Joey Chemis is many things. A self-described nerd, he's also quirky and a "normal" guy. He leads a successful career, having recently been promoted to the position of "data scientist II" at Microsoft.

Chemis also happens to be on the autism spectrum.

But while Chemis acknowledges being autistic presents certain challenges, he doesn't see it in a negative light.

"Autism gives me superpowers where I can be hyperfocused on something and, for example, get three degrees in math, but I find certain interview processes nerve-racking," Chemis told the Wall Street Journal in a recent interview.

Chemis is one of over 100 employees Microsoft has hired who are on the autism spectrum. It's all part of what Microsoft calls the "Autism Hiring Program."

People with autism are good at problem solving, coding. They have strong attention to detail," said Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring at Microsoft, when he spoke to the Journal. "Those problem-solving skills are very important at Microsoft."

Barnett goes on to explain how the company realized candidates with autism often wouldn't get through an initial phone screen, because they would only give yes or no answers, or wouldn't elaborate on other skills. 

So, in 2015 Microsoft launched the autism hiring program with a number of adaptations to meet the needs of these special candidates. For example, candidates can skip the phone screen altogether, applying through email instead. They're also allowed to use their own laptops to code, instead of doing it on a whiteboard.

This is more than smart hiring. It's a brilliant lesson in emotional intelligence in the real world.

What EQ has to do with it

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, process, and manage emotions in yourself and others. 

Those on the autism spectrum often struggle to develop certain aspects of emotional intelligence. They may be impaired in their ability to perceive emotions of others, or even to feel and demonstrate empathy--because their minds work so differently than those who are not on the spectrum.

But, as Chemis explained, autistic minds can also provide "superpowers," in a sense. For years, researchers and parents of children diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, have identified those children's ability to become "experts" in the subjects they're interested in. They might learn everything they can about tornados or memorize obscure historical facts. 

Because of this, they are often referred to as "little professors." Can you see why those skills could be highly useful in the tech world, an industry that has a great need for individuals who can study and interpret data, as well as stare at code all day long?

Other companies could learn a lot from this initiative. What's the takeaway for your business?

By recognizing and elevating the strengths of those on the autism spectrum, while developing strategies to deal with their weaknesses, Microsoft is tapping a largely untouched gold mind of talent. And they're pioneering a new way of hiring in the process.

That's a lesson that can go far beyond helping those with autism. Because the fact is everyone will naturally excel at certain aspects of emotional intelligence, and display weaknesses in others. When organizations can recognize this and work together with employees to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses, they promote true diversity and inclusivity. 

And that's a superpower, too.

Published on: Oct 29, 2019
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