What is neurodiversity?
The business case for neurodiversity relates strongly to talent acquisition. As Megan Hogan, Global Head, Diversity Recruitment, Goldman Sachs stated to CNN: "We [have been] missing out on an opportunity to tap really highly skilled and highly intelligent individuals for the bank". Essentially, why throw out talent that can offer valuable skills, productivity and innovation to the workforce?
Neurodiversity includes conditions that are developmental, relating to skills such as reading or writing (e.g. dyslexia, dyscalculia), clinical (autism, ADHD, Tourette’s), or acquired (changes in mental health or arising from neurological illness or brain injury). Up to 15% of people are neurodivergent and this talent is increasingly being recognized in the commercial world, driven by the war for talent and wider diversity and inclusion agendas. The tech, consulting and banking sectors in particular have launched initiatives supporting the recruitment of neurodiverse talent, including SAP, Microsoft, EY, Goldman Sachs, DXC Technology, IBM, Ford and JPMorgan Chase.
Unlike neurotypical people, the skillsets of neurodivergent people are ‘spikey’ (see chart). This means that certain ways of thinking and processing information are stronger than others, but if properly supported and aligned to roles, these special characteristics can become positive assets in the workplace.
People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may have strengths in attention to detail, memory and innovative thinking and may also be dedicated, loyal employees. James Mahoney, head of JP Morgan’s ‘Autism at Work’ program, has stated: “employees on the autism spectrum were as much as 140% more productive than their peers”. Many initiatives focus on autism and technical employers make good use of these special skills.
Dyslexia affects an even higher proportion of the population – up to 10%. These individuals can be entrepreneurial with strong visual reasoning, practical skills and story-telling abilities. Richard Branson has famously acknowledged the benefits of his neurodivergence: “Out in the real world, my dyslexia became my massive advantage: it helped me to think creatively and laterally, and see solutions where others saw problems". However, there have been far fewer, if any, special initiatives to recruit for people with dyslexia.
The neurodiversity paradigm is all about highlighting strengths, not weakness. This contrasts with medical models that pathologise disabilities, characterising them as weaknesses to be fixed (e.g. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Neurodiversity aligns with the social model of disability which argues that it is not the individual that is disabled, it is society and the environment that disables people.
Challenges around neurodiversity and work
One big challenge relates to stereotyping. Recruitment and selection campaigns for specific neurodiverse conditions such as ASD carry the risk that we assume all people with that condition are similar. This is simply not true. In April 2019, clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen wrote that “Neurodiversity is dividing the autism community”, He pointed out that “some autistic people have no functional language and severe developmental delay, others have milder learning difficulties, whilst others have average or excellent language skills and average or even high IQ”. Autistic people are therefore hugely diverse. However, only 16% of people with autism in the UK are in full time employment, indicating that complex challenges exist and that the concept of neurodiversity isn’t relevant for everyone.
Another challenge relates to dyslexia. Despite the huge numbers affected, very few organisations are tailoring recruitment to avoid excluding people with dyslexia. This represents a huge potential loss of talent. Although dyslexia is a reading and writing disorder, the real disablers in adulthood are often social and environmental factors that damage confidence and self-esteem. Despite powerful software for spelling and grammar, the corporate world remains hung-up on perfect writing ability. We routinely request these skills in our JDs, but are we discounting individuals who could be strong entrepreneurial, creative, team-players and leaders? Our attitudes towards spelling are socio-culturally embedded and will be hard to shift.
Putting diversity into practice and achieving inclusion is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. As Sally Paull, CHRO at Regeneron puts it: “Diversity without inclusion falls flat. Inclusion is all about saying "yes" to all that could contribute to our success. Inclusion is the ultimate goal”. Neurodiversity is simply a recognition that we all think differently, but currently it doesn’t fully address the challenges neurodivergent people may experience at work. It is not yet known whether initiatives for neurodiverse talent can develop and retain talent in the long-term, and there is very little empirical research underpinning support for neurodivergent talent in the workplace.
Recruiting for Neurodiversity
So what practical solutions exist? There is plenty of advice about tailoring recruitment processes to avoid excluding neurodiverse talent. Recruitment marketing should include neurodiversity case studies, and all JDs should be reviewed. Typically, JDs are written for generalists in the hope of finding someone who ‘ticks all the boxes’, but this discourages neurodivergent applicants. Is ‘exceptional communication’ really essential for a technical role? Is ‘exceptional writing ability’ essential for a creative leadership position?
Interviews are particularly challenging for those with ASD who may be rated poorly due to eye contact, body language or social skills. However, interviews are primarily tests of memory recall and social skills3 and performance at interview only predicts half the variance of subsequent job performance. Different assessment formats should therefore be explored, and interviewers should be objective as possible before rejecting someone on first impressions.
Yet recruitment is only the beginning of the story. Once employed, neurodivergent individuals should have equal access to support, career development and high-quality jobs. Neurodiversity may be termed a disability as per the Equality Act (2010) which ensures employees ‘are not substantially disadvantaged when doing their jobs’. The onus is on employers to make reasonable adjustments such as providing writing software, additional screens, or working to minimise the sensory noise or light overload in open plan offices. These should always reflect the unique needs of the individual.
Reassuringly, the ‘soft-skills’ required by managers to support neurodiverse talent may benefit us all. These include clarifying unwritten conventions (e.g. dress codes), clear communication, flexibility (e.g. for working time or frequency of social interaction), structured feedback, handling change sensitively and providing support. In fact, these behaviours are remarkably similar to the HSE Management Standards which advise managers to curate job demands, support their teams, build strong relationships and involve team members in change, in order to reduce stress and promote well-being.
The neurodiversity paradigm provides a more balanced, positive perspective on ability and disability, that also provides an incentive to reform recruitment and selection processes for the better. The benefits extend beyond inclusion and may improve well-being for all employees, providing we keep the following points in mind:
- Avoid stereotyping neurodiverse talent using ‘one size fits all’ strategies for recruitment and selection. Ensure talent acquisition is flexible and treats people as individuals.
- Question whether exceptional communication skills or writing ability are truly essential or just desirable for a role, when writing job descriptions
- Explore different interview formats, such as group tasks, which may be better suited for neurodiverse talent (and may hold more predictive validity to job performance anyway!)
- Bear in mind that neurological conditions are spectrums. People’s needs change over time, and from person to person.
This article was first published in the June issue of the Armstrong Craven Review.