’re gonna focus exclusively on your efforts to retain the talent that you’ve invested in.
We think that we’re gonna follow a similar format to the questions asked this morning, so if we think of retention as involving four key components, engagement, mentorship and peer support, performance feedback, and managing that probation period, Andreea maybe I’ll send this one to you first, what did you find most challenging about that, and how did you address this?
(Andreea) So for me, myself it’s the most challenging part has been determining where these individuals need a bit more help with, and I’ve had the pleasure of working along with job coaches, which has been making my job very easy and being able to interview the individual with the job coach along, and having a little bit of backstory about the individual, kind of getting an idea of what they’re into, and what may perhaps might not work has been helpful, as well as creating altered job positions. So for example within the housekeeping department, not having the individual do the whole task that other individuals might do, whereas specifically focusing just on garbage removal has been something that we’ve been able to successfully accomplish.
(Jamie) Are you a unionized environment or no?
(Andreea) We are not a union.
(Jamie) Okay great, thank you. Brody, what about you?
(Brody) Yeah, so our biggest challenge has definitely been with performance feedback. So at Meridian we have these developed pathways for all of our employees, and they can progress, receive promotions and raises, and as they continue to progress it can turn into a career for them if they’d like. And so since hiring individuals with ASD, the challenge has been helping them get on those same pathways, because these pathways were developed for neurotypical people.
And so a lot of times the qualities and characteristics we were looking for, we couldn’t find or haven’t found in people with ASD. So we have standardized performance reviews that we give twice a year, and the managers were calling me and saying so-and-so’s due for a review, what should I do?
And I said, well give them the review. (audience laughs)
And so that was sort of a hurdle that we had to overcome, and the managers are now comfortable with that. They’re delivering reviews on a timely basis, providing direct feedback which has been valuable for these employees. But we still have not resolved the issue of helping these individuals with ASD get on those pathways that we’ve developed so that they can find career progression, which was spoken to earlier a little bit. So that’s still a work in progress for us.
The other thing is, and this was mentioned earlier as well, sometimes they don’t necessarily want to progress on those pathways, and receive promotions and all that sort of stuff. Oftentimes they’re happy to be where they are, and so, I don’t know if any of you have seen, there’s a video by a gentleman, his name’s Randy Lewis, and he’s an executive with Walgreen’s down in the United States, and they’ve done some great work in hiring people with diverse abilities. And they have the slogan, they say ATP, ask the person.
And so a lot of time we make assumptions about what individuals with disabilities can and can’t do, but really we should ask them what they can and can’t do, and what they would like to do, and what they wouldn’t like to do. And so, you know, lots of approaches but it’s a work in progress for us, and helping those that want to progress.
(Jamie) Awesome, that’s great that you’re giving that opportunity as well, to do that. Alison what did you find most challenging, and how did you overcome that?
(Alison) I would say performance feedback for us as well, in a union environment it’s quite a structured system where there’s very regular feedback given, but not as frequently as maybe someone on the autism spectrum does need. At the time I came in, I was a new manager, also had new supervisors in the department that were helping train these new hires. So we all sort of learned together that the feedback had to be way more regular than we normally would.
Once a month, not enough. Not enough feedback. As well as getting the employee, having those direct conversations and asking them targeted questions to understand what we could do better, what we could do differently, I also had the benefit of working with job coaches as well, and Jamie, that helped us a lot to understand where we could do better.
(Jamie) What did you notice that’s different about this talent pool, if anything?
(Alison) I would say immediately they were actually more engaged than a general employee, which I found very refreshing, actually. And I did find that the two individuals that I did hire wanted to be there, they wanted to stay in the position that they started in, they very much enjoyed the work that they were doing.
(Jamie) Sounds like it was a good fit.
(Alison) Yes. Whereas I find often people will come in and they consider the department that I previously managed, that hired people with the autism spectrum, they feel that that’s a very much entry-level position, they want to move on as quickly as possible. I was very happy that they wanted to stay where they were, they enjoyed the work, they enjoyed their coworkers. So very pleasant surprise.
