Ernst & Young has been reaching out to recruit and hire more people with disabilities, including workers on the autism spectrum.

“EY has had a long focus on hiring and supporting people with disabilities,” said Lori Golden, abilities strategy leader at EY. “We’ve been a leader in this space. We have a very strong commitment to both fostering a culture that’s what we refer to as ‘abilities inclusive,’ a culture that feels welcoming and productive for people of all physical, cognitive or socioemotional abilities, meaning mental health abilities. We have real proactive efforts and innovative efforts to reach out to candidates with disabilities to work across our service lines, in all geographies and at all ranks and functions.”

Other firms besides EY are also hiring people with disabilities. “In public accounting, at some of the largest firms, there is a very strong commitment—and it’s not just EY, it’s KPMG, Deloitte, PwC as well, and many firms one tier down in size—have very strong commitments and are doing some pretty innovative things to try to tap into the talents of people with disabilities,” said Golden.

Neurodiversity Program

One of EY’s program focuses on employees on the autism spectrum, such as high-functioning people with Asperger syndrome.

“We have a program that is growing at EY where we are hiring individuals with autism who are highly able in data analytics skills, in raw mathematics skills, and who are technologically facile to work on many of the engagement management support activities that we use to support our clients, everything from cybersecurity to robotic process automation,” said Golden.

Sam Briefer, an EY employee in Philadelphia, was recruited through the neurodiversity program. He was referred by the headmaster at his high school and went through a four-week training program.

“I’ve been working at EY for almost two years,” he said. “Right now I work with a macro team that’s in New York, and we work directly with audit clients. What the macros help accomplish is calculating thousands and thousands of rows and columns of data by using some specific formulas that the macro coding recognizes. What would usually take months to calculate would take roughly five to 10 minutes, tops. I would also send out budget templates to the audit clients to map out how long a project would take, as well as include their example files that they would include with their project summaries to help us shape the macro to their preferences.”

Christopher Morris, an EY employee in Dallas, met representatives from EY’s neurodiversity program while he was training for a career in data and science in San Jose, Calif. The EY representatives provided information to his group about personal branding, resumes, and interviewing. They also role-played situations with the students about common work issues, such as how to go back to the manager and get clarification on an assignment. He became interested in a program that EY was hosting for a week in Dallas, and passed an Excel test that gave him entry into the program. He now helps the firm with SOC 2 audit reports.

“My function within the team is I help to prepare the control matrices documents, the testing for each individual’s control objectives,” said Morris. “I did those based on directions from the manager of the engagement and also she provided examples from previous years that I could go off of. For that I helped with the testing of service level monitoring, problem management, access management, and for new hire testing, change management and the service management work plan.”

EY provides him with some assistance reserving work spaces in its offices, which use a hoteling arrangement. “I found that it was really helpful the way it was orchestrated,” said Morris. “There were a number of people from my team who also worked on different engagements, and they were all in the same building. We had a contact there in the building team who assisted us with things like help reserving a desk. She gave us a tour of where different things were in the office, like where the supplies were. Also she could offer some insight, like if we needed a clarification on a procedure. If we had a question, she could be the first person to go to instead of going to a manager.”

Jamell Mitchell, who is based in Philadelphia and is Morris and Briefer’s day-to-day manager, explained how that works. “We have internally a hoteling system,” he said. “The majority of the office at this point doesn’t have permanent seating, so what typically happens is you come in and you have to reserve space. One of the accommodations we provided the team working with this particular engagement team was they were not going to have to worry about reserving space and trying to figure that out on a daily or weekly basis. We’ll have someone that’s going to cover that for you. In theory, while that may be deemed as something minor, it’s something that’s more complex in that the system actually shuts itself down at certain points. It kind of holds space until a certain period, and that adds an additional level of frustration for anyone looking for a space until it’s released at a particular time within the office.”

EY provides a go-between who helps facilitate booking spaces for the employees in the neurodiversity program.

There aren’t yet huge numbers of such employees at EY, but EY has been expanding its outreach efforts and that should lead to more hiring of people on the autism spectrum. “With the neurodiversity program, for example, we currently have 14 individuals with autism employed at two what we call Neurodiverse Centers of Excellence,” said Golden. “We have plans to open two more Centers of Excellence a year for the next three years, with an average number of 10 individuals per Center of Excellence.”

The process of recruiting autistic employees can be complex. “A lot of investment goes into setting these programs up because we are sourcing differently,” said Golden. “We are screening and interviewing differently outside of our usual recruitment process. The individuals go through a weeklong residence. They’re with us for a week in the office for the training and assessment process, and then we make offers. Then they go through a customized onboarding process, and they’re managed by hiring managers that are specifically trained and they have office buddies who support them and they have coaches who support them. It’s a fairly intensive endeavor.”

Other firms have also been getting interested in recruiting employees on the autism spectrum.

“We right now have a consortium with a couple of different companies that are operating within this space,” said Mitchell. “What we have done is we’ve shared information with other companies about some of the benefits that we’ve seen in addition to just helping them learn from some of the opportunities that we’ve had where we’ve had a misstep. Specifically right now we’ve been collaborating with SAP, Microsoft, HPE [Hewlett Packard Enterprise], as well as JPMorgan Chase and then also recently Ford as well.”

