The AltoPartners Guide to Diversity and Inclusion : When diversity is neural

September 29, 2022
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When diversity is neural

Autism. Asperger’s syndrome. Dyslexia. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Tourette syndrome. These are not the first things that spring to mind when thinking about diversity in the workplace.

But the neurodivergent (the umbrella term for people whose thought patterns, behaviours, or learning styles fall outside of what is considered ‘normal’ or neurotypical) often experience higher rates of unemployment and underemployment compared to the general population.

Delal Apak, CEO and partner at Novare Intro (a business within the Novare Group, AltoPartners’ member in Sweden) says there’s a high unemployment rate in her country for people with neurodiverse diagnoses. In fact, this under-representation was the impetus for the formation of Novare Intro, which focuses on the recruitment of neurodivergent people.

Why employ neurodivergent people?

Apak says Novare Intro has, for example, placed a candidate at Länsförskringar Bank, one of Sweden’s largest banks, among many other industries. And managers at SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft, Willis Towers Watson, Ford, and EY are reported to have reformed their human resource (HR) processes in order to access neurodiverse talent. There are good reasons for that.

These companies say that their neurodiversity programmes are paying off in ways far beyond reputational enhancement: productivity gains, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in employee engagement are all on the list of benefits. That’s because neurodivergent people bring different and valuable ways of thinking and problem-solving that lead to innovative solutions and give companies a competitive advantage. For instance:

  • There’s some evidence that people with ADHD have high levels of spontaneity, courage, and empathy as well as an ability to hyper-focus on certain tasks.
  • Those with autism pay attention to complex details, have good memories, and might have certain “speciality” skills.
  • People with dyslexia can perceive certain kinds of visual information better than those without the condition. This skill can be useful in jobs like engineering and computer graphics.

What might the challenges be?

Neurodiverse staff will push a company’s conventional boundaries in various ways. Common and challenging symptoms associated with neurodiversity can include:

  • Difficulties with social communication (which can be made worse by what some would regard as unusual physical behaviours).
  • Learning difficulties can include issues with focusing or with the ability to follow spoken language, and in the case of dyslexia, difficulty in reading and writing.
  • Executive functioning skills like working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control can be affected.
  • Unusual responses to sensory inputs like high or low-pitched sounds, or hyper-awareness of the seams inside clothing (which are often not obvious to others) .

But there are ways for leadership to do more than simply accommodating these differences by making special arrangements. By meeting the needs of neurodivergent staffers, they will be working in a way that is respectful of all staff members’ differences.

What neurodivergent people wish companies would do

Hiring and employment practices are generally engineered to apply a standard set of protocols and procedures because that’s efficient. But efficiency can come at a cost. Here’s some things that would help:

Get rid of the cookie cutter: Standard hiring procedures often discriminate against neurodivergent candidates. Fidgeting, not making eye contact, being distracted by the sound of a fly buzzing against a window (that no one else can hear) – these are not signs that the person on the other side of the desk is not paying attention. They’re signs of a person who is differently wired. Consider trying different settings for interviews: take a walk, go out for a coffee. It follows that it could be beneficial to ask all candidates if they’d like something different than that intimidating seat at a boardroom table.

It’s not all about a good CV: Neodivergent people may have been unemployed for lengthy periods of time. Novare Intro builds up a portfolio of materials for their candidates to create a profile, and recommends that companies be open to allowing neurodivergent people to use different ways to demonstrate their skills.

Make some culture shifts: Apak says organisations need to make sure they have people with different backgrounds and different professional fields at leadership level (and all levels) to make decisions about working with neurodivergent people. In general, an organisation might benefit from running culture training for employees to combat micro-aggressions against neurodiverse employees.

Not everyone is a “team player”: The behaviours of many neurodiverse people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee – like communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence and the ability to network. Just because someone doesn’t demonstrate these traits does not mean they do not offer value to the teams they work in. Leadership means focusing on people’s strengths rather than their perceived weaknesses.

Make mental and physical space: Neurodiverse employees might not be able to work well in the standard office environment. Things that help include:

  • Offering a quiet break space, communicating expected loud noises (like fire drills), offering noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Allowing modifications to the usual work uniform (no to that scratchy cardigan).
  • Allowing the use of fidget toys, allowing extra movement breaks, offering flexible seating.
  • Avoiding sarcasm, euphemisms, implied messages, jargon and metaphors – a company might know what they mean by a “strategy ninja” in a recruitment advert but it is probably meaningless to someone who thinks in literal terms.
  • Communicate clearly and directly, with explicit instructions. A manager might know that an instruction to “put those items away” means put them on a shelf, but a neurodiverse person might think “away” means in a box.
  • Provide clear and simple deadlines, and break things down into smaller steps. “Three weeks time” is panic-inducing to a person with ADHD. “Get these three tasks done by 4pm on Friday” is much clearer and is more likely to happen.
  • Try to give advance notice if something is going to change and provide a reason for the change. Don’t say: “We’re all using this computer program as of now”. Rather say,” We’ll be changing over to a new computer program next week, and this is why we’re doing it”.

AltoPartners’ tips for recruiting neurodivergent people

Novare Intro has worked with 300 neurodivergent job candidates since it was formed in 2012, and 70% of those have been employed by their customers after an introductory period. Novare’s ‘introductory recruiting’ model supports both the employee and employer. “During a one-year introductory period, we act as employer and take on full responsibility while the candidate works for the client. Novare acts as a coach for both the candidate and the employer. After this first year, 70% of our clients have taken on the candidate as their own employee.”

Apak suggests the following things to consider when hiring neurodivergent candidates:

Every candidate is different: Novare provides customers with information on different neurodiversities and about the individual candidate.

Educate yourself: Novare Intro offers educational workshops to employers. For people in other regions, there is a multitude of information available on the Internet.

Listen to the candidate: Apak says it is up to the candidates to identify where they fall on the neurodiversity spectrum. She also urges openness. “Try to see possibilities. Ask questions if you are uncertain. Being curious and asking questions is the best way of getting to know your candidate.”

Don’t stereotype: Apak says that clients sometimes expressly request neurodiverse talent. “But as with other minorities in society, there can be high expectations. For example, it is common for prospective employers to expect everyone with autism to be expert in mathematics, and that is not the case. It’s better to see that a person with autism might be better able than others to focus. That focus can then help them to accelerate the talent they have.”

In essence, the neurodiverse don’t want special treatment. They want clear communication, a flexible recognition that they might want to make their own quiet adjustments to their workspaces, respectful treatment, and a clear-eyed assessment of the value they bring. And, as with all thoughtful efforts to amplify diversity, these measures would make the workplace a better place for all employees.

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