Embracing Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Ask any HR person or business owner, and they’ll tell you it’s hard to find good people. Nowadays, there are more openings than applicants. But are you aware there’s hidden talent with unique perspectives, who can improve your competitive advantage? Don’t overlook neurodiverse individuals.
Large corporations like SAP, EY, Hewlett- Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, and others recognize that neurodiverse candidates possess unique skill sets. This makes them ideal for certain jobs. And hiring people with unique perspectives on problem solving creates a richer work environment.
What Is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity refers to variation in the brain regarding mental function. This encompasses sociability, learning, attention, mood, etc. Neurodiversity applies to a wide range of neurological conditions. These include autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, attention-deficit/-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome, and others.
Neurodiversity advocates believe traits that were traditionally considered disabilities are simply variations. They are not flaws that warrant correction, but differences that may need support or special accommodations. Embrace them as part of the normal human experience.
Neurodiversity in the Workplace... Untapped
Neurodiverse individuals represent at least 20% of the adult population. Each year, about 500,000 people with autism graduate from high school. Some studies state that up to 80% of adult autistic individuals are not employed. And those that do secure jobs are often under-employed. Or they may be working part-time, low-wage jobs with no benefits.
“The problems are not the person.” - Chris Bonnello, an autistic writer, author of the Underdogs novels and special needs tutor
Shift your thinking. See neurodiversity as a combination of traits that offer strengths and challenges. Just like you would view any employee’s skill sets. For example, people with autism may have a greater ability to retain substantial amounts of information. They may be able to focus for prolonged periods of time, as well as perform repetitive tasks where accuracy, rules, and routines are important.
Likewise, research shows neurodiverse people with ADHD often show higher levels of creativity and innovation. They also tend to be very productive.
People with dyspraxia, which affects movement and coordination, are often good problem solvers. They are also determined and highly motivated.
My nephew, age 21, is neurodiverse. He loves working, understands his role, and takes pride in his job. My brother proudly told me, “Working gives him purpose and a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day. He is always on time and cares about his appearance. He very much wants to please others and do a good job.”
His employer, a supermarket chain, recognizes that he is a hard worker, friendly, and always smiles at the customers. He works 40 hours a week. He bags groceries, gathers shopping carts from the parking lot, and helps put groceries in customers’ cars.
He does not always make eye contact. Social interaction can be challenging when he does not know people well. Yet, the company sees the benefits of neurodiversity. They recognize how this partnership is a positive experience for all, even the community.
“Yes, he is different, just as we are all different. Never underestimate people with neurodiversity; they can do more than you could ever imagine.” - father of a 21-year-old with neurodiversity
Neurodiversity in the Workplace... A Competitive Advantage
The environments in which neurodiverse individuals learn, work, and live can either facilitate or inhibit their growth, development, and success.
Much like physical variations (height, weight, etc.) neurodivergent individuals present strategic advantages for their employers. After implementing strong neurodiversity employment programs, a lot of companies see increases in productivity and innovation, as well as employee engagement.
Research shows tackling challenges becomes easier when approached by many perspectives. Neurodiverse individuals think differently, bringing new perspectives to a company’s processes and goals. Neurodiversity in the workplace adds value to the company, and is rewarding for the neurodiverse people employed, as well as their coworkers. It’s a win-win-win.
How can neurodiverse talent add value to your company? A notable example is EY's success story.
“Our goal is to broaden the way we think about talent, success, and the skills and backgrounds of individuals who can make a contribution to the EY mission. These neurodivergent colleagues have transformed our business in tremendous ways – working on breakthrough innovations, improving our processes, and boosting our efficiency for our clients.” – Kelly Grier, EY US Chair and Americas Managing Partner.
Many autistic people and other neurodiverse talents have the gift of pattern recognition. They work well in compliance, analytics, software testing, and even cyber security. Both Hewlett-Packard and SAP have teams that include neurodiverse talent who generate significant innovations. In a Harvard Business Review article, SAP stated that a team developed a technical fix worth an estimated $40 million in savings. The team included neurodiverse talent.
Neurodiversity in the Workplace... The Hiring Process
First, to attract this underutilized workforce, you’ll need to analyze your company’s hiring process. Neurodivergent workers may have average to above-average IQs. But they often struggle matching the job descriptions and may have trouble navigating the standard interviewing process.
