Each night, 90,000 lab tests are done at the Quest Diagnostics facility in Tucker, GA. That's a lot. And the Tucker lab is only one of Quest's more than 30 regional labs. Serving more than half a million patients every day and half the doctors and hospitals in the US, it is critical that Quest Diagnostics gets it right. When you get a blood test, for example, your sample is shipped to a local facility for testing. Samples arrive at Quest Diagnostics throughout the day and night and are tested overnight to get your results back as soon as possible.
So how does Quest get it right with so much going on? Efficient and well-designed systems play a huge part in their precision. These same systems gave Quest Diagnostics a head start in hiring people on the autism spectrum. But it wasn't the systems that gave rise to the autism hiring initiative, it was people.
DiverseAbilities: innovation from the workforce
Quest already had an employee business network (what I am used to calling an employee resource group) called DiverseAbilities, whose goal is to increase Quest's disability inclusion. Almost two years ago, one of the DiverseAbilities members, the Director of Talent Acquisition, broached the idea of hiring autistics. As is often the case, a personal connection was key: the Director of Talent Acquisition has a child on the spectrum. DiverseAbilities spoke with Quest management teams about the idea and the green light was given to start a pilot project at the Lenexa, KS lab.
I recently spoke with Linda Behmke about the project. Linda, Global Inclusion & Corporate Social Responsibility Partner at Quest and member of DiverseAbilities, contacted an employment group in Kansas City at the inception of this project in order to get more information about hiring people on the spectrum. James Emmett, a top disability consultant who runs James Emmett & Co., had recently reached out to that same employment group. James — who has worked on many disability and inclusion projects, at Walgreens, Best Buy, Office Depot/Max, PepsiCo, and others — is also a Lead Consultant with ADVICE (Autism & Disability Visual Integration Company Experience), a partnership between NEXT for AUTISM, Autism Speaks, key businesses and community organizations, and a team of national business and disability consultants. So Linda and James were connected by a happy coincidence.
Working with the right people
At first, Linda told me, she wasn't keen on the idea of working with a consultant for the DiverseAbilities autism pilot. Linda, however, had recently read Randy Lewis' book, No Greatness Without Goodness. In the book, Lewis tells the story of how, inspired by his autistic son, he transformed Walgreens' distribution centers to be more efficient by hiring — and properly accommodating — people with disabilities. And he did so with the help of none other than James Emmett. That sold Linda on the idea, and a partnership began.
Although the Lenexa, KS location had initially been chosen for the pilot autism hiring project, the Tucker, GA facility was ready first. As it turns out, the Tucker lab already had an autistic woman and a deaf man working there, so there was some built-in experience and a certain comfort level with disability. James Emmett was brought in to train managers and supervisors at the national level as well as training peers at the Tucker location on “autism etiquette”.
Initially working with just the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA) to find candidates for the pilot at Tucker, Quest just wasn't getting enough applications through the program. So, Linda brought in Bill Emmett, who works with his brother James. Bill did some non-traditional outreach — to universities, faith-based organizations, parent groups and support groups — which, as Bill put it, “got it energized”, leading to more candidates applying through the autism hiring project. This got the momentum going, and GVRA is still Quest's main source for candidates for the Tucker location.
I met Bill when he invited me to join a midnight tour of the Tucker, GA facility. And I mean that literally: we met at Quest at 11:00 pm and finished the tour well after midnight. Because the testing is done overnight, with team members starting their shifts throughout the evening, that's the best time to see the action. Walking around the facility, which is bigger than I had imagined, it is easy to see the well thought-out systems. With everything visually oriented and color-coded, Bill told me that Quest Diagnostics was well set up already, making the transition to a disability-friendly workplace much easier than is usually the case.
After close to eighteen months planning and preparation, by the Spring of 2017 the autism hiring project was in full swing. At around the same time, and purely coincidentally, Quest Diagnostics employees voted on the organization that would receive a $50,000 grant as part of Quest's 50th anniversary celebration. The “overwhelming winner”, Linda Behmke told me, was Autism Speaks. Quest has now hired four people through the program at the Tucker location, all for the Pre-Analytical Assistant position, and the project is now underway at the Lenexa, KS lab, where Quest works with Goodwill to find candidates. The facility in Teterboro, NJ is scheduled to be on board in the second quarter of this year.
