Neurodiversity at work and its untapped commercial potential
25 September 2020
Autism, ADHD, dyslexia — these “conditions” have long been misunderstood and overlooked in modern workplaces. Now, businesses are beginning to understand the benefits of neurodiversity at work. How clued up are you?
Understanding Neurodiversity at work
As Oscar Wilde once famously said: “Be yourself. Everybody else is taken.”
And it’s true — no two people in the world are exactly the same.
Despite this array of human diversity, our workplaces seem to have set, and followed through, on an established standard and “fit”. The closer a candidate is to fitting that standard, the better. And often, the further they travel in the organization, too.
That’s how we’ve ended up with more men called David at the helm of Fortune 500 companies than women CEOs of any name and a BAME representation at board level of only 11% in the FTSE 100. Not to mention the historically low number of people with disabilities (physical, mental or emotional) in steady employment — just 19.3% in the USA in 2019.
However, things are beginning to change.
As our understanding of the human brain develops, we’re becoming increasingly aware of neurodiversity — and the unique capabilities that lie beneath our (previously stigmatized) differences.
What is neurodiversity?
The notion that all humans are unique is backed by science. Through further exploration of neurological processing, we’re beginning to detect the boundaries of an immense (perhaps infinitely so) spectrum of neurocognitive functioning and behavior — in other words, neurodiversity.
Applied in a more specific sense, neurodiversity also refers to a growing movement in workplaces to make space for individuals who experience different neurological functioning than the majority of the population. Where the majority exhibits what’s referred to as neurotypical capabilities.
Even within the category of “the neurotypical mind”, there can be a staggering degree of variation. Just think of the people in your life and the differences in their perspectives, motivations, and dispositions: from introverts to extroverts, charismatic advertising execs to reserved accountants — and vice versa.
As any recruiter knows, each of these individuals possesses a unique perspective and valuable skills. But it’s sometimes difficult to champion that diversity, even if you know it to be of worth.
“Make space for individuals who experience different neurological functioning than the majority of the population.“
Considering the uphill struggle in some organizations to break free from the stand and “fit” of the typical employee, recruiters and HR teams may have an even harder time placing candidates who show neurodiversity at work, in any of the following forms:
- Autism — affecting how a person views the world and perceives social cues. Asperger’s syndrome falls on the Autism spectrum, too.
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) — often characterized by an inability to concentrate and control impulses. When such symptoms are combined with hyperactivity, it’s known as ADHD (the H standing for hyperactivity).
- Dyslexia — described as a difficulty in processing language, particularly with reading and writing.
- Dyspraxia — affecting physical and mental coordination, with individuals sometimes appearing clumsy or disorganized.
- Tourette syndrome — involving unintentional movements and sounds.
How prevalent is neurodiversity in the general population?
The answer is probably higher than you’d think.
It’s estimated that 15% of the population of the United Kingdom is neurodivergent, and a similar figure could be assumed for the United States. However, many people experiencing neurodivergence are unemployed — far higher than the national average — with some figures putting unemployment rates for neurodivergent persons at 80%.
And as we’re about to see, these numbers represent a significant commercial oversight — in all sectors.
Neurodiversity at work — why is representation so low?
Many businesses are waking up to the social and commercial benefits of diversity, expanding the breadth of gender, sex, race, nationality, and religion representation in their teams.
Now it’s time to promote neurodiversity in the workplace, too.
In many ways, the movement to get neurodivergent individuals into the workplace is embracing an interpretation much like Robison’s above.
However, progress has been anything but swift.
We’re emerging from a dark age of stigma and misleading medical jargon. Take another look at the shortlist of neurodivergent forms above, and note the words “deficit” and “syndrome” baked into the official monikers.
That’s not an inclusive place to be starting from!
Misconceptions that neurodiverse people face at work
Neurodivergence is often seen as a disability. And while some forms are legally defined (and subjectively experienced) as such, this is a non-inclusive way to talk about them.
After all, the success of Richard Branson and Steven Spielberg, who have dyslexia — and credible claims that Albert Einstein was autistic — prove that these diagnoses don’t necessarily hold people back. All forms of neurodivergence are experienced along a spectrum and many neurodivergent people are simply able in different ways.
While a neurodivergent individual might have trouble with, say, social interaction, organizing their thoughts, or controlling their movements, they might also possess an impressive ability to focus, process numbers, or identify patterns. While their abilities in one area might be low, their abilities in another could amount to something approaching a superpower.
In fact, the abilities of neurodivergent individuals hold so much potential that companies like Microsoft are betting big on neurodiversity — and not without the data to support it.
