How Microsoft Is Changing the Face of Disability Employment: "It Has Never Been More Important"

Disability is not inability, and when everyone can understand that it's what differently abled individuals bring to the table that matters — and not what their diagnosis is — is when we'll have a truly inclusive system. People with disabilities make up the third largest market segment in the US, and it makes business sense to tap into this pool of talent. Because of their ability to cope with challenges on a daily basis, differently abled employees bring with them a unique perspective and out-of-the-box thinking that helps solve problems. And fostering a disability-friendly culture of inclusion creates a stronger, viable organization.

Major companies like Microsoft are waking up to the potential that employees with disabilities possess and are now exploring ways to make their workforce more diverse. "A diverse and inclusive workforce will yield better products and solutions for our customers, and better experiences for our employees," Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at Microsoft, told POPSUGAR.

Microsoft has always been at the forefront of innovation and leadership, and when it comes to disability inclusion, it doesn't disappoint. Effective workplace diversity and inclusion practices have changed the face of Microsoft and have made it more attractive to differently abled candidates. "We learned that our traditional hiring process, the front door to Microsoft, could be a major barrier of entry for many talented candidates," Barnett admitted. So they decided to "adjust the shape of the door." With its commitment to disability inclusion, Microsoft is making sweeping changes to its hiring policies and workplace culture. Keep reading to find out more about how Microsoft is changing the face of disability employment.

POPSUGAR: What are some of the initiatives that Microsoft is taking to attract more differently abled candidates?
Neil Barnett: Microsoft's approach to inclusive hiring is not limited to just one program or initiative. We host job fairs, fund an annual scholarship for high school students interested in technology, and offer targeted hiring programs such as our Autism Hiring Program and Supported Employment Program. We also work with community partners to share information on Microsoft's inclusive hiring practices as they work to be an employer of choice for those with disabilities more broadly.

PS: Why is an inclusive hiring process so important to Microsoft?
NB: With over one billion people with disabilities around the world, it has never been more important to ensure that we reflect the diversity of our customers. So, we are focused on building an inclusive culture that celebrates the amazing skills, experiences, and backgrounds that all employees bring to the company. That kind of inclusion will enable us to deliver better products and solutions for customers, and better experiences for our employees — and that's essential.

PS: Can you expand a little bit on what the hiring process is like for someone with a disability (e.g. autism)?
NB: When we started the Autism Hiring Program in 2015, our approach was simple. We learned that our traditional hiring process, the front door to Microsoft, could be a major barrier of entry for many talented candidates. By adjusting the shape of the door, we could help candidates showcase and demonstrate their talent to hiring managers.

Résumés are screened for the skills and qualifications necessary in the identified open roles. A set of eligible candidates will be asked to complete an online technical assessment. Candidates may also be invited for a prescreening interview to gauge their interest, skill, and experience for the position. You may then be invited to a multiple-day skills assessment program covering workability, team building, and technical skills on Microsoft's Redmond campus. The goal of this multidate process is for candidates to showcase their professional skills. The hiring teams will meet and engage with the candidates during program exercises and job interviews. Based on the skills assessment and hiring manager feedback, the candidate could be offered a full-time job as a Microsoft employee. We're finding incredible talent through our hiring program efforts and are always looking for additional talent to join Microsoft.

PS: What are some of the strategies you use for better retention of such employees?
NB: Each hire is offered a more immersive onboarding process with a comprehensive set of services so they feel supported throughout. This includes training sessions for the teams and managers of the new hires to help them better understand autism, as well as a job coach from PROVAIL, a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities to fulfill their life choices.

Microsoft has a large Employee Resource Group with a focus on supporting employees with more than 20 disabilities to get help for new hires. This is a great social bridge for questions about everything from "How do I use the bus system?" to "How do I put money on my meal card?"

PS: Dealing with the stress of a work environment can take a toll on a person with disability. Do you have support groups that help your employees navigate this challenge? How do you support employees who are struggling?
NB: To help foster diversity and inclusion, Microsoft has a rich community of Employee Resource Groups (ERG) and Employee Networks (EN). These organizations provide career development, support, networking opportunities, mentoring, community participation, product input, and assistance in activities that promote cultural awareness.

Of note — the community mentorship program, created as a benefit of the Autism Hiring Program, brings volunteers from around the company (typically parents of children with autism) in to be a friend, mentor, or buddy to new employees hired through this program. A community mentor is a friendly face and resource for questions about "life at Microsoft" and is there to help make the transition to the large company feel more comfortable and safe.

PS: What are some of the accommodations you have or plan to have to make the work environment more inclusive?
NB: We provide training sessions for the teams and managers of the new hires to help them better understand disabilities and how to help employees with disabilities succeed within the workplace. Managers also work to adjust their communication style to use less acronyms, provide feedback more frequently, explain things in more detail during meetings, and pause to ask questions in order to keep everyone engaged and on the same level of understanding.

Many managers have provided feedback that the trainings on becoming more inclusive in their approach have benefits for all their employees, including changing their communications style, giving feedback more often, and recapping meetings with detailed actions, etc.

PS: Do you also partner with disability groups and organizations to connect your employees with resources?
NB: Microsoft's disAbility Employee Resource Group (ERG) enters into partnerships with nationwide associations, nonprofit organizations, and special interest groups to increase disability awareness, drive joint objectives, and help organizations in need.

PS: How do you ensure better disability awareness and acceptance within the company?
NB: The disAbility ERG's goal is to enable employees at Microsoft to reach their full potential through inclusion, representation, and access to accommodations, and in doing so, be the employer of choice for people with disabilities globally. The ERG's three key priorities in pursuit of this goal have a direct impact on Microsoft and its employees:

  • Drive internal visibility to ensure that there's an awareness of disability groups and that adequate accommodations and resources are available. Provide a resource pool of people who can share a wealth of knowledge and experience on how to succeed at Microsoft. In 2016, the entire Microsoft workforce (over 100,000) received training that aimed to reinforce Microsoft's commitment to accessibility and inclusion.
  • Help Microsoft be best-in-practice with software, tools, buildings, and events that are accessible to all people with disabilities. Collaborate with our product teams to design, develop, and build accessible Microsoft products and drive accessibility improvements in the work environment.
  • Build external awareness of Microsoft as the employer of choice for people with disabilities. Work with community partners to share Microsoft's approach and best practices in the areas of accessibility and ergonomic accommodations.

PS: How does disability inclusion align with your company's broader culture, vision, and values?
NB: Microsoft's mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. As we transform our business and culture, the value proposition for diversity and inclusion within Microsoft is increasingly clear — a diverse and inclusive workforce will yield better products and solutions for our customers, and better experiences for our employees. We know that diversity gains will not be sustained unless we all do our part to encourage new and different perspectives, solutions, and innovative ideas to surface from all our employees. Being inclusive is not something we simply do, but rather it stands for who we are. We see our leaders and managers as role models in transforming the culture.

PS: What would you say to other companies out there to encourage them to open their doors to the differently abled?
NB: Invest and learn together. Be humble and hungry to understand more about this section of your customer base. You will discover insights and ideas that would never have been possible otherwise. With a culture rooted in a growth mindset focused on becoming continual learners, we are seeing positive benefits of sharing what we've learned while creating the program.

If you're looking for more ideas, Microsoft recently set up an Inclusive Hiring website to share our best practices, videos, and highlight opportunities, all with the intention to make it easier for people to find information about our programs. We have also started a coalition of Autism at Work employers that are looking to help other companies get started.