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‘Blown away’: Boosting neurodiverse ranks

07:30am September 02 2020

Gavin Burton joined Westpac via an internship program tailored for people on the autism spectrum, currently taking applicants for 2020. (Emma Foster)

When BT technology manager Mark Franklin recruited Gavin Burton at the end of 2017, he couldn’t have predicted he’d become one of his team’s highest performers in a role he didn’t even know he’d need.

“When we hired Gavin, we were doing a lot of data analytics and data migration work, and we saw him gravitate towards that,” says Franklin, a 26-year BT veteran who leads the team of engineers working on the wealth manager’s flagship Panorama platform.

“But Gavin’s taken it to another level that we didn’t predict, increasing the accuracy of data, finding new tools to improve and automate the complex migration work, all of which is delivering high quality customer outcomes. He’s easily one of the most valuable people in the team.”

And yet, if Franklin had gone down the usual recruitment path, it’s unlikely he’d have met Burton.

Instead, Burton was among eight participants hired across Westpac Group through a recruitment program called Tailored Talent, designed to overcome hiring barriers for people on the autism spectrum.

“By rethinking the traditional assessment process, the candidates were able to access meaningful careers which they mightn’t have been able to otherwise,” says Vicky Little, national manager of Specialisterne Australia, the not-for-profit agency which designed Westpac’s inaugural program and is seeking candidates for a second intake at the bank.

“That’s because the typical interview process measures people on their communication skills and ability to sell themselves and for people on the autism spectrum that can often be challenging, particularly in a highly anxious situation like an interview.”

Research by autism advocacy group Amaze last year found around one third of people on the autism spectrum – a lifelong developmental condition estimated to affect around 354,000 Australians – were unable to attend job interviews due to anxiety. It says the unemployment rate for autistic people is 31.6 per cent, which is three times the rate of people with disability and four times more than people without disability.

For 25-year-old Burton, although applying for the recruitment program meant taking the leap of moving to Sydney away from family in Brisbane – where he graduated in the top 5 per cent of the state and completed a four-year civil and structural engineering degree with first class honours but struggled to find suitable employment – he says it was the right decision.

“I was blown away by how different the recruitment process was. It just made sense to me,” Burton says.

Instead of traditional interviews, candidates were assessed over three weeks through a series of workshops where hiring managers observed how they worked as part of a team, their job-readiness, motivation and participation.

Todd Cefai joined Westpac via the bank's first Tailored Talent intake. (Emma Foster) 

Although the assessment of this years’ intake will be via an online program due to COVID-19 restrictions, the goals remain the same says Westpac’s Group head of capability delivery and inclusion and diversity Sandra Casinader, who has championed the program. She says other adjustments have also been made based on lessons learnt from the first intake.

“We’ve ensured this year’s candidates will know up front the roles identified that we need to recruit for, rather than choosing the candidates and then matching them to a role, which eliminates a lot of uncertainty,” Casinader says.

“We’ve also created a virtual autism awareness program to ensure the teams that candidates join – not just their first role, but as they are promoted or change roles during their career – have the right level of education and understanding.”

According to Specialisterne’s Vicky Little, the last few years has seen huge momentum around bespoke recruitment programs for people on the autism spectrum as more organisations realise the untapped potential and innovative thinking brought by “neurodiversity”, a term first coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer more than two decades ago.

“There’s been this huge shift from a lack of understanding about autism in the workplace to a huge celebration of neurodiversity,” she says.

“We’ve seen organisation now actively seeking out these skills and saying we want to work with you because we know our current recruitment processes aren't enabling us to access autistic talent.”

Customised recruitment programs have been introduced by the likes of SAP, IBM, DXC Technology, Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, JPMorgan and a number of Australian government departments.

“I often hear managers say that hiring someone on the autism spectrum through the program was one of the best things they've done in their career,” Little says.

“They notice their autistic employees have been able to provide highly analytical, innovative problem-solving skills and they’re being personally challenged to think differently.”

Specialisterne Australia's national manager, Vicky Little. (Supplied)  

Todd Cefai, another candidate from Westpac’s inaugural cohort, also saw his responsibilities quickly expand since his appointment as a senior analyst in the consumer bank finance team in February 2018, despite unsuccessfully going through more than 50 job interviews prior to joining the Tailored Talent program.

“I came in without a finance background so being able to learn and pick up stuff quickly has been helpful,” says the 26-year-old.

“I've learnt that in a large corporate environment, you've got to demonstrate value. It’s not just about being right but about being right in a way that matters, and that's something I enjoy. I like to push myself to do difficult or uncomfortable work to be able to go further, because there's often a great sense of achievement that makes it worthwhile.”

While it hasn’t been without its challenges, particularly the daunting requirement to deal with hundreds of new people across the bank, Cefai says he has thrived in his role, and has sought out “mini-advancement opportunities” and extracurricular study to help him meet long term career goals. He says one of the most valuable aspects of the program has been its formalised structure to understand his strengths and weaknesses which has seen him matched with work where he can excel, rather than being “thrown” at something where he may fail.

“I know I don't understand verbal instructions as quickly as most people, I might take a bit longer. That's just reality. But at the same time, I learn software significantly faster than most people,” he says. “When that is something that people see value in and can make slight adjustments to a role to accommodate it, then that's good for everyone.”

Little says there is still work to do to bust misconceptions around hiring people on the autism spectrum, including that data and analytics skills are the only skills at which they excel. Another myth is that it’s resource intensive for hiring managers, Little noting the only fundamental requirement is “standard good people management skills”, which are important to any employee.

“If a manager can take the time to understand how an employee works, what their strengths are, their learning profile and their communication preferences, you're going to get the most from your employee and that's going to make all the difference to their success,” she says. “It's just about understanding the importance of good, clear communication, making sure employees get regular feedback and opportunities for review.”


Applications to participate in Westpac’s 2020 Tailored Talent program are open September 1-29.

Emma Foster is a freelance writer. Previously, she led Westpac Wire and was a key contributor until December 2022. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she spent almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also a photographer and podcaster.

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