Supporting neurodiversity at work27.02.20
Chief People Officer
Following the introduction of gender pay gap reporting in 2017, it seems that the majority of organisations have finally woken up and started to target a significant strategic focus on improving diversity and inclusion. Businesses have realised that having a diverse employee population isn’t just the right thing to do, it can also provide a substantial competitive advantage: the more diverse an organisation, the more differing viewpoints it has to draw on, and the more likely, therefore, that its product or service will be both robust and of relevance to the wider population.
When we think of diversity, though, what tends to immediately come to mind is an employee population diverse in gender, race, sexualities and disabilities. Rarely, if ever, do we consider the strategic importance of also ensuring our neurodiversity.
When it comes to neurodiversity, a common misconception is that the terms learning disability and learning difficulty are interchangeable. Mencap defines learning disabilities (e.g. Down syndrome, cerebral palsy) as “a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.” Whereas a learning difficulty (e.g. dyslexia, ADHD) is not linked to overall cognitive impairment. Both learning disabilities and learning difficulties exist on a scale and can co-exist with each other, as well as alongside mental illness or physical disabilities.
Let’s run through some other definitions:
- Neurodivergent – A term used to describe someone whose neurological development and disposition are atypical; such as those with autism or Asperger’s, learning disabilities, learning difficulties or mental illnesses.
- Neurotypical – A term used to describe those who are not neurodivergent, e.g. someone who does not have a mental illness or experiences any of the above conditions.
- Neurodiversity – A term used to describe a neurologically varied group e.g. some people are autistic, some are bipolar, some are neurotypical, some have ADHD etc.
- Neurodiversity paradigm – A concept where neurological differences are recognised and respected as any other human variation (such as race, gender, sexual orientation). This movement notes that neurodivergence does not need to be ‘cured’; rather society should find ways of removing systems that oppress and discriminate against neurodivergent people, and promote living in harmony with our natural neurological disposition.
The state of things
As with mental illness, society tends to categorise neurodivergence into ‘socially-acceptable’ and ‘normalised’ neurodivergence (e.g. learning difficulties, such as dyslexia) versus those less ‘socially-acceptable’ (e.g. learning disabilities, like Down Syndrome). We only need to look at our workforce to see evidence of this – for example, people with dyslexia may struggle at school or work, but there are a multitude of support tools available. Whereas people who have Down syndrome (whether this be mild or profound) will experience discrimination and restricted opportunities for their entire life, regardless of their actual ability.
When it comes to considering neurodiversity in the workplace, employers need to acknowledge their own unconscious bias, as well as the prejudices and assumptions made by society, and how this may impact their workforce, wider organisation, and the individual.
Neurodiversity isn’t uncommon
One of the workplace’s biggest challenges with neurodiversity is just that: that we think of it as diverse, as different, and thus, uncommon. In actuality, it’s estimated that around 1% of the UK population is on the autism spectrum. That means if your organisation has 200 employees, you’re likely to have at least two autistic employees.
If we consider all areas of neurodivergence, at least 15% of the UK population is neurodivergent. So, while 1% may seem like a small number at first, bear in mind that autism is just one of many neurological variations. And still, only 16% of the UK’s autistic adults are in full-time paid employment.
It’s also incredibly important to remember that you likely already have neurodivergent employees, whether or not they have disclosed this. Neurodivergence doesn’t always look the same, and frequently it isn’t visible at all. For example, you wouldn’t know someone is dyslexic from looking at them, and often, they may not disclose this upon job application, as it’s well-known by those who are dyslexic that they are less likely to be hired – whether or not their dyslexia would impact their ability to carry out the job in question.
Your organisation will benefit, too
Both your neurodivergent prospective and existing employees can bring unrivalled talent and a critical skillset to your organisation. Just as it’s well-documented that diversity of race, gender and culture will benefit your organisation, the same applies for neurodiversity. Positive attributes commonly associated with neurodivergent employees include:
- Creativity and innovation
- Lateral thinking
- Strategic analysis
- Bringing a ‘different perspective’
- Development of highly specialised skills
- Consistency in tasks once mastered
We can see evidence of this from those organisations who have reformed their HR processes in order to encourage neurodivergent talent – boasting team productivity 30% higher than those comprised solely of neurotypical employees.
