Hays’ Yvonne Smyth explores why employers should be doing more to hire and support neurodiverse employees.
Diversity and inclusion have been major areas of focus for many organisations in recent years, and for good reason. A 2020 McKinsey study found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity outperform their competitors by 25pc, while those in the top quartile for ethnic diversity outperform their competitors by 36pc.
And while many organisations are taking steps to improve the inclusion of workers from different ethnic groups, genders or social backgrounds, other areas are being overlooked.
Adults with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia are being left out of the workforce in swathes. Looking at autism alone, the problem is clear.
In the US, 85pc of college graduates with autism are unemployed. In Australia, just 40pc of autistic people are employed, compared to 83pc of people without a disability. In the UK, only 32pc of autistic adults have ‘some form’ of paid work, with 16pc holding full-time roles.
With such large numbers of employable neurodiverse adults side-lined, what exactly are businesses missing out on? Could improving neurodiversity bolster much-needed skillsets?
Improving neurodiversity can tackle talent shortages
Autism Europe suggests this may be the case. The non-profit association say that while people with the condition often struggle with social interaction, communication and some cognitive functioning (such as planning or prioritising), they are also predisposed to display high levels of concentration, hold detailed factual knowledge or technical skills and have the ability to excel at repetitive tasks.
Similar skills are also often seen in people with Asperger’s syndrome. Meanwhile, a 2019 EY report indicated that people with dyslexia often display the most in-demand skills for the workforce of the future – leadership, creativity and initiative.
Some of the abilities that many people with these conditions possess are particularly useful for STEM industries. Microsoft’s autism hiring programme and IBM’s Ignite autism spectrum disorder programme are just two of the schemes set up by big-name tech firms to hire more neurodiverse employees.
Meanwhile, an Israeli Defense Forces unit, Ro’im Rachok (Hebrew for ‘seeing far into the future’), was set up to include young adults on the spectrum. The soldiers perform analytical intelligence work, visually analysing aerial surveillance imagery. Launched in 2012, it now accepts around 80 applicants each year.
Neurodiverse candidates can offer different strengths
Carlene Jackson, CEO of tech company Cloud9 Insight – who is herself dyslexic – estimates around 20pc to 30pc of her company are neurodiverse.
Describing the benefits these employees can bring, she says: “Firms just need to understand the value of having people that don’t think in a traditional way. We find the ability to focus and be loyal are strong autistic traits, while being creative and an out-of-the-box thinker is a dyslexic’s contribution. Why wouldn’t we want this in our business?”
US software and quality assurance (QA) testing non-profit Aspiritech has gone further still. Its entire workforce is made up of people on the autism spectrum. Founders Brenda and Moshe Weitzberg set it up in 2008 after their autistic son Oran was turned away from many jobs.
“Our clients benefit from an affordable, US-based, highly skilled solution for their QA testing needs,” says Brad Cohen, chief marketing officer. “The staff gain a well-paying job in a suitable environment that supports their long-term employment. Everyone gains when people are given the opportunity to use their skills for meaningful, well-paying work that leads to a fully independent life.”
The benefits are long term as well; Aspiritech has a retention rate of 95pc and team leaders and managers are hired from within the organisation.
It’s important to tailor support to neurodiverse colleagues
But while these