How can employers get the most out of neurodiverse talent and what are the obstacles in getting there?
by Georgina Fuller
World Autism Awareness Week
29 March–4 April
'Neurodiversity' refers to the diversity of cognitive functioning in people. Those who are 'neurodivergent' are, according to a blog by Dr Nick Walker, associate professor at the School of Professional Psychology and Health, California Institute of Integral Studies, those with a brain “that functions in ways that diverge significantly from dominant societal standards of 'normal'". Broadly speaking, neurodivergence includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia, Tourette's syndrome, dyscalculia and dyspraxia.
Dr Nick clarifies that neurodiversity is a biological fact and "not a perspective, approach, belief, political position or a paradigm".
Around one in seven people are thought to be neurodivergent, according to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), the workplace advisory service for England, Wales and Scotland. Abdul Wahab, diversity and inclusion adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says there are many benefits of a neurodiverse workplace. "Neurodivergent people can often be associated with strengths such as data-driven thinking, inferential reasoning, creativity and an ability to spot patterns and trends – all of which is extremely valuable to employers," says Abdul.
Neurodivergent vs neurotypical
According to a blog by Dr Nick Walker, neurodivergent people are those with a brain that "functions in ways that diverge significantly from dominant societal standards of 'normal'".
'Neurotypical' is the opposite of neurodivergent, describing a "style of neurocognitive functioning that falls within the dominant societal standards of 'normal'".
Dr Nick Earley, head of psychology at Helix Resilience, a scientifically-backed resilience programme developed to support employee wellbeing, says that an individual is unique and has their own strengths and characteristics that can be, and should be, celebrated. "For example, those on the autism spectrum often have an ability to approach situations differently by thinking 'outside of the box'. In addition, they also often have skills with systems, such as computer programming and mathematics, superior attention to detail, strong visual-spatial abilities and skills in art and design," he says.
The CIPD's Neurodiversity at work guide, published in February 2018, gives practical advice on how organisations can support neurodivergent people to reach their full potential at work, including offering awareness training, adapting the working environment, and providing a mentoring scheme.
However, the first stumbling block for neurodivergent people often starts with recruitment. In its report, Neurodiversity in the technical security workplace, published in July 2020, security accreditation and testing body Crest argues that overall recruitment processes are not well-tailored for those who are neurodivergent.
Recruiting and retaining neurodivergent people
It is important that firms examine their recruitment process to ensure equal access and give all candidates a fair playing field, says Dr Nick Earley. To make the application process more accessible, he says:
- The job description should make clear that applications from neurodivergent candidates are accepted, particularly in terms of the language used in the job description and to describe the skills required.
- If the job is not customer facing, it may not be necessary to ask for someone with good communication skills.
- The process should make it easy for candidates to disclose any disability.
- It is important to think about the layout and font of job advertisements to ensure accessibility, for instance, enlarged fonts, contrasting colour and underlined key text to make it easy to navigate.
The interview process should also be accessible. He recommends:
- providing a quiet area prior to and during the interview process and providing clear instructions about accessing the building
- avoiding asking open-ended questions, and not placing too much emphasis on non-verbal communication skills, such as eye contact.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the recruitment process at Deloitte. "Virtual interviews mean that some neurodivergent people can control their physical environment better at home (e.g. light and temperature in the room)," says Elaine Atkinson, Deloitte UK's head of resourcing and talent acquisition. She says this can help if they have sensory issues or are particularly sensitive to their environment. "The fact that applicants no longer have to attend an interview in a Deloitte office may also benefit some neurodivergent people where commuting may be challenging," Elaine adds.
"The dyslexic brain lends itself to a big picture view that can help see the wood for the trees"
Deloitte is carrying out neurodiversity training across the firm, listening to and sharing stories from neurodivergent colleagues and reviewing their processes, policies, physical environment, and culture.
There are a number of challenges that neurodivergent people may face in the workplace that can often be easily rectified, says Dr Nick Earley. "It is important to remember that neurodivergence is dimensional and will present different challenges for different people," he explains. Therefore, it requires organisations to be willing to adapt the workplace to the needs of every employee. To do this, organisations need to create a culture where neurodivergence is recognised, understood and celebrated. "For example, while an open plan office can be good for communication and team bonding, it can be noisy and distracting for some neurodivergent people, which can be stressful. Some options to support with this are quiet zones and providing noise-cancelling headphones."