Traditional workplaces create neurotypical workforces
The problem we have is that our typical workplace and traditional recruitment processes are simply not designed to consider neurodivergent individuals. For example, one of the defining features of autism is that every autistic person experiences autism in a different way; there is no one-size-fits-all solution to supporting every neurodivergent employee in the workplace.
One success story is Microsoft, who have sought to actively attract neurodivergent employees via their rollout of a recruitment programme designed to help put candidates at ease, and allow them to best demonstrate their skills. Rather than a structured interview, which some neurodivergent candidates may find difficult or distressing, prospective employees are invited to spend two weeks at Microsoft, to work on projects and speak more casually with other employees.
So, what can organisations do to help encourage neurodiversity within their workplaces? Understandably, it is not going to be practical for all businesses to immediately implement a fully-fledged neurodiversity recruitment programme such as Microsoft’s. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t small changes that we can all go out and make, starting right now.
Improving your recruitment
A first step towards cultivating neurodiversity at your organisation is to take a cold, hard look at your existing recruitment process. Does it take into consideration the differing needs of neurodivergent applicants? (If you’re not sure what kind of things may come under this, there are tons of great resources written by neurodivergent people out there.)
The adjustments you may make for one neurodivergent employee will likely be very different to those you would make for another, but remember these adjustments are good for improving the employee experience for everyone, not just neurodivergent people. (Who doesn’t want clearer recruitment processes, quiet workspaces and personalised management styles?) To help you start, here are some tips:
- Word job descriptions clearly and simply. Avoid jargon, and split the advert into ‘must have’ versus ‘nice-to-have’ skills/experience.
- Highlight specific technical skills needed for the role, rather than catch-all generic terms like ‘great communication skills’, otherwise you risk ruling out many perfect candidates.
- Include working practices, such as flexible or remote working, and disclose organisational details e.g. is it a noisy, open-plan space or desks in private cubicles?
- Ensure both your website and job adverts encourage neurodivergent applicants, and express your policies surrounding neurodiversity.
- Bear in mind that most interview processes are conventionally a test of memory and competence against social norms. Some neurodivergent people may have difficulty maintaining eye contact, understanding social cues, or feel anxious at physical touch like a handshake.
- Provide training for hiring managers in understanding how neurodivergent people may present, or respond to certain questions. But remember, this isn’t a catch-all for all neurodivergent people; everyone is different.
- Consider the interview environment – is it noisy, busy or otherwise over-stimulating? Could you include a preliminary visit to your office so candidates know the environment ahead of interviews?
- Give clear descriptions ahead of time as to what will be included in the interview, who will conduct the interview, and – if possible – what will be asked.
- Where it’s an option, consider using online skills and technology assessments, rather than traditional in-person processes. This will also help to remove natural unconscious bias.
Allow the option for candidates to bring a carer with them to the interview, whether this is for physical or other support.
Finally, grow your culture
Perhaps most importantly, foster and develop a workplace culture which promotes all intersections of diversity and inclusion – but also includes a specific focus on neurodiversity. Encourage openness around employee neurological conditions, whether this is through clear anti-discrimination policies, diversity hiring processes, or emphasising a pro-neurodiversity stance. Be sensitive to different employees’ working styles, from needing additional guidance or specific communications, to their best working patterns and environments.
Above all, if, as an organisation, you have an ethos which encourages and celebrates differences, then you’re already well on your way.
Employing people with a learning disability
Learning disabilities explained
Communicating with people with a learning disability
4 Ways employers can support neurodiversity
Attracting neurodiversity at work
This blog was originally published in October 2017, and was updated in February 2020.
Kathryn joined Benefex in October 2014 and has overall responsibility for managing the HR function within Benefex. She has over ten years’ experience of HR management across a variety of sectors. During this time, she has not only managed HR teams but has also had responsibility for operational departments, meaning she has a great understanding of what it actually takes to get a business delivering.
Kathryn’s remit at Benefex covers a wide spectrum, from developing a recruitment strategy to bring in the very best people to deliver to our clients, to designing and delivering in house training solutions, to ensuring our company values are at the heart of everything we do. She is passionate about ensuring work becomes a great place to be for absolutely everyone, and believes that life is far too short for us to spend it dreading Monday mornings. As she’s super multi-talented, she also runs her own HR blog, Up Close and Personnel.
Kathryn’s claim to fame is that she is so bad at parking, she once drove her car into the side of her old office. We’re hoping she doesn’t go for a repeat performance here!