Working with Our Colleagues on the Autism Spectrum

Working with Our Colleagues on the Autism Spectrum

Now that we have reached April, which is Autism Awareness Month, I want to share some thoughts on our growing workforce of people on the autism spectrum. We currently have four people on the autism spectrum working in our business, making up 20 percent of our employees, and each plays a critical role. Our experience with these employees has enhanced our business and perhaps other businesses could benefit from our experience.

We were co-founded by a young man with Down Syndrome, so we have an openness to working with people with special needs and a more varied workforce, but when I look at our experience working with people on the autism spectrum, I see nothing extraordinary. Each person with autism employed here pulls his weight. We have no “make work” jobs and no charity roles. We are a for-profit in a start-up mode. We are bootstrapping the business – no outside investment yet – so we scrutinize every dollar we spend and have no extra money to spend on employees who cannot contribute. I make this point so it is clear that every person with autism that we employ meets a business need. 
We do not have any particular expertise in working with people on the autism spectrum. Yes, we pay attention to them and make some accommodations, but as you will see, we do that for all our employees. Working with our colleagues on the autism spectrum helps us fulfill our mission and grow.

Hiring someone on the autism spectrum or any individual employee is not an isolated act. It fits in with our overall mission, culture and operations.  Doing so hinges on two factors: respecting a person’s right to work – a human right – and matching that to our business needs. Before I discuss the specifics of hiring and working with people on the autism spectrum, I want to put that discussion in the context of our overall approach.

Working with People on the Autism Spectrum is Only Natural for Us

My son, John, and I created John’s Crazy Socksas an experiment. At its simplest, we wanted to test if we could find customers interested in buying socks from our online sock store. However, there was much more to our venture. We wanted to test if we could run a successful business based on our principles. Those principles are embodied by John, a young man with Down syndrome.
We want to share John’s love of socks, the personal connection that John makes with people and John’s desire to do the right thing for others. We are testing the idea that the more we can do for others the better off we will be. We baked a commitment to giving back financially into our business and are testing the notion that giving back is a reason for success and not a drain on it. We want to demonstrate that we can build a business working with the broadest range of people, looking to see what each person can do and what they can contribute instead of focusing on a person’s limitations. In starting the business, I did not look at John and focus on all the things he could not do, I saw his strengths and how they could make a business successful. It is important to our mission that we demonstrate how people of all abilities can contribute to a successful business.
Putting Our Principles in Action

We are on a mission to spread happiness through socks. As such, we must start by having great socks. You may ask what socks has to do with principle, so let me explain. When we began, we thought we might curate a selection of socks. That we would pick the best socks from the best designers and offer those for sale. We decided to take a different route. We want to carry the broadest selection possible because we want to celebrate the diversity of our customers and their different interests. How can John and I possibly know what a teenage girl in Oakland wants in a pair of socks versus the retiree in Boca Raton? We can’t. We want to offer the greatest variety of socks for each person to choose based on his or her taste and desires. We want to find socks that you can love as much as John loves his bacon socks. This approach is in keeping with our desire to treat everyone with respect and dignity, to respect the different interests of our customers. There is no one sock for everybody, so let’s enable each person to find the sock he or she loves. We celebrate diversity in our socks and in all we do.

We built right into our foundations the idea of giving back. We give five percent of earnings to the Special Olympics and we have a growing number of dedicated charity socks. For each pair sold, we give money to our charity partners. We created a Down Syndrome Awareness Sockand an Autism Awareness Sock and donate $2 from the sale of each pair of those socks to our charity partners. That means we send money each month to Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of America (Nassau/Suffolk County Chapter).

This business is personal for us and we want to make a personal connection with our customers. We do that in the simple videos that we make with John. We do that in the thank you notes and the candy we put in every package and in the local door-to-door deliveries that John makes. We keep it personal by connecting with people on social media.