Denzel and Jordan: exemplary successes
I also had the opportunity to speak with Keedra Cotton, a supervisor at Quest's Tucker location, whose team of more than thirty includes those hired through the program. Keedra acknowledged that she was hesitant about the autism hiring program at first. “Is this going to work? How are we going to train them?”, she wondered. Her mind was changed, however, during the interview process. One of the people hired, Denzel, asked after his interview how he had done with eye contact, which can be difficult for some people on the spectrum. Keedra chuckled as she recounted how she admitted to Denzel that she didn't make a lot of eye contact herself, as she had her head down making notes. What has left an impression on Keedra was that Denzel is the same person on at work as he was during the interview. All too often, people put on a wonderful persona during their interview, only to show a different side of themselves after being hired. Autistics, on the other hand, tend to be pretty straight-up people, with a penchant for honesty and directness. More often than not with us autistics, what you see is what you get.
Keedra also talks with pride about Jordan. Keedra considers Jordan to be her best employee overall, and not just because Jordan hasn't taken a day off since being hired. Jordan is very focused and can get wrapped up in her work, so she manages her time with reminders: for getting to work in the evening, for taking her break and lunch, and for when it's time to stop working and go home. How many of your employees are so focused on what they're doing that they have to remind themselves to go home? Some of her colleagues thought Jordan a bit stand-offish at first because she isn't in the habit of initiating conversations. They quickly discovered, however, that Jordan is happy to talk with you if you approach her first. What's more, rather than waiting passively for work to come to her, Jordan has developed a rapport with the Auto Chem team, who now let her know when there's work ready for her to come and get.
Of the four people hired through the program, two have left. But that doesn't reflect poorly on the project. One person left because they couldn't manage the transition to working a night shift. Given that this is the number one reason for turnover amongst those working overnight, it is to be expected that some new hires won't make that transition, whether or not they come through the DiverseAbilities initiative. The other employee who left did so to join the military; again, a perfectly normal transition.
Meeting candidates half way
The only real difference, Keedra has found, is that it takes Quest longer to train those who come in through the autism hiring program. Keedra told me that they are working to improve their training and that they will bring in Bill and the ADVICE team to help get it right. Quest made two other changes as part of the pilot program. Applicants are normally given an automated phone screening prior to an in-person interview. They found that the autistic applicants had difficulty with this process and switched to use humans to do the screening for these applicants. Unfortunately, this put a bit of a wrench in their recruiters' workflow, not allowing them to get to the autistic candidates as quickly as they would like. Consequently, Quest will likely return to an automated system for all applicants. Fingers crossed that they put some thought into it, with their autistic candidates in mind, rather than simply reverting to the existing automated system.
The other accommodation, Linda Behmke told me, was to be more specific with behavioral interview questions. Typical behavioral interview questions are pretty open-ended, such as, “How do you deal with conflict at work?”, and “How did you handle meeting a tight deadline?”. This can be confusing for autistics, who tend to see all possible permutations of what such a question could mean and how it could be answered. Instead, it is better to draw from specifics in either the candidate's experience or the job description and to ask a more pointed question. Linda also mentioned that this sort of change, while sparked by the DiverseAbilities hiring initiative, also works well for regular candidates for similar positions, as they themselves may not have a great deal of experience being interviewed. As is most often the case, changes made to accommodate not just autistics but all disabled people end up benefiting everyone.
Hiring a few autistic people may seem like small beans. In the long run, yes, that's just a drip in the ocean. But it's a start. For any company with the vision to intentionally hire those of us on the spectrum, it is important to remember that those who apply through your initiative have usually done quite a bit of work getting themselves ready to be interviewed and to fit into the workplace. Please do your part in going at least as far to accommodate the candidates and those that are hired. Think always of how you could change things to work better for everybody, just like the changes Quest made to the behavioral interview questions.
Linda Behmke told me how proud she was that the pilot got off the ground at Quest: "The exciting thing for me is that this initiative is on the radar of senior leaders, and they are excited about it." Linda says she regularly gets questions from senior management about the initiative. And that's good. Because senior leaders at one company talk to senior leaders at other companies. And word gets around. So thank you, Quest Diagnostics, for being among the leaders in establishing a dedicated autism hiring initiative, as well as for considering broadening the program to include other disabilities.
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