Neil Barnett, Director of Inclusive Hiring, Shares Microsoft’s Commitment to Inclusion and Diversity
Joining the workforce is an exciting, yet intimidating rite-of-passage for any person, whether you are applying for a job at a fast food restaurant or an executive position with a Fortune 500 company. For those who are differently-abled, it can be twice as intimidating, resulting in them not even trying to seek employment due to personal insecurities about their disabilities, or fear of how others may perceive them because of their disabilities. Fortunately, there are corporations that have made social responsibility a priority, and are making tremendous strides in recruiting and accommodating those with disabilities; as well as educating all employees in matters of diversity and inclusion. Among the companies leading the way and setting the pace, is Microsoft. Known for taking the global community to the next level in knowledge and accessibility, Microsoft is not only creating a thriving environment of acceptance and success within their own company; they are also actively engaging and helping other companies to more effectively integrate diversity into their corporate cultures. In the process, Microsoft is completely transforming and raising the standard for what diversity and inclusion in the workforce should look like.
At Microsoft, embracing diversity and inclusion is far more than creating a welcoming workplace environment; it directly impacts how new technology and products are developed, designed, implemented, and utilized. This adds dimension to Microsoft’s ability to empower more people through greater accessibility, and broadens its services worldwide. During my conversation with Neil Barnett, Director of Inclusive Hiring, he stated, “Disability is a strength.” He went on to explain that “people making software need to be diverse, and that includes people with disabilities.” Furthermore, many people on the autism spectrum make exceptional software engineers and data scientists, possesing skill sets that are tailor-made for the technological industry: exceptional attention to detail, identifying patterns, navigating mathematical equations, working independently, handling repetitive tasks, etc.; all skills that are required and celebrated. Barnett shared that, “We saw the autism population and influence growing, and recognized that technology roles are a good fit for many people with autism.” In light of this, Microsoft refined and expanded their supportive employment and training programs, which includes third party experts to help demystify autism; and the use of job coaches during the transition from training to the work environment. Additionally, job coaches serve as a point of contact between employee, family, and the company. Microsoft also extends disability inclusion training to ALL employees on appropriate communication and interactions with those who are differently-abled, with particular emphasis given to training members of an employee’s core team, and to managers on such topics as interviewing people on the spectrum.
Microsoft’s sense of mission and broad vision, organically evolved into making their extensive experience and exceptional training strategies and programs available to other companies, including JP Morgan Chase, Ernst and Young, Ford, HPE, SAP and others. “There are over a billion people in the world with disabilities, and many are unemployed. We are doing our part to lower that unemployment rate,” says Barnett. “I really believe that if everyone does their parts, and more and more companies see how making adjustments can work, then more and more individuals will have job opportunities.”
With many of the partners above, Microsoft co-sponsors an Autism at Work employer summit where other companies looking to build an inclusive experience can attend to network and learn. The summit seeks to build employers’ knowledge, enthusiasm, and confidence so they can begin the process of getting diversity successfully ingrained into their cultures. “Those who attend the summit are curious and want to learn,” says Barnett. “There are a lot of unknowns. The summit allows them to ask others important questions, like: How do you source talent? They need to understand the benefits for their employees, business, and customers. Some struggle with understanding the return on investment. But then they learn that investment is minimal. In terms of autism, accommodations are a lot smaller than you would think. It can be as simple as noise cancelling headsets to help maximize an employee’s performance.” Barnett advises companies to have a “growth mindset” and to be open. “It takes time,” he says. “Don’t go from zero to sixty. It’s okay to crawl, walk, and run. Start with small steps and get them imbedded.” In addition to the summit, Microsoft has created a series of videos addressing the topics of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and have made them available to the public. This open sharing of information further demonstrates their commitment to empowering people through knowledge and accessibility.
Microsoft’s investment in diversity and inclusion has reaped infinite and inspiring rewards that go beyond the office building. “There are a lot of great stories out there that just don’t get enough visibility,” says Barnett. “Getting to talk to parents and hearing how lives have been transformed because their son or daughter got an opportunity; how they are helping their parents pay-off credit cards; or move to a bigger apartment; and the weight that is lifted from the parents or siblings because of the opportunities that have opened up for their family member. These really resonate with me.”
And these invaluable rewards keep Barnett and Microsoft fueled for the mission and looking to the future. “We’re always looking for talent. Apply! And when going through the process, self- identify and self-disclose about your disability. Not enough people do this, especially with ‘invisible’ disabilities. Be sure to ask for what you need to be successful. We’re here to help you bring your ‘A Game.’ We want you to come as you are.”