Recruiting for difference: developing an autism talent program


This is the story of a D&I expert who got executive buy-in for a high-touch, high-impact autism recruitment program.

Some people prefer to avoid large-scale change projects. They require forward planning, organisation-wide coordination, a generous budget and a high level of buy-in. Also, a lot can go wrong.

But Sam Turner CPHR doesn’t shy away from such challenges, she’s energised by work that has a positive impact. But that doesn’t mean she’s only experienced smooth sailing.

Referring to the early days of her career, she jokes that she spent a few years jumping from “one boys’ club to another” – places that often weren’t accepting of difference.

“I came out when I was 28, but there was no way I was going to come out at work in those environments. This experience made me feel passionate about helping people to be their authentic selves at work,” she says.

Her passion saw Turner take up work at Westpac, where she began as a change director and was promoted to head of inclusion and diversity within a year. She no longer works there, but says she got to do “pretty amazing things” during her tenure.

New talent pipeline

Given Turner’s history of embracing challenges, and her enthusiasm for inclusivity, it’s no surprise she took on a project that made Westpac the first financial services firm to create a bespoke talent pipeline for employees living with autism. She used this project as a case study to achieve HR certification through AHRI’s Senior Leader’s Pathway.

“As a white, able-bodied, cis-woman, my intersections are gender and sexual orientation. I knew very little about disability or Indigenous issues, for example, but I spent a lot of time listening to our people and employee networks.”

It was from these channels that she discovered employees were interested in developing an autism talent program. She ran with the idea.

“We were very focused on getting 50/50 gender representation, but I also wanted to make sure we were rounding out what inclusivity looked and felt like.”

It was going to be an expensive, high-touch program. Turner knew this from the outset.

So she had to be strategic about how she sought buy-in. First, she identified the executives she knew were already allies to the cause.

“The chief information officer was the executive champion for the disability group, and the chief risk officer was extremely passionate about the cause. So I got them onboard first. Next, we made sure we had a really clear business case.

“Even though it was high-touch and high-cost, we were able to show them how it fit in with the organisation’s strategy to be an employer of choice and attracting top talent. That’s often the challenge for HR and D&I. They’re influential roles, but you rarely have positional power. You’re often convincing people to do something. But when you present something to your CHRO that’s funded, backed by other executives and has an enormous amount of employee buy-in, it’s really difficult for them to say no to that.”

Not just a job

As part of her research, Turner and the program manager in her team looked at other organisations that had implemented similar programs, both in Australia and overseas.Some put all interns into the same function of the business under the same leader, working on highly technical, data-based tasks.

“While their programs were excellent, they were aimed at giving people a job. I wanted to make sure our program looked at giving people a career path.”

This meant thinking outside the box. Rather than having the interns work under the same leader, Turner dispersed them across the business.

“I wanted to spread awareness among all leaders about how to lead people on the spectrum. I didn’t want there to be ‘the autism team’ – that’s exclusionary.”

The interns didn’t go through traditional hiring processes. Instead, candidates were observed through an assessment centre process that focused on experimental exercises. From this, eight interns were selected to join the 12-month program. At the end of the internship seven were offered permanent positions.

A big part of preparing for the implementation of this recruitment drive was disrupting peoples’ bias and assumptions. Staff at Westpac underwent autism awareness training prior to the interns joining.

“Just because one person needs adjustments for loud noises, that doesn’t mean everyone in the cohort will need the same adjustments. Interrupting those biases was a challenge, but also a joy. You could really see the training clicking with people. Employees became more open and tolerant, and they were able to build this out to inclusion more broadly.”

The training program helped leaders see the interns as individuals, rather than assuming they were all the same. As the saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”.

It took just nine months from genesis to execution for Turner to create a program that would leave a mark on Westpac. Two years later and the seven successful graduates are still working at Westpac, and the bank has the ability to effectively hire, onboard, train and develop staff on the autism spectrum.

“Employees felt proud to work for a company that was doing something so great. It was the same on our social channels. Many people love to hate banks, but this just created so much positivity, particularly from those in the autism community,” she says.

But Turner’s didn’t just use positive sentiment to measure the program’s success. It had ripple effects on other parts of the business too.

“At the same time, we were developing an inclusive leadership program, and we saw a huge uptake of people leaders going through that.”

Do it yourself

While this program required a lot of time and energy, Turner says it was absolutely worth it. 

“It was uncharted territory for us. We were building the plane as we were starting to fly it. But there’s a good energy in that.”

Turner encourages others to think about how they could better include this talent pool, but says there are a few things to keep in mind.

“You need to determine the appetite for a program like this. Do you have a broadly inclusive culture, or pockets of inclusive culture, to be able to roll something like this out?”

Next, do your homework before building your business case.

“We consulted widely with the people in the autism community before we started, so we didn’t feel blindsided by anything.

“If this is your first program, I’d highly recommend partnering with expert organisations. We went with Specialisterne.

The current labour force participation rate for employees living with autism is 40.8 per cent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This is compared to a 53.4 per cent participation rate for those living with a disability and 83.2 per cent for employees without a disability or autism. What could your organisation do to improve upon that first statistic?

This article first appeared in the July 2020 edition of HRM magazine.


Implement real and lasting change in your organisation by becoming certified with AHRI’s Practising Certification Program.


