Hang on a second. Instead of robots swooping in and taking all our jobs, apparently there won’t be enough of us regular old humans to fill the vacancies we have. For context, consultant firm Korn Ferry predicts that by 2030 “more than 85 million jobs could go unfilled because there aren’t enough skilled people to take them.”
As you can imagine, companies are already scrambling to fill open positions. In the meantime, business leaders are preaching left and right that a diverse and inclusive workplace is key to success (which we wholeheartedly agree with, of course.)
Though many organisations nowadays recognise the benefits of gender parity, racial equity, and LGBTQ+ inclusion, neurodiversity inclusion at work is still often overlooked. Let’s take a closer look at why that is.
Why are companies not hiring neurodiverse people?
Unfortunately, there is simply still a lot of stigma when it comes to neurodiversity in the workplace. A lack of awareness around the topic as well as common misconceptions often makes employers think hiring neurodiverse people is a risk. That there will be culture fit, performance, and maybe even behavioural issues.
According to a report by the Institute of Leadership & Management, a whopping 50% of leaders and managers say they wouldn’t employ a neurodivergent person, with the highest level of bias being towards people with Tourette Syndrome and ADHD/ADD. If you had to read that twice because you couldn’t quite believe it the first time, you’re not alone.
Managing neurodiversity in the workplace can be a tricky topic to navigate, but it doesn’t have to be. The best way to get started with creating an inclusive and supportive workplace for neurodiverse team members is by informing yourself, so you’re in exactly the right place.
Read on to learn more about what neurodiversity is, the advantages of hiring neurodivergent employees, and actionable tips for embracing neurodiversity at work.
What is neurodiversity?
Harvard Health defines neurodiversity as “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one "right" way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.”
In other words, our brains are all wired quite differently, and neurodiversity refers to that naturally occurring variation. That being said, the term is most often used to refer to a range of recognized types of neurodivergence, including but not limited to:
Roughly 15-20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent. Chances are you know quite a few neurodivergent people, or maybe you’re neurodivergent yourself. Some neurodiverse people are diagnosed much later in life or prefer not to disclose their neurodivergence for personal reasons.
The benefits of hiring neurodivergent people
Despite common misgivings, hiring neurodiverse people creates significant competitive advantages for companies, advantages which go far beyond helping fill gaps created by the labour shortage. Here are some of the main benefits of hiring neurodivergent people:
With technological advancements like artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, virtual reality, Web 3.0 and more shaping our collective futures, organisations more than ever need to empower new ways of thinking and working.
As people who think differently than their neurotypical peers, neurodivergent employees bring fresh perspectives and new solutions that drive innovation and help their employers compete in fast-paced markets.
Higher retention rates
Neurodiverse employees are often very loyal to their employers and tend to stay in the same job for longer, lowering recruitment costs over time. According to an analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, employers who embraced hiring neurodiverse employees saw a 90 percent increase in employee retention.
Next up, there are significant productivity and accuracy gains to be had. Anthony Pacilio, Head of JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work programme, says that programme participants can “considerably outperform” neurotypical people. In one technology role, he notes that the bank’s neurodiverse employees were 90-140% more productive than their neurotypical peers with zero errors to boot, which according to Pacilio is “almost unheard of”.
And much, much more
In response to all of this untapped potential, a growing number of large companies like SAP, Microsoft, Ford, and EY have reformed their recruiting processes and launched Autism at Work programs to cater to neurodiverse talent. Although many of these initiatives are still in fairly early stages, managers are already reporting higher quality, innovation, engagement, and productivity levels.
Practical tips for embracing neurodiversity at work
Without further ado, here are our top tips for creating a supportive environment for neurodivergent employees and helping them reach their full potential in the workplace.
Consult an expert
Unfortunately, our educational backgrounds and corporate training don’t often prepare us for managing neurodiverse employees well. The best way to get started is by setting any assumptions you have aside and talking to someone who is, in fact, a subject matter expert.
Whether you engage a consultant, organise training, or reach out to your business network to get some insights, having the courage to ask for help to become a better leader is already a huge first step.
Get to know your employee
A one-size-fits all approach (the kind people love in the corporate world) doesn’t work here. Just because two people are both on the autism spectrum doesn’t mean they will have the same challenges or needs.
You need to actively get to know your neurodivergent employee, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and make sure they have what they need to do their best work — and feel confident while they’re at it.
Yolanda Etrata, a dyslexic communications professional, explains that “the way to be a good manager to neurodivergent people is the same as being a good manager otherwise: Get to know your [employee’s] needs, be empathetic, and provide them with support. It’s not that different.”
