As the battle for talent rages on, recruiting and managing your talent pipeline and building essential skills into an organisation is now more than ever a key priority for organisations. One aspect that few organisations consider is that of neurodiversity.
Let’s start by defining the term neurodiversity:
Simply put, neurodiversity is a term used to cover a range of different behaviours and brain functions. I love the term because it helps to normalise conditions like autism, bipolar disorder and dyslexia. Instead of thinking of them as special circumstances, it makes it clear that they are just part of the normal range of behaviours and thought patterns in our wonderful world.
This is important because a recent survey found that 32 per cent of UK workers said their employers didn’t offer any additional support for those in the workforce with neurodevelopmental disorders, despite the fact that more than 1 in 10 reported that either they, or someone they worked with, was neurodivergent.
These findings follow research from the CIPD which found that over 70 per cent of HR professionals didn’t factor neurodiversity into their people management processes, while 17 per cent didn’t know whether it was included. Neurodivergent staff offer huge benefits to organisations but often require a different management approach and style.
It's something I’ve seen first-hand in the tech sector. 90 per cent of the product owners I’ve had the pleasure of working with don’t like to make eye contact with people – and time and again I’ve seen people take this to mean that those individuals are reclusive, or don’t like other people, or aren’t good at what they do. It doesn’t mean that at all – it’s just that they are often on the autistic spectrum to a greater or lesser degree, and therefore eye contact isn’t something they are comfortable with. It’s been really frustrating when I’ve seen this sort of thing result in talented individuals being passed over for promotions – but it’s also been really empowering to see when it’s been handled in the right way.
Today, organisations need to understand how they access the world’s neurodivergent talent pool, and learn how to hire and manage neurodivergent employees. If they can manage this, organisations will be able to capitalise on the skills within this talent pool that have significant ability to deliver incremental growth. If they fail, then not only will organisations make it harder for themselves to succeed; they will be failing to create a workplace where everyone can be themselves, and where everyone can add value.
So where and how can organisations make improvements to help them access and successfully manage neurodivergent talent?
Job ads are often written using lots of industry jargon, or referencing internal policies and structures, making them confusing to someone outside your organisation. To attract more neurodivergent candidates, use plain English in your job adverts. Focus on essential skills and experience, and avoiding unnecessary information. It’s fair to say this will make it easier for everyone, neurodivergent or not!
In addition to this, job descriptions are often written from a generic company template and as such contain generic requirements. How many of us have rolled our eyes at a job advert that asks for ‘excellent communication skills’ or for a ‘good team player’, when it’s obvious that those qualities are not really necessary for the role in question?
Though for most of us this is just a bit tedious, it can lead to applicants with neurodiverse conditions such as autism discounting themselves before even applying. Make sure that only the skills and abilities you require for the role are included.
If your organisation uses an application form, it needs to be as easy to complete as possible. Provide clear instructions for filling out the form and make sure it asks candidates if they need any reasonable adjustments in order to attend an interview.
However, consider alternatives to traditional application methods. Allowing candidates to apply for positions by enabling them to express their skills and experience in alternative ways like providing an essay, a digital CV, video assignments or links to projects showcasing their skills are all effective alternatives to a written CV and a covering letter.
Many people with neurodiverse conditions do not do well in traditional interviews. On-the-spot questions can fluster and confuse them and will not give a true picture of their abilities. Though it’s pretty difficult to remove interviews altogether from the process, consider using tests, giving tasks to complete from home, or holding work trials to assess candidates in a variety of ways that give everyone a chance to show their quality.
When you do interview neurodivergent candidates, it’s best to avoid hypothetical and open-ended questions and replace abstract language with very literal instructions, to avoid any miscommunication.
This applies both when recruiting candidates, and when managing neurodivergent employees. The sensory environment in your workplace can have a huge impact on someone who is neurodivergent. Are there too many ‘sensory stimuli’ – lights, sounds, smells, moving objects – for the person?
Remember that because of heightened sensitivities, neurodiverse people may be aware of things that others aren’t. This means it’s important not to make assumptions and check in with your employee that they are comfortable and happy – and to create an environment where they feel they can say something if they need to.
It may be that you need to make adjustments to the working environment. Some of these adjustments will be simple, others may require a little more creativity. The most important thing is to ensure that your organisation is supporting your employee to control their environment, and involving them in any changes.
I said above that you need to create an environment where a neurodivergent employee feels able to give honest feedback on how they find your workspace. Getting there requires a workplace culture that values openness and inclusivity; my colleague Tom is writing more on that subject later this week.
There is perhaps a tendency for those with an inclusive approach to neurodiversity to drift towards presenting an idealised view of the world, and to disregard the fact that many of the characteristics of a person’s neurological condition will have a bearing on their working life.
The key is not to ignore this, but to create a working environment which is sufficiently flexible that all employees can benefit. Having enough flexibility in job roles to allow individuals to play to their strengths, rather than a rigid approach which takes no account of comparative advantage, is a crucial part of this. Placing excessive emphasis on ‘all-round’ generic competencies can disadvantage neurodivergent staff who may have highly specialised skills that need a different approach to harness.
To create an environment where neurodiversity can thrive, it’s crucial to raise awareness among managers and employees of the implications of neurodiversity – and that includes neurodivergent employees. People are not always fully aware of the ways in which their condition might affect their performance at work. When it comes to conversations about how people’s lives impact their work, neurodiversity should be up there along with more recognised topics such as physical disability or working parents.
You may have thought that many of the suggestions in this blog aren’t just about neurodiversity. Not relying solely on interviews, for example, benefits people from all walks of life – neurotypical or neurodivergent. And for me, that’s the point.
This isn’t about making special allowances for a specific group of people – it’s about creating an environment where employers look at everyone as an individual. We all have strengths and weaknesses and individual requirements – but in the past, organisations have adopted blanket practices that favour the neurotypical. The onus must shift to employers to make their environments work for employees, not expect employees to make all the compromises.
And to repeat a point a made at the beginning, this is why neurodiversity is so important as a term. Talking about neurodiversity means that it can become part of the inclusivity agenda for organisations. If being autistic is no different to being an extrovert, then organisations should be taking steps to cater to both groups – not treating one as a special need, or as something that’s solely the responsibility of the employee to manage. Once organisations are thinking on those terms, not only will they really have nailed inclusivity – they will also have made themselves so much more competitive in the modern marketplace.