Unicuksen toimitusjohtaja ja kolme työntekijää kurkistaa hyllykön takaa.
In the top row, from the left, software developer Sebastian and Unicus CEO Jukka Mikkonen. In the bottom row, from the left, consulting manager Salka Salkoharju and software developer Joonas.

Autism can be a recruitment asset

News article

IT company Unicus hires only consultants who are on the autism spectrum. This is not charity. Unicus sees the diagnosed as special experts.

After the holidays, Unicus’s consulting manager Salka Salkoharju asked her colleagues how Christmas went. “Badly,” one consultant replied. The tone was neutral, and the topic was not discussed any further. Salkoharju has already learned that you get what you ask for. Colleagues on the autism spectrum may be very straightforward or untalkative.

“Working with them has taught me how many unwritten rules there are in people’s everyday communication,” Salkoharju says. 

One such rule concerns the basic question of a job interview “tell me about yourself”. According to Salkoharju, the questioner expects that the answer is related to working life and is tailored to the position and company applied for. A person on the autism spectrum may not recognize what the question is really looking for, but answers the question literally and may tell something completely unrelated to work. 

Autism is practically a different brain, as the consulting company Neuromoninaiset puts it. Autism affects a person’s way of perceiving the world, processing information and behaving. The autism spectrum is wide and the manifestation is individual, but according to the Autism Association, its core features include difficulties in interaction and communication as well as sensory over- and under-sensitivity. The autism spectrum belongs to neurodevelopmental disorders or neurodiversity. 

Salkoharju sees that everyone can change their communication to make it more understandable and accessible.

“If a task request at work is formulated like “start soon somehow like this”, it is roundabout polite jargon for a person on the autism spectrum. A more precise assignment helps to avoid misunderstandings: where to start from and what is the desired outcome. 

Deficient CV can blind the recruiter 

Unicus sells coding, software testing and quality assurance services. The company’s line to hire only those on the autism spectrum stems from the fact that according to them, many on the spectrum are logical, analytical and mathematically gifted.

“This makes them very good employees. Software testing, data analytics and data science are areas where accuracy and attention to detail are helpful,” CEO Jukka Mikkonen says. 

According to Autismiliitto (the Autism Association), the strengths of the autism spectrum are often good concentration and observation skills, sense of justice and ability to solve even complex problems. 

“We are not a charity company. Often, however, the customer buys the first consultant from us because they want to do good. We are motivated to give our consultants the opportunity to show their skills,” Mikkonen continues. 

We emphasize that the first impression is not right.
- Salka Salkoharju

According to Autismiliitto, about 1-1.2 percent of Finns are on the autism spectrum. For over 70 percent of these people autism does not cause abnormal language development or intellectual disability. However, getting work opportunities is not easy. According to the association, only 10-25 percent of adults on the autism spectrum are in working life. 

Salkoharju has been responsible for Unicus’s recruitment and HR issues for a year and a half. She says that many of Unicus’s consultants have a long period of unemployment and gaps in their CVs.

“I have done recruitment elsewhere as well. Applicants are often screened based on their CV. I understand why: the pressures are high and the volume is large, but in doing so, someone may be left out of the interview who is excellent for the role just because they have deficiencies in their CV.” 

According to Salkoharju, Unicus’s recruitment process differs quite a lot from the mainstream. The company does not focus on the applicant’s CV or achievements and you can apply without a cover letter. Unicus interviews the applicant 4-6 times and the applicant can bring a support person. The discussions can be held in person or remotely, according to the applicant’s wishes.

“We emphasize that the first impression is not right. Many applicants have a sense of exclusion due to long-term unemployment. It manifests itself initially as tension and nervousness, which may seem like arrogance.” 

Salkoharju tries to provide an agenda for the person arriving for the discussion, a list of what she intends to ask and in what order. Instead of open and broad questions, she asks directly about concrete things. In addition, she dresses in the same color clothes every time.

“The purpose is to make the situation safe and predictable for the applicant. We have received praise from applicants. One felt that for the first time autism was a resource for them. Another rejoiced that the recruitment process did end too quickly, even though they could not say anything in the first conversation. We just agreed on the next meeting.”

Unicus inducts work life skills 

Unicus is still a small company - in Finland it employs about twenty consultants. The small size enables individual induction. Salkoharju says that Unicus’s induction emphasizes self-care, i.e. the importance of breaks, setting one’s own limits and rest. Many recruited may have a long time since their last job and lost their work routines. On the other hand, after a long break from working life, they may have an excess of enthusiasm for getting started.

“Our employees are loyal. When they get to do meaningful work, they want to succeed. Sometimes I have to remind them that it is enough when they do what is asked. You don’t have to overdo it,” Salkoharju says. 

image with text

The most influential of the year. Unicus’s consulting manager Salka Salkoharju (pictured at Unicus's office in Helsinki) wants to increase understanding of the autism spectrum. In November, ARVO  – the Finnish Association of Social Enterprises awarded Unicus as the most influential company of 2023.  

Unicus monitors the work of its consultants weekly with meetings with both the consultant and the customer representative. According to Salkoharju, sometimes problems arise in the discussions, but rarely anything serious. Often it is a misunderstanding that is easy to clarify.

“The projects are long and our consultants are often working for customers for years. Many of our customers have wondered why our consultant has been so difficult to employ before, when things are going so well with them.” 

Salkoharju herself is on the neurodiversity spectrum. She says she is motivated by being able to help hundreds of applications and hundreds of rejections to finally get into working life, from a beneficiary to a taxpayer.

“People will manage and succeed when they are given the opportunity and permission to be themselves.”

Companies want to do better 

Norway-based Unicus expanded to Finland in 2019. In June, German Auticon and Unicus merged, and now the company has about 600 employees worldwide, of which 80 percent are on the autism spectrum. 

In addition to consultants, Unicus sells training on neuroinclusion, i.e. how an organization can take into account for example ADHD or the autism spectrum. Salkoharju has just received the main responsibility for the trainings in Finland. 

“There seems to be a lot of demand for this service. Last year, for example, we did two trainings for one industrial company, where employees from Asia and the United States were also involved,” Mikkonen says. 

On the other hand, he regrets that the IT sector is now on a low flame. The same has been noticed by Salkoharju.

“Many IT companies now have a recruitment ban. This has hit us. We have had an awful lot of discussions with new companies. Even though the price is right and the right expert has been found, the companies have pulled the brakes. Hopefully this year will change the situation and we will get people off the bench to work, what they really want to do.” 

Let everyone succeed

In light of the numbers, it seems that equality is not achieved in the Finnish workplaces for people with autism spectrum disorder. According to Autismiliitto’s estimate, only 10-25% of adults with autism spectrum disorder are employed. On the other hand, there is a shortage of skilled workers in, among other things, technology sectors. According to the estimate of the Technology Industries of Finland, these sectors will need 130,000 skilled workers in the next ten years.

TEK wants to create diverse and inclusive workplaces in its own organization as well as in all technology sectors, so that every employee has the opportunity to show their strengths, highlight their differences, and be themselves. This year, we are doing this work especially by educating ourselves and sharing knowledge and understanding of neurodiversity in the workplace with our members and shop stewards.

Sirkku Pohja, TEK’s work life expert

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