(Jamie) Thank you. Brody what do you find that’s different about engaging this talent pool if anything at all?
(Brody) Well, I guess it’s somewhat paradoxical if you could say even, so every employee’s different, so in that regard they’re all the same. Because they’re all different. And so people with ASD, they are different, and in that regard they’re the same. And so if you can approach them, understanding that they have different strengths and different weaknesses, it’s no different than any other employee.
Particularly for us, you know we’re a customer service, retail business, so oftentimes people with autism struggle with the social cues, and communication, all those things that we learned about, and so interaction with customers can sometimes be a challenge for them. In the year that we’ve been doing this, we’ve only had one complaint from a customer, and it was a result of
the customer not knowing that the individual that was serving them had ASD, and so we were certain if this customer had of known that, well, there’s no way on Earth they would have complained, in fact they probably would have been smiling the whole time, thinking how wonderful it is that this individual who has autism is serving her at one of our stores. So, we did a couple of things to try and work with that. Number one, we made sure that we put these employees in positions where they could succeed. So again, finding their strengths, and putting them in positions where those strengths can be utilized. And second, we put signs up in our store, and they’re just discreet signs but they say, we’re a family business, some of our employees have different strengths than others, we hire inclusively, and we love each other, basically is what it says, and you know it was interesting, as soon as we put up those signs, we all of a sudden had an influx of individuals with diverse abilities applying for jobs.
And of course over time as communities become more aware of what we’re doing and what we’re engaging in, they’ve become more excited about us as a business in their community, and so it’s really been a positive experience, outside of that one customer, but again that was easily resolved, and an isolated incident.
(Jamie) That’s awesome, what a great idea. Cathy I noticed you’re writing down, you’re thinking of…
(Cathy) I’m writing down ideas.
(Jamie) The ICBC claims centers, how a sign at the front entrance might work, yeah, that’s cool.
(Cathy) It’s true, those signs might make people like ICBC.
(Jamie) It might work.
(Audience Member) For the record, nobody here works in insurance.
(Jamie) Andreea, what did you do differently to retain some of the people at Dexterra, aside from maybe working with job coaches, what other things did you put in place?
(Andreea) Our Health and Safety Manager as well has been really involved with making sure that these individuals are able to perform the duties safely, and also we do have a lot of security at YVR, so a lot of screening points, a lot of traps, the two doors that, you need to follow the correct protocol. And so we have supervisors, so we operate 24/7, and so different shifts, different supervisors as well, so a lot of our supervisors have been keeping an eye on the individuals, making sure that everything’s smooth, as well as they’re employees, they’re coworkers, they tend to tell them, oh, don’t go there, you’re not allowed to go that way remember?
So it’s been good that we have the support.
(Jamie) Alison, what were you pleasantly surprised about in your experience in hiring your two employees, and maybe if you had any do-overs that you would do differently, you could share that with the group.
(Alison) I think overall I was just very happy with the experience. Initially, right away with the interview, from that point it was a positive experience. As I said earlier, I had some of the most honest and open interviews I’ve ever had as a manager. But I did sort of toss out the normal traditional behavioral style interview, where we’re asking very specific questions, we’re asking for a specific type of answer, and had a conversation. So, I had individuals that were completely honest about what they would struggle with once I described the job to them.
I find people normally wouldn’t be so open and honest about their struggles, and what they would need help with once they get onboard.
(Jamie) You made a couple of really easy adaptations to help employees do their best in the workplace, can you share some of those?
(Alison) Some things that we did quite easily was one of the individuals identified he would have trouble with the phone call aspect, picking up on social cues can be difficult and understanding what a customer or person on the other end is asking for might be difficult. In that particular department, we only took a certain type of phone call. So we quickly said, you know what, we can make you a checklist, if the person doesn’t automatically give you any of this information, you’ll be able to identify how to fill out this little box, and just ask that one question, and you’ll know what to do on that phone call.
