‘Neurodiversity’ is a relatively new term that refers to people who have dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and other neurological conditions. These are ‘spectrum’ conditions, with a wide range of characteristics, but which nevertheless share some common features in terms of how people learn and process information.
On April 26, 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data on the prevalence of autism in the United States. The incidence of autism in the United States is now 1 in 37 among boys and 1 in 151 among girls. Many people with these disorders have higher-than-average abilities; research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow valuable skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics. Yet those affected often struggle to fit the profiles sought by prospective employers.
The Untapped Talent Pool
The neurodiverse population remains a largely untapped talent pool. When SAP began its Autism at Work program, applicants included people with master’s degrees in electrical engineering, biostatistics, economic statistics, and anthropology and bachelor’s degrees in computer science, applied and computational mathematics, electrical engineering, and engineering physics. Some had dual degrees. Many had earned very high grades and graduated with honors or other distinctions. One held a patent. Yet, when they are working, even highly capable neurodiverse people are often under-employed, holding jobs the rest of us left upon graduating High School.
What has kept so many companies from taking on people with the skills they badly need? It comes down to the way they find and recruit talent and decide whom to hire (and promote). HR processes are developed with an eye toward wide application across the organization. But there is a conflict between scalability and the goal of acquiring neurodiverse talent. It is easier to hire those most like yourself. That is often how cultures build within businesses that seem to be full of very similar people.
In addition, the behaviors of many neurodiverse people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee—solid communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, salesperson-type personalities, the ability to network, the ability to conform to standard practices and so on. These criteria systematically screen out neurodiverse people.
When neurodiverse people do make it into the workforce, they frequently need accommodations and support to be successful. In many cases the accommodations and challenges are manageable and the potential returns are great. It could be something as affordable as headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation, to activate or maximally leverage their abilities.
Some supervisors report that neurodiverse employees generate extra work for them. For instance, the perfectionist tendencies of some participants made it difficult for those employees to judge which defects were worth fixing, which were not, and which required them to seek additional direction. There may also be issues related to fairness and norms from other team members who see accommodations being made that they are not entitled to. Managing neurodiverse employees’ stress can also present another challenge. Jan Johnston-Tyler, Founder and CEO of Evolibri explains how “The best companies keep ahead by providing support after the initial hire – they retain local agencies and vendors to provide guidance and help long after the initial glow has worn off.
All that being said, although many programs are new, managers are already saying inclusive hiring is paying off in ways far beyond reputational enhancement. Those ways include productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in employee engagement.
Firms that have become more successful at finding and hiring good and even great talent in tough-to-fill skills categories report products, services, and bottom lines have profited from lower defect rates and higher productivity. Because neurodiverse people are wired differently from “neurotypical” people, they may bring new perspectives to a company’s efforts to create or recognize value. Both SAP and HPE report examples of neurodiverse employees’ participating on teams that generated significant innovations (one, at SAP, helped develop a technical fix worth an estimated $40 million in savings).
Other benefits are subtler. Efforts to make corporate communications more direct, in order to account for the difficulties autistic employees have with nuance, irony, and other fine points of language, can improve communication overall. In addition, employee engagement has risen in areas and early indications suggest that program employees, appreciative of having been given a chance, are very loyal and have low rates of turnover.
Who are the Pioneers
The tech industry is the pioneer of neurodiversity recruitment, some would say they have a long history of hiring oddballs. A growing number of prominent companies have reformed their HR processes in order to access neurodiverse talent; among them are SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft, Willis Towers Watson, Ford, and EY. Many others, including Caterpillar, Dell Technologies, Deloitte, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and UBS, have start-up or exploratory efforts underway.
- Over the past two years, HPE’s neuro-diversity program has placed more than 30 participants in software-testing roles at Australia’s Department of Human Services (DHS)
- Ernst & Young launched the first version of their Neurodiverse programme in the US last year,
- Microsoft runs an autism-specific programme within their inclusive hiring
- Comparably younger companies have also begun to flourish such as Auticon, who are the first enterprise that exclusively employs autistic adults as IT and compliance consultants and has recently been backed by Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson.
- Procter & Gamble and the National Autistic Society in the UK recently organized a day of engineering and technology challenges at the Gillette Innovation Centre to select two autistic job seekers or students for work experience. The results so impressed the company, that it decided to offer a third candidate an internship.
If you’d like to dig further into these examples, then the recent partnership between Deutsche Bank and Autistica running an internship scheme is a fascinating and insightful read.
The success of neurodiversity programs has prompted some companies to think about how ordinary HR processes may be excluding other high-quality talent. Prevent being discriminatory by offering multiple application methods, avoiding ambiguous/generic job adverts, set only relevant tasks at the interview stage and ensure that the selection process gives candidates the chance to demonstrate their abilities in different ways.
The Specialisterne Foundation help organizations develop noninterview methods for assessing, training, and managing neurodiverse talent. They create “hangouts”—comfortable gatherings, usually lasting half a day, in which neurodiverse job candidates can demonstrate their abilities in casual interactions with company managers. They use Lego Mindstorms robotic construction and programming kits to work on assigned projects—first individually and then in groups, with the projects becoming more like actual work as the process continues. SAP established a “soft skills” module to help candidates who have never worked in a professional environment become familiar with the norms of such a setting.
Neurodiversity programs encourage companies and their leaders to adopt a style of management that emphasizes placing each person in a context that maximizes her or his contributions. Some might say the disability is in societies norms and expectations for conformity, not the diagnosis. “Having neurodiversity promoted as part of diversity and inclusion training at the time of onboarding all employees – would make a phenomenal difference to the entire workforce in that it would bring neurodiversity into general conversation to help normalize it for all employees” Jan Johnston-Tyler, EvoLibri Consulting. Isn’t an inclusive workplace where we can bring our whole self to the office and have our talents recognized what we all desire?