He has heard interest from PwC and KPMG about the program as well. Deloitte was one of the founding firms in the Ready to Work Business Collaborative, which works to recruit the long-term unemployed, people working part-time, veterans, people with disabilities and youth ages 16 to 24. The group now works closely with EY.

Ready to Work

“We are an employer-led coalition that helps employers see the business value in hiring more ready to work talent, and this ready to work talent pool includes veterans, people with disabilities, opportunity youth and the long-term unemployed,” said executive director Beverly Riddick. “Deloitte is not working with us at the moment, but they were involved in the genesis of this organization. Probably EY and Deloitte are amongst the few accounting firms we’re working with. We’re working with a number of corporations, though, in the financial services sector.” They include Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Prudential and Principal Financial.

Riddick sees ways in which disabled employees can be helpful in accounting firms. “You have remote working conditions that have now become more prevalent, and they could as a result be more eligible,” she said. “Someone who has, say, mobility issues could potentially now be more of an eligible candidate than in the past. But that is going to involve sitting down with business managers in-house, let’s say at an accounting firm, to come together—and this is one of the hiring best practices—to come to some consensus on how to change the work environment to accommodate the new sources of our workforce if we’re in fact going to survive. That kind of adaptation should be considered.”

EY hires people with various types of disabilities. “We hire across every category of disability,” said Golden. “We have people who are deaf, people who are blind, who are hard of hearing, who are low vision, a number of people who are wheelchair users, some who don’t have use of their legs but have really excellent use of other limbs, some who have very limited use of extremities due to spinal cord damage, and then of course lots and lots of people with complex medical issues of different kinds. We have a very largescale effort around mental health and around colleagues supporting colleagues who may be struggling with the impact of their own or friends’ or family members’ mental illness or substance abuse issues. We have individuals who stutter; not only individuals but an entire network in the U.K. of individuals who stutter, and an entire network of individuals with dyslexia. We have individuals with ADHD, with language processing disorders and various kinds of speech disfluencies. You name it.”

The stuttering group in the U.K. is one of several such groups. “In the U.K, we have a number of different groups that gather around specific conditions,” said Golden. “In the U.S., we have a much larger overall group that focuses on the culture and the environment. It focuses not on individual support but organizational support. Then we put people together almost on an individual basis. For example, one of the neatest stories we have is an individual who is a significant stutterer in the U.S. who is a native of Sierra Leone, a native French speaker, but he’s here and obviously needs to speak English. English is his second language, and he just got promoted to partner this summer in one of the toughest markets in the country, one of our toughest regions in which we promoted the fewest partners.”

He received mentorship from a high-level partner in the U.K. who leads the EY Stammering Network. “We worked at this for a number of years because we believed he had the potential to do anything and go anywhere, and we wanted to make sure he got there, and he did,” said Golden. “And he’s working on one of our largest, highest profile clients, and that’s not by accident. He was transferred from the Milwaukee office, where he worked on large clients, to the Palo Alto office, where he worked on really prestigious, more highly visible clients specifically so that he could advance.”

EY also hires employees with mobility issues and in wheelchairs. “There’s a general preconception that individuals who have some compromised mobility might not be able to travel as easily, and our people travel to clients,” said Golden. “We find that it’s not true. We have an individual who is an executive director with us, a partner-level individual, who uses a walker, who is at clients at least four days a week, often five days a week, at clients all over.”

History with Disabilities

She pointed out that EY has a long history of top executives with disabilities. “Arthur Young, who was our founder, was deaf and had low vision,” said Golden. “He lost vision in one eye playing cricket, and he lost his hearing in law school to the point where when he graduated he was totally deaf, and that’s why he got into accounting. He was trained as a lawyer, and he couldn’t practice courtroom law. This was in the 1800s, in Scotland, so he emigrated to the U.S., and the field was just getting started. If you look at the Big Four firms, one of them, our own, was started by somebody with two very significant disabilities, directly because of those disabilities.”

Conditions such as being on the autism spectrum can even be helpful in some ways in accounting. “Being good with numbers is definitely a strong point for preparing a bunch of data for audit clients,” said Briefer. “In my case, being able to come up with a lot of results on the fly like that is a good asset to have.”

Morris is reluctant to attribute his skills to autism, but he has others that help in his job. “I think that as an individual I just have a pretty good sense of memory, and if I saw something in the past, usually if I see it again I’ll remember how I handled it the previous time,” he explained.

Mitchell believes the neurodiversity program at EY will encourage more firms and companies to recruit employees on the autism spectrum. “I would say that this opportunity we have here is creating such a tremendous amount of interest for others,” he said. “It’s not easy, but it’s extremely beneficial. It’s something that is going to work to the benefit of not just employees that have the opportunity to be self-sustaining, but it’s going to help a lot of companies as well. As many companies understand it would benefit them, it’s going to create that much more opportunity for individuals on the spectrum and that should really be the ultimate goal.”

Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn, editor-in-chief of, has been covering business and technology for a variety of publications since 1985.