Global initiatives and benefits of a truly neurodiverse workforce
The benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce have been recognised on a global level. In the CIPD's Neurodiversity at work report, published in February 2018, for example, they outline the benefits of staff with ADHD. "Insightfulness, creative thinking and problem-solving are strengths often associated with ADHDers in the workplace," the report says. "An ability to multitask and respond to changing environments and work demands is also increasingly relevant and valuable in the current world and workplace of 'information overload'."
The report also outlines the benefits brought by staff with dyslexia. "The dyslexic brain lends itself to a big picture view that can help see the wood for the trees, while more 'bottom-up' thinkers may be focused on the latter," it states. "Dyslexic people are also known for powerful qualitative reasoning – what we tend to term 'insight' – very valuable where existing data is limited."
In 2017 in Australia, Hewlett Packard Enterprise placed more than 30 participants in software-testing roles at Services Australia (which was then called the Department of Human Services) as part of a programme called 'Dandelion'. The company found that these employees provided benefits to the organisations, such as higher productivity, better-designed products and lower defect rates. Above all, the researchers emphasised the capacity of neurodivergent employees to think innovatively and work differently.
The programme was managed by a part of the business that was spun off in 2017 to form a new company called DXC. Michael Fieldhouse was the founder and executive of the programme at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and now runs the Dandelion programme at DXC. "The success of the programme has been the growth in the individuals, coworkers and managers involved. We have seen our managers become more confident in managing neurodivergence, the individuals growing and better understanding themselves," says Michael. The programme focuses on promoting self-determination, self-advocacy and mindfulness, and from a business perspective, Michael says "we have seen innovation, productivity and increased employee engagement".
"Talk with parents or siblings of neurodivergent people to find out what they want and what makes a difference"
In April 2019, DXC partnered with National Australia Bank (NAB) to establish the Neurodiversity at NAB programme, to embed diversity and inclusion into the culture of the bank through employing people on the autism spectrum. The Dandelion programme saw 18 individuals invited to attend a one-day workshop, with 12 of these candidates then participating in a three-week assessment programme. From this group, six autistic individuals (the Dandelion team) were offered positions in the Enterprise Security department, working alongside the existing Staff Identity and Access team.
According to the DXC Dandelion programme's 2019 in review report, within three months of the Dandelion team's implementation, NAB reported a 26% productivity increase, compared to the existing team's output.
In 2012, Danish consulting firm Specialisterne launched an Autism Advantage programme in the US with multinational software company SAP and Microsoft. SAP launched its own Autism at Work programme in 2014, aiming to prioritise neurodivergence within the company. Since then, SAP has hired more than 140 autistic people in the US, Germany, Canada, Ireland, India, Brazil and Argentina.
JPMorgan Chase also launched its own Autism at Work programme in 2015. Since then, the programme has grown to over 150 employees in eight countries. The scheme boasts a 99% retention rate. Most of the roles are technology functions, including software engineering, app development, quality assurance, tech operations and business analysis, but one employee is a personal banker.
James Mahoney, head of global technology diversity and inclusion at JPMorgan Chase, says in a blog that the results of the programme have been significant. Autism at Work employees are 48% faster and as much as 92% more productive than their neurotypical colleagues.
Becoming more inclusive
Caroline Casey is the founder of The Valuable 500, a global CEO community that aims to put disability inclusion on the leadership agenda. Its members include BNY Mellon, Invesco and Lloyds Banking Group. Caroline believes that neurodiversity needs to be grounded in the business strategy as a whole. "I think the best way that companies can do this is to talk with parents or siblings of neurodivergent people to find out what they want and what makes a difference. They need to be included in the conversation and the culture to really make a difference," Caroline says.
Sarah Churchman, head of inclusion, community and wellbeing at PwC, says PwC has been working with its Disability Awareness Network and HR team across the business to run workshops that "give colleagues an opportunity to share their lived experiences and practical tips on how to get the best out of neurodivergent teams. For example, learning about and being supportive of coping strategies," she says.
There is still some way to go before neurodivergence is fully recognised and utilised in the workplace, but it is clear that employers are starting to appreciate the benefits that having a neurodiverse workforce can bring. Reviewing recruitment processes, inclusion policies and business strategies are a good place to start.