Make adjustments based on what you learned in steps 1 & 2
Here is when you as a manager get to put your new learnings to use. There are many different accommodations that can be made depending on the individual needs of your team members: it’s up to you and the organisation you work for to be flexible and make it happen.
Here are a few common work-related areas which neurodiverse team members might struggle with and ideas on how to adjust them:
Face-to-face interviewing (whether in person or online) is basically the universal approach to hiring people, which can be challenging for neurodiverse candidates. Some people can struggle to make eye contact or engage in small-talk. Others may get distracted more easily by their environment or not pick up on subtle verbal cues, like a hiring manager trying to get back on topic.
Experts suggest avoiding abstract questions as neurodiverse candidates often interpret language more literally, sending prep materials in advance so everyone knows what to expect, and asking if any accommodations should be made before the interview takes place.
There are also alternative interview styles used by companies like SAP, Microsoft, and Hewlett Packard which are designed to give neurodivergent candidates a more level playing field. Specialisterne’s alternative interview process, for example, involves building a robot with Lego blocks so the team can observe candidates at work.
From open plan seating, to distracting noises and harsh lighting, your typical office environment can often be extremely overstimulating for neurodiverse people. Depending on what your team member’s individual sensory needs are, accommodations can usually be made to help them feel more comfortable and focus on their work.
And with the great return to the office ahead, it’s more important than ever to design workplaces to be more inclusive of neurodivergent employees.
For example, you can provide noise-cancelling headphones or a quiet space to work for people who find a busy atmosphere disruptive. If your neurodivergent team member has challenges with tactile experiences, changes to the uniform or dress code can be made. For anyone that struggles to sit still, why not try fidget spinners, standing desks, or flexible seating plans?
People love processes in the workplace because it provides a sense of structure and order while you’re getting things done. However, we often get stuck in a certain way of doing things and struggle to think outside of the box, i.e. how simple things can be tweaked in order to accommodate different people.
For instance, someone with ADHD might struggle to sit through a longer meeting, and would benefit from more breaks during the meeting than usually provided. A person with dyslexia might have a harder time recalling information from the meeting slides, and would benefit from a follow-up email detailing the exact instructions for a project.
Remember, neurotypical team members will probably appreciate these types of process tweaks too, so it’s a win-win situation all around.
Instant messaging platforms are convenient, sure, but they can also be a huge source of stress to someone who struggles to process multiple messages, emails, and calls throughout the day. On top of that, many of us work remotely now and are experiencing “Zoom fatigue” for the first time, which can be particularly difficult for people on the autism spectrum.
To help with supporting different communication styles, chat to your neurodiverse employees to see what is helpful to them. You could let them know they have the option to keep their camera off if needed, or ask them if they’d prefer a regular phone call instead for a change.
Keep written communication simple and add summary bullet points to longer emails or briefs where possible, so that people who struggle to get through large chunks of text can get the gist of it without feeling overwhelmed.
Create awareness around neurodiversity
It’s incredibly important to raise awareness of what neurodivergence actually looks like because many people either don’t know or have misconceptions due to media representations of neurodivergent types. One way organisations can do this is by launching neurodiversity awareness programs, both to make it more visible to neurotypical staff members, but also to help neurodivergent employees who might be struggling silently or who may not even realise yet that they are neurodivergent.
On top of that, companies need to help people feel like they’re in a safe space they can open up in. Support systems are very helpful for that, like ERGs (employee resource groups) or buddy systems. Companies like JP Morgan and SAP use work buddies, peer mentors, and job coaches to create a support system for neurodiverse employees as well as foster connections between them and their neurotypical peers.
Mahlia Amatina, a neurodivergent artist and advocate in the UK elaborates that “by having a buddy, I can work with them to figure out how best to remember people and ways to navigate the workplace, without any of those awkward faux pas…it’s that level of context and comprehension that no employee handbook, line manager or colleague in general could provide.”
Embracing neurodiversity at work mostly comes down to the basic fundamentals of good management, combined with having an open mind when it comes to other people’s lived experiences — even if (or better yet, especially if) they are different from your own.
With 15 to 20% of the population being neurodivergent and a severe labour shortage looming, employers are uniquely positioned to both empower neurodiverse people in the workplace and help companies gain a competitive advantage at the same time.
It can be challenging to meet many different individual needs in the workplace, but we promise, the personal and organisational benefits are more than worth it.