The personal nature of this business extends beyond our customer relations. John and I own this business. We have both the authority and the responsibility to fulfill our mission and to live up to our values. We have no excuses for not doing so. If we fail to live up to our ideals, we have only ourselves to blame. And we never want to say that we could not do the right thing because it will cost too much.

Our Approach to Hiring and How It Leads to Employing People on the Autism Spectrum

We want to hire the employees who will best help us fulfill our mission. To do so requires casting the widest possible net to attract the right employees for us. This becomes good for business and it also becomes a basic human rights issue. Let me offer a historical example of how breaking down barriers benefit both the individual and the organization.

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947, yet the last team to integrate – the Boston Red Sox – did not do so until 1959. The National League teams integrated much faster than the American League teams and what happened? The National League teams got better and dominated the American League in the only way to measure: The All-Star Game in days when that game mattered. Employers who exclude classes of people only hurt themselves and we believe this applies to the special needs population.

In short, we want to consider all possible employees because it is the right thing to do: this is a human rights issue and good business. I should pause here to recognize the work of one of our charity partners, the National Down Syndrome Society, who have re-envisioned themselves as the leading human rights organization for all individuals with Down syndrome. They recognize that hiring people with Down Syndrome is not a matter of accommodations, but is a basic right.

We want people who have requisite skills for our organization and a given job and, just as importantly, people who will buy into our mission and culture. Hiring is always a matter of finding the right combination of skills and fit.

Creating the Environment Where All Employees Can Succeed

For our organization to succeed, we need to find the right people for our organization and put them in a positon to succeed. A prospective employee must possess the necessary skills and believe in the mission John’s Crazy Socks. We need to provide the training, direction, resources and support for the person to achieve his or her personal objectives and to contribute to our mission. It also means creating a positive environment where all employees can succeed, including people on the autism spectrum.

We are on a mission to spread happiness through socks and to do so, we must have happy employees. You cannot simply dictate people to be happy, we need to create a culture and environment that leads to happy employees. We cannot simply dictate happiness. Paraphrasing Toni Morrison’s speech at Rutgers University a few years ago, the pursuit of happiness is really the pursuit of meaning. We want every person to know how his or her work fits into our overall mission. Everyone needs to know his or her place in the big picture and how he or she can make a difference.

This requires several commitments:
• Treating people with respect and dignity
• Giving people autonomy
• Making accommodations as appropriate

Treating People with Respect and Dignity

We start by assuming that everyone wants to do well and everyone is trying. That does not mean that everyone does a great job or any work performed is acceptable. It simply means that people want to do well and we should work with them so they can. We want to find solutions, not blame. Screaming and belittling people is not a part of our culture. We recognize achievements and help those who are underperforming. If we make a good faith effort to help an underperforming employee and do not see the needed changes, we will let the person go. But we start from the assumption that the person wants to achieve and we can help him or her do so. If we let someone go, that is a failure of our organization.

This approach applies equally to our employees on the autism spectrum. They must produce like everyone else. If they need coaching, training or other support, we will give it as we give to any employee. But that person with autism must produce and we believe that is part of treating him or her with dignity and respect. To do otherwise would say this work does not matter and that is not true.
One critical step is to pay people well. Pay is rarely a motivator, but it can de-motivate. If you underpay someone, you send a message that you do not value that person. Underpaying someone is a form of disrespect. When it comes to hiring people on the autism spectrum, we pay them in accordance with our pay schedule. We do not have a separate pay scale for people on the autism spectrum. We pay above the minimum wage because none of our employees do minimum work.

Treating people with respect also means providing basic benefits (medical, dental, etc.) and time off. All of us have demanding lives and need time off from work. We give people both personal time and vacation time so each employee has some autonomy over his or her schedule.

Giving People Autonomy

No one wants to feel like a cog in the machinery. We all want to be recognized as individuals. We all want some control over our lives. We do this in the way we treat each member of the organization and share their value and connection with the mission. We recognize and celebrate individual efforts.