If you need help, you just need to put them on hold, and we spent extra time with him, with his supervisor listening in on the call with him, so if he needed help he had someone right there available, so it’s just a longer support system.
(Jamie) But once he had it down he had it down?
(Alison) Once he had it down, yup.
(Jamie) That’s great. Andreea, based on your experiences in your opinion, where are some of the gaps in terms of retention, and what more could be done as an inclusive employer?
(Andreea) My current struggle at the moment that I’m sharing with everybody now actually, is with newcomers, when I hire new employees and they’re not aware of these individuals that are, you know they’re struggling to have something that they’re, the communications not as clear, there are cues that they’re not picking up on, you know, so that’s been something that we are, you know, and it’s tough because we have a total roughly around an average about 20 new hires every month, so all these new, and people come, people go, people are going back to school, so it’s a very high turnover, and therefore these individuals are here for a long time, they’re dedicated to their jobs, and they want to remain here, they’re constantly faced with newcomers, obviously that’s number one that I’m trying to find a solution for at the moment.
Other gaps, I would say that’s the main one, the main one at the moment.
(Jamie) Brody, one final thing or two if you’ve got it, or three, that you would pass on to employers in the room who, to help them with their retention efforts of people with ASD.
(Brody) So, I did a quick survey of our managers, we have six locations and I asked them a few questions about the experience of having employees with autism in their stores, ’cause they’re the ones who are day-to-day hands on with these people, and I thought their responses might be better than anything I could say. So I’ll just read those, so if you could bear with me on that. So, the question was as managers, is there anything you would want to tell other employees about hiring people with autism?
One manager said “there is nothing more worthwhile. I don’t want it to sound like it is without challenges, however the overall impact on my store and team has been nothing but positive.”
Now I substituted a name, I substituted my son’s name just for fun, so when you hear names just know I just substituted my son’s name.
“Hiring David has been a great experience. Every employee with autism or not has strengths and weaknesses, and if you are a good teacher, then you know how to use those strengths and be patient while developing those weaknesses. I think the first step is to be willing and open to try, because it feels great to watch people develop professionally and personally.”
The next manager said “it can sound fairly daunting when you only here about the prospect of hiring somebody with autism. Especially if you don’t know much about it. Though in the beginning, things can be a little slower than average, the benefits of going through that process are well worth it. Having an employee that rarely calls in sick, engages with the job, and isn’t looking to leave has huge benefits.”
The next manager said “give them a chance, you might be surprised at how good they can be.” Oh pardon me, you know what, I think I… Oh that’s right, sorry. But and the last manager said, “just be patient and think of long term. You put the work in now and it might be hard to find the time, or it might take longer, but you will get out of it someone who works just as well as anyone else, and it also super reliable and always want to work an do a good job.”
So, I thought that that spoke better than anything I might say, and these are not parents of children with autism, these are managers of employees who have autism.
(Jamie) How many of you in the room as employers would rather have the employees that sound like that, right? Andreea?
(Andreea) I agree about the quality of work, 100%. We have such detail in our individuals on the spectrum, for example let’s say in the food court, a tray, a food tray, they clean, oh they’re just perfectionists when it comes to detail, they really pay attention to that, but that’s been fantastic.
(Jamie) That’s great, thank you. Alison, one final thing you would share with other employers?
(Alison) I would also echo the wanting to be at work. One individual, we had to send him home, because was very sick, and still really wanted to be at work. So the dedication to the workplace and I would agree putting up that time up front, the benefit of it later on is way more than that initial time spent up front.
(Jamie) That’s great. Some of you’ve heard me tell this story before, I once had an employer who hired a person with autism, and I got this call one afternoon, and the manager says, he won’t go home. Like, he won’t go home, what do I do? And so my answer was, well what would you normally do with an employee who won’t go home?
I’d tell them to go home.
Tell him to go home.
And then we developed a specific script that had more importance to this individual than just go home, sort of that this was a rule, it was the law, it’s time to go home, right. So, it just needed to be stated differently.
Great, these are all, in terms of the structure questions that we have, the panelists, thank you.