Inside SAP’s ‘Autism at Work’ program

by Nicola Middlemiss29 Oct 2015
Employers around the globe have been making efforts to combat unconscious bias in recent years, but how can they prevent discrimination against candidates with conditions that are not immediately noticeable? 

SAP, a multinational software corporation, has been taking steps to reduce the discrimination faced by people with Austic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when it comes to the employment process. 

Yesterday, the company launched its 'Autism at Work' program in Australia, after successfully rolling it out in various countries over the past two years.

Autism at Work is a part of the company’s wider diversity and inclusion program, which in turn functions as a part of SAP’s mission and vision to make the world run better and improve people’s lives.

“This is a big cornerstone in our diversity and inclusion strategy going forward,” Anka Wittenberg, chief diversity and inclusion officer at SAP, told HC.
SAP focuses on four areas of diversity in its strategy. These are:
  • Gender
  • Generations
  • Culture
  • Disability
“The program began two years ago following some work in India,” Wittenberg said.

“We started to work with people with autism there after donating iPads to people who are non-verbal. We found that these people bring a special strength to the table that we would like to integrate into our culture and environment.”

Autism at Work was then launched with Specialisterne, a Danish company specialising in helping people with ASD to find work.

SAP’s goal is now to have 1% of its workforce consisting of people with autism by 2020 – consistent with the percentage of people with ASD in the general population.

“They are employed not in spite of fact that they are disabled, but because of the strengths they bring by being autistic,” Wittenberg continued.

“People with autism excel in any repetitive task that requires a lot of attention, as well as roles in communications, compliance, project management – and HR.”

Wittenberg told HC that people with autism bode well in HR teams due to their attention to detail and straightforward communication methods.

“We’ve had people with autism in our HR shared service centres performing tasks such as data entry, and have had positive feedback from the entire workforce,” Wittenberg explained.

Another benefit of the program, according to Wittenberg, is that it has positively impacted the cultural component of SAP’s D&I strategy. 

“If a team has a precise and clear communication style because of the People with Autism program, it also helps the different cultures within that team to correspond more efficiently,” she said.

“Being German, if I use sarcasm to make a joke, my colleague from China might understand it in an entirely different way.”

She added that having a clear and precise communication style in the team is really helping SAP to create an inclusive environment. 

Advice for HR

Wittenberg told HC that the most important thing to be aware of when implementing a similar program is that preparation is vital.

“Creating awareness in the workforce around autism is the first thing that is needed,” she advised.  

“HR must prepare teams that the people with autism would be joining, ensuring that the existing employees understand the dos and don’ts and how they can work together.”


But have there been any challenges?

“What you learn quickly is people with autism don’t understand sarcasm or what you’re saying between the lines,” Wittenberg told HC. “This simply means that a clear and precise way of communication is needed.”

“One thing I have learned is the need for patience,” Wittenberg said, noting that people with autism have a different approach to many aspects of working life.

“In the beginning you really need to create that awareness, which is a clear change process in terms of the organisational culture.”

SAP has conducted the program by onboarding an average of six to ten people with autism in each wave.

“We have now rolled out the program in five countries and eight locations, and by end of 2015 we plan to have onboarded 100 employees with autism,” Wittenberg said.

“The goal for Australia is to have 1% of the SAP workforce made up of employees with autism.”

“I’ve been in HR for over 30 years and when I used to recruit I would look for people with good communication skills who were team players,” Wittenberg added.

“People with autism would fall through this mainstream recruitment process, which means as HR professionals we also have to think about how we can be more innovative in regards to our recruitment processes – and ensure that we can get a diversity of talent into the workforce.

“That will be the only way we can really create a strategic workforce that is ready for the future of work.”

She added that she strongly believes SAP is a thought leader in this space with the Autism at Work program.

“We are working with the business ecosystem and our customers in the hope that they will follow this and really make a difference,” Wittenberg said.

SAP’s Autism at Work program currently employs people in offices in Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, Ireland and the United States, with Australia becoming the eighth nation on the list. 


  • by Belinda 29/10/2015 4:29:58 PM

    Very impressive and challenging and reflects well on SAP

  • by Brian White 9/11/2015 10:18:28 PM

    An impressive ground breaking diversity initiative by SAP.

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