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Recruiting for difference: developing an autism talent program


This is the story of a D&I expert who got executive buy-in for a high-touch, high-impact autism recruitment program.

Some people prefer to avoid large-scale change projects. They require forward planning, organisation-wide coordination, a generous budget and a high level of buy-in. Also, a lot can go wrong.

But Sam Turner CPHR doesn’t shy away from such challenges, she’s energised by work that has a positive impact. But that doesn’t mean she’s only experienced smooth sailing.

Referring to the early days of her career, she jokes that she spent a few years jumping from “one boys’ club to another” – places that often weren’t accepting of difference.

“I came out when I was 28, but there was no way I was going to come out at work in those environments. This experience made me feel passionate about helping people to be their authentic selves at work,” she says.

Her passion saw Turner take up work at Westpac, where she began as a change director and was promoted to head of inclusion and diversity within a year. She no longer works there, but says she got to do “pretty amazing things” during her tenure.

New talent pipeline

Given Turner’s history of embracing challenges, and her enthusiasm for inclusivity, it’s no surprise she took on a project that made Westpac the first financial services firm to create a bespoke talent pipeline for employees living with autism. She used this project as a case study to achieve HR certification through AHRI’s Senior Leader’s Pathway.

“As a white, able-bodied, cis-woman, my intersections are gender and sexual orientation. I knew very little about disability or Indigenous issues, for example, but I spent a lot of time listening to our people and employee networks.”

It was from these channels that she discovered employees were interested in developing an autism talent program. She ran with the idea.

“We were very focused on getting 50/50 gender representation, but I also wanted to make sure we were rounding out what inclusivity looked and felt like.”

It was going to be an expensive, high-touch program. Turner knew this from the outset.

So she had to be strategic about how she sought buy-in. First, she identified the executives she knew were already allies to the cause.

“The chief information officer was the executive champion for the disability group, and the chief risk officer was extremely passionate about the cause. So I got them onboard first. Next, we made sure we had a really clear business case.

“Even though it was high-touch and high-cost, we were able to show them how it fit in with the organisation’s strategy to be an employer of choice and attracting top talent. That’s often the challenge for HR and D&I. They’re influential roles, but you rarely have positional power. You’re often convincing people to do something. But when you present something to your CHRO that’s funded, backed by other executives and has an enormous amount of employee buy-in, it’s really difficult for them to say no to that.”

Not just a job

As part of her research, Turner and the program manager in her team looked at other organisations that had implemented similar programs, both in Australia and overseas.Some put all interns into the same function of the business under the same leader, working on highly technical, data-based tasks.

“While their programs were excellent, they were aimed at giving people a job. I wanted to make sure our program looked at giving people a career path.”

This meant thinking outside the box. Rather than having the interns work under the same leader, Turner dispersed them across the business.

“I wanted to spread awareness among all leaders about how to lead people on the spectrum. I didn’t want there to be ‘the autism team’ – that’s exclusionary.”

The interns didn’t go through traditional hiring processes. Instead, candidates were observed through an assessment centre process that focused on experimental exercises. From this, eight interns were selected to join the 12-month program. At the end of the internship seven were offered permanent positions.

A big part of preparing for the implementation of this recruitment drive was disrupting peoples’ bias and assumptions. Staff at Westpac underwent autism awareness training prior to the interns joining.

“Just because one person needs adjustments for loud noises, that doesn’t mean everyone in the cohort will need the same adjustments. Interrupting those biases was a challenge, but also a joy. You could really see the training clicking with people. Employees became more open and tolerant, and they were able to build this out to inclusion more broadly.”

The training program helped leaders see the interns as individuals, rather than assuming they were all the same. As the saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”.

It took just nine months from genesis to execution for Turner to create a program that would leave a mark on Westpac. Two years later and the seven successful graduates are still working at Westpac, and the bank has the ability to effectively hire, onboard, train and develop staff on the autism spectrum.

“Employees felt proud to work for a company that was doing something so great. It was the same on our social channels. Many people love to hate banks, but this just created so much positivity, particularly from those in the autism community,” she says.

But Turner’s didn’t just use positive sentiment to measure the program’s success. It had ripple effects on other parts of the business too.

“At the same time, we were developing an inclusive leadership program, and we saw a huge uptake of people leaders going through that.”

Do it yourself

While this program required a lot of time and energy, Turner says it was absolutely worth it. 

“It was uncharted territory for us. We were building the plane as we were starting to fly it. But there’s a good energy in that.”

Turner encourages others to think about how they could better include this talent pool, but says there are a few things to keep in mind.

“You need to determine the appetite for a program like this. Do you have a broadly inclusive culture, or pockets of inclusive culture, to be able to roll something like this out?”

Next, do your homework before building your business case.

“We consulted widely with the people in the autism community before we started, so we didn’t feel blindsided by anything.

“If this is your first program, I’d highly recommend partnering with expert organisations. We went with Specialisterne.

The current labour force participation rate for employees living with autism is 40.8 per cent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This is compared to a 53.4 per cent participation rate for those living with a disability and 83.2 per cent for employees without a disability or autism. What could your organisation do to improve upon that first statistic?

This article first appeared in the July 2020 edition of HRM magazine.


Implement real and lasting change in your organisation by becoming certified with AHRI’s Practising Certification Program.


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