Supporting neurodiversity at work

By Kathryn Kendall, Chief People Officer

Diversity is a hot strategic topic right now. Organisations around the world have finally woken up to the fact that having a diverse employee population isn’t just the right thing to do, it can also provide a business with a significant competitive advantage. The more diverse an organisation, the more differing viewpoints it has to draw on, and the more likely, therefore, its product or service is 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 which comprises those of differing genders, races, disabilities and sexualities. Rarely, if ever, do we consider the strategic importance of also ensuring our neurodiversity.

Let’s take autism. It is estimated that around 1% of the world’s population has autism spectrum disorder (source: CDC, 2014). In the UK, there are over 700,000 people living with autism.

The problem we have is that our typical workplace and traditional recruitment processes are simply not designed to consider those individuals with autism. One of the defining features of autism is that every autistic person is affected in a different way. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to supporting neurodiversity in the workplace.

And yet it is so vital that we do because those employees and prospective employees who are not neurotypical can bring a critical skill set to our organisation. This has been borne out by those organisations who have reformed their HR processes in order to encourage neurodiverse talent.

At SAP, reported benefits have been improvements in both productivity and quality. At Australia’s Department of Human Services, preliminary test results suggest that the organisation’s neurodiverse testing teams are 30% more productive than those which are not neurodiverse.

Microsoft has sought to actively attract employees who are not neurotypical via their roll-out of a recruitment program designed to help put candidates at ease, and allow them to best demonstrate their skills. Rather than a structured interview, which autistic candidates typically find at best difficult, at worst downright distressing, prospective employees are invited to spend two weeks at Microsoft, work on projects and speak more casually with Microsoft employees.

So, what can organisations do to help encourage neurodiversity within their workplaces? Clearly, it is not going to be practical for all businesses to immediately implement a program such as Microsoft’s. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t and can’t be small changes that we could all go out and make, starting right now.

Take a cold, hard look at your existing recruitment process. Does it take into consideration the differing needs of applicants who might be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder? Sometimes, it can be the little things that make all the difference.

Provide training for your hiring managers. Help them to understand how autistic candidates might, for example, find it difficult to make eye contact, or may need more time to work through their rationale in response to a question before providing the requested answer.

Consider the environment within which your selection process takes place. An overly noisy environment can be unsettling to those autistic candidates who have noise sensitivities. Others find unfamiliar experiences difficult to deal with. For those candidates, it may be appropriate to invite them to visit your offices to look around prior to them actually participating in the selection process itself.

And, perhaps most importantly, foster and develop a culture which promotes diversity and inclusivity. Autism is a complex and varied condition. The adjustments you may make for one neurodiverse candidate will likely be very different to those you will need to make for another. But, if as an organisation, you have an ethos which encourages and celebrates differences, which treats each employee as an individual and seeks to provide an employee experience which engages and supports them… Then you are already well on your way there.

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