- Enhanced productivity — Australia’s Department of Human Services reported that a neurodiverse testing team was 30% more productive than their neurotypical peers.
- Creativity — Autism, dyslexia, and dyspraxia have all been linked to lateral and creative thinking. Just think of Spielberg’s DreamWorks mega-brand.
- Handling stress — People with ADHD might excel in stressful situations, pushing through set-backs in order to rush urgent work.
From solving complex programming problems to getting the project into the end-zone no matter what, the commercial potential of any one of these strengths is clear — and these are just the tip of the iceberg.
Of course, being differently abled isn’t all superpowers. There are considerations and difficulties that come with supporting neurodivergent individuals. But as we will explore, managing the downsides of neurodivergence isn’t that difficult with an open mind and a little forward planning.
How to build a neurodiverse team
When building a neurodiverse team, it’s important to consider that the vast majority of organizations and workplaces have been structured to support only the neurotypical majority. The things that enable the bulk of your workforce to succeed might constitute obstacles for people experiencing neurodivergence.
Educate on neurodiversity at work
First and foremost, lay the groundwork for inclusion and compassion by educating other employees.
Most organizations already hold some form of diversity and inclusion training, either as a component of their onboarding process or as ongoing professional development training. And there’s no reason that neurodiversity can’t be worked into this existing program.
Empower neurodiverse people to disclose without fear
With around 1 in 6 people experiencing neurodiversity, it’s likely that your organization is already employing someone on the autism spectrum, living with ADHD or working with dyslexia.
Neutralizing stigma, and otherwise opening up the conversation through neurodiversity training, will empower employees to disclose neurodivergence without fear. Many workplace issues stem from employees not feeling safe to disclose their differences, but early disclosure makes room for compassion — and gives management the time to implement workplace adjustments as necessary.
“Neutralizing stigma and otherwise opening up the conversation through neurodiversity training, will empower employees to disclose neurodivergence without fear”
Build support structures
Social support is critical for neurodivergent individuals to succeed in the workplace.
Assigning mentors or “buddies” could prove beneficial — as long as it’s dealt with in a non-patronizing way. When handled correctly, pairing neurodivergent employees with a neurotypical colleague will help them navigate the workplace, organize their days, and prioritize projects — much like any new recruit would learn from someone who complements their skillset.
Moreover, neurotypical staff typically report that such responsibilities add meaning to their role and boost morale, which is in itself another benefit of diversity in the workplace.
Accommodate neurodiversity at work
Some forms of neurodivergence might require further accommodation.
For example, an individual with ADHD might be willing to work longer hours provided that they be allowed to take more frequent breaks. Or an autistic team member might require headphones to avoid overstimulation. The key here is to ensure that the rest of your workforce has the context with which to understand such accommodations — both to prevent misunderstandings (like grumblings of favoritism) and to encourage neurodiverse colleagues to ask for what they need.
Proactive steps and laying simple groundwork provides neurodivergent individuals with the confidence and environment they need to exercise their capabilities. Yet, even with the most robust support structures in place, organizations still need to open their eyes to the potential of neurodiversity in the workplace, by hiring neurodiverse individuals in the first place.
Recruiting with neurodiversity in mind
Frankly, some neurodivergent individuals just don’t interview well.
Well-structured responses, proper articulation, and even eye contact are often on a recruiter’s checklist for success. And placing emphasis on these distinctly neurotypical strengths might make sense for certain client-facing positions or leadership seats, but they’re hardly relevant — and certainly not make-or-break — for many other roles.
The solution? Do away with discriminatory hiring processes. In order to give your business a competitive edge, you need to approach hiring differently — casting a wider net free from unconscious bias.
Where Headstart can help
Headstart uses machine learning to assess each candidate equally, objectively matching their qualifications with the exact requirements you’re looking for. It’s entirely discrimination-free, and has been proven to improve diversity hiring by 18%.
We’re already familiar with the benefits of hiring women and men, introverts and extroverts, and people of all nationalities. And when it comes to human diversity, it seems that each new variable unlocks new possibilities for growth, innovation, and engagement.
Neurodiversity takes the principle of inclusion to a whole new level, one with large but as yet undefined potential for forward-thinking organizations willing to put in the effort.
Headstart is on a mission to transform the way organisations hire! We are the world's first diversity driven Applicant Matching and Management System. We use Machine Learning and Data Science to transform the recruitment process, enabling clients to find the right high potential employees regardless of gender, ethnic status, sexual orientation or age.
With major brands like Accenture publicly supporting our mission, Headstart is already improving the recruitment experience for candidates around the world.
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