At staff meetings, we ask people to share accomplishments and ways they spread happiness. We share company achievements with everyone. We let every employee have a say in how he or she does her job and how we shape the work we do. In our efforts to continually improve our services, we seek everyone’s input. We ascribe to the old internet mantra that all of us are smarter than any one of us.

These approaches to bring people together and to connect to our mission apply to everyone, including our employees on the autism spectrum. They are part of the team and are not treated separately.

Making Accommodations as Appropriate

We also need to recognize that we need to make some allowances for people given their personal needs. We work in an open plan setting, yet Joanne, who doubles as our head of HR and our Office Manager, needs quiet space when she works on certain tasks. The solution: we provide a private office swing space where she can find the quiet and peace she needs to concentrate. We have an employee who has attention deficit issues and has trouble concentrating on any one task for an extended time so we make sure that he has a variety of tasks to perform. We allow employees to change their schedules when making medical appointments as well. Every employer and work place makes these types of accommodations for employees.

In this context, it is natural that we make accommodations for our employees with autism. We do so not because they are different but because that is what we do for all our employees. Again, it must make sense from a business perspective, but also because our people are our most important resource. Taking steps to help them always makes sense for the business.

Hiring People on the Autisms Spectrum

We are back where we started: hiring people on the autism spectrum. To date, we have not made a special effort to hire people with Down Syndrome or on the autism spectrum or any other special needs. We have simply hired and recruited to fill our needs.

We experienced explosive growth in early March: we went from 60 orders a day to 1,000 orders overnight. We needed to rapidly hire so we sought all comers to help with our fulfilment (packaging and sending out orders). We took a simple approach: we conducted an initial interview and, if the person passed the interview, the second part involved him or her actually doing the job. We paid for two days of work and if the person did well, we added him or her to our team. We placed ads, we shared on social media and we went looking for staff. One night, I had to pick up a computer at Best Buy and I recruited two of their staff to come work for us.

PJ came to us through our outreach on social media. We knew he was on the autism spectrum, but our only question was if he could help fill orders. (We call the people who take orders and pull the socks from the shelves Sock Wranglers.) We put PJ to work and he did a great job. He is very good at paying attention to detail and getting things right. Does he have some quirks? Sure, as do most of our employees. PJ knows his schedule well. When his shift is over, he puts on his jacket and leaves without saying a word. As a result, we have coached him on signing out and letting his supervisor know that he is leaving. We coach all our employees so what we do for PJ is no different than the way we support other people.

Josh came as a referral from a friend of a friend. Josh and his family had recently moved to Huntington from Connecticut and Josh did not have many ties to the community. His Dad brought Josh in for an interview and explained that Josh had autism, but he could perform tasks well. We needed someone who could assemble the card inserts of our packages and put mailing labels on packages. This required great focus and attention to detail. We put Josh to work to see how he would perform. He has proven to be an outstanding worker and we are looking for more that Josh can do.

As business grew, we needed more employees. John proved to be our best recruiter as he brought two classmates into the business, Andrew and Liam. In doing so, John followed a pattern we have throughout the organization as now all our employees act as recruiters. We have hired several people on referral from our current employees. Do Liam and Andrew need some direction? Yes, but so do all of our employees.

The point here is simple. Hiring people on the autism spectrum did not require extensive planning or a large investment. We did it because we needed people who could perform the work we needed done and who could fit into our organizational culture. PJ, Josh, Andrew and Liam work side-by-side with everyone else. When we gather for Bagel Wednesday and our staff lunch on Friday, they sit and engage with others. They are part of the team.

Where Do We Go from Here?

We are optimistic that we can continue to prove that our experiment can work. We believe that doing the right thing and doing for others will lead to increased business. After all, what can be better than spreading happiness through socks? We work hard to bring our socks to more people and that will enable us to hire more people. When we do, we will hire more people on the autism spectrum and other people with special needs because it is the right thing to do for them and the right thing for our business.