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An Optimist's Support of SAP's "Hidden Agenda"

by Dave Hannon

June 4, 2013

By Dave Hannon

SAP's announcement last month that it would recruit and hire more than 600 autistic workers struck a chord with me. Eventually.

As an optimist by nature, I want to believe good news is really good news, but as a business journalist for the past (coughs loudly) years, I know often it isn't quite as good as it sounds. We've all been burned a few times by lines like: "We really want to help low-income people secure mortgages and buy homes." (Translation: We're selling these loans immediately for profit knowing we've just ruined this family's life).  or "We are happy to bring jobs to this economically depressed area of the world." (Translation: We're starting a slave labor camp). 

So, in some of these situations we've been conditioned to skip over these types of initiatives. But SAP's program stuck in the back of mind, so I decided to read a bit more about it and consider both SAP's approach and its motives. And after having done that, I'm happy to say I'm enthusiastically optimistic about the program.

For starters, SAP is partnering with a specialist organization to gain business benefit out of this program and they're up front about that. In fact, that's the whole point. SAP's press release says "SAP sees a potential competitive advantage to leveraging the unique talents of people with autism, while also helping them to secure meaningful employment."

And don't take SAP's word for it either. According to research in this article in the New Scientist, "employees with autism bring more to the table than good concentration. Benedetto De Martino at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena has shown that people with autism make better decisions than "neurotypicals" when it comes to making a rational choice. They are less swayed by emotion." And there is a lot of other evidence out there if you are interested.

Of course, SAP did get some positive coverage in the mainstream media when they announced the initiative. Heck, even my mother said she saw the announcement in the newspaper and commented on it knowing my job is somehow related to SAP. 

So it certainly got the SAP name in front of people that might not otherwise see it --and in a very positive light. For a public company, that's great exposure, sure. But if SAP just wanted a bit of good press, it would partner with some celebrity spokesperson, take out the checkbook and make a big public donation to an autism-related charity, issue the press release, and be done with it. This goes so far beyond that (he said optimistically).

To me, SAP's true "hidden agenda" here is a great one -- to send the message to other major (public) companies and organizations that there are ways you can make the world a better place and gain business value. And today the big companies could use some inspiration. Weighing the benefits of socially conscious (for lack of a better term) programs vs. possible reputational/business risk is a very thorny issue for even the best intentioned companies and organizations. For example, major colleges in the U.S. are struggling with the popular demand by students that schools divest their fossil fuel holdings in their endowments. Sure, colleges and universities want to be on the forefront of the environmental movement, but would they risk financial gain to do so? Well, that's a completely different question.

The message SAP is sending is that if you are creative and if you partner with experts in a given field (Specialisterne in this case) and you don't just jump on the latest cause half-heartedly, there can be a win-win approach. And that "message" is, to me, the real value of SAP's program. In the grand scheme of things, giving 650 autistic people work isn't going to eliminate the challenges the millions of other autistic people face in their search for employment. But if it inspires other companies to change their perception and practices in this area, THAT could have a very big impact. Likely bigger than you might have thought. According to the Centers for Disease Control here in the U.S. in 2008, one in every 88 children -- more than 1% -- has an autistic spectrum disorder. That's up from one in every 150 only six years prior. If we can change the perception of 1% of people from being "unemployable" to being a "competitive advantage" that benefits all of us.

And just to make sure I wasn't being overly optimistic or naive on this whole thing I checked in with the president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an advocacy organization in the U.S. run by and for autistic adults seeking to increase the representation of autistic people across society. And I'm happy to report he's in support of SAP's program.

"We're very pleased by and applaud SAP's announcement and have reached out to them to learn more about their plans in North America," said Ari Ne’eman, president of ASAN. His priorities for these kinds of hiring initiatives are ensuring that autistic workers are offered the same wages and benefits as non-autistic workers and making sure these hiring opportunities take place within integrated workplace environments.

"We're excited about this development and want to encourage other companies to follow SAP's lead," Ne'eman said.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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