There are many approaches to structuring your hiring process when interviewing a neurodiverse candidate. One is to partner with agencies that specialize in matching neurodiverse candidates with careers suited for their skill sets.
Other approaches include analyzing tasks and identifying certain positions suited for neurodiverse employees. Then, write job descriptions pertaining to those specific tasks. Restructure your interview process for people with neurodiversity. You may also wish to develop flexible onboarding programs, or work trials.
Some neurodiverse candidates often don’t make eye contact. They may lack social skills or exhibit other non-typical behavioral traits. These types of tendencies could eliminate them from the candidate pool. EY changed their traditional interviewing process when interviewing candidates with autism. They presented them with a series of problem-solving challenges.
Consider changing your typical interview process when interviewing neurodiverse candidates. HR and management training is often required to see beyond these behavioral traits. Training will help you overcome traditional candidate evaluation biases.
Best Practices for Neurodiversity Job Interviews:
- Don’t force eye contact.
- Provide a quiet, distraction-free setting.
- Expect verbal repetition when the candidate seems engaged or excited.
- Ask interview questions focusing on skills and qualifications for a position.
- Offer opportunities for candidates to show skills versus describing them.
Neurodiversity in the Workplace... A Supporting Environment
A major problem that neurominorities face is the lack of accessibility and acceptance. Creating a neurodiverse workforce requires training for neurotypical people. What can you do to support neurodiverse team members? Destigmatize and normalize neurodiversity. Trust the neurodivergent employees to do their work.
Many neurodiverse individuals claim that in highly social and unpredictable work environments, some of their differences may be seen as disabilities. Whereas in supportive and inclusive workspaces, their talents can come through and they can thrive. To meet job expectations, people with neurodiversity may need special accommodations. Some of these changes could also be available to all employees. Mention accommodations in interviews, during onboarding, and in employee communications.
- Soft lighting
- Dedicated quiet spaces
- Noise-canceling headphones
- Flexibility in where, when, and how work gets done
- Inclusive meetings where participation is acceptable to all
- Clear-written instructions and explanations for change in routine
The communication styles of neurominorities can sometimes lead to conflict. Many lack the social filters that neurotypical people use to buffer negative feedback. So, it’s helpful for neurotypical employees to explore communication styles. Learn the range of differences between your communication style and that of your neurodiverse coworkers.
You or I might walk away from a lively debate in a meeting, thinking everything is fine. It may be confusing to a neurodiverse individual, as there is no explicit closure. Resolve this by saying, “I recognize that was a difficult interaction for you, but you don’t need to worry. We’re good and can move on.” By identifying atypical communication styles, you’re likely to be more understanding. You’ll support those differences.
In addition, soft skills training can help. People with neurodiversity can learn to better communicate with their neurotypical colleagues. HSI has courses about neurodiversity in the workplace and soft skills training. These can be used to enhance your efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion. And to help create a more inclusive workplace, where neurodevelopmental differences are celebrated.
One final note, it’s vital to maintain privacy. Not all neurominorities are comfortable with their coworkers knowing about their neurovariation. Even if they are, there may be some personal details they want kept private. It’s okay to talk openly about workplace accommodations. But it’s not okay to tie them back to a specific person or a group of people.
HSI Can Help
When you work to destigmatize, normalize, and effectively communicate with neurodiverse and neurotypical people alike, you’re creating an inclusive support ecosystem. Ready to put a neurodiversity program in place? Remember, to teach all employees about the neurodiverse experience, and the best ways to all work together.
Offering an employee training and development program is a best practice. Specialized training about neurodiversity in the workplace can boost support for your efforts. You can improve your reputation as one of the inclusive employers supporting the neurodiversity population.
HSI’s Business Skills library has all the courses you’ll need. You’ll be able to curate a DEI training curriculum that fosters neurodiversity in the workplace. It will suit individual needs, as well. Our courses include:
- Misconceptions about Neurodiversity
- Working with Neurodiverse People
- The Diversity Continuum
- Managing Unconscious Bias in Recruiting
- Overcoming Unconscious Bias
- The Power of Inclusion
- Active Listening
Sign up for a free trial of our HSI LMS. You will have access to our Business Skills library to view all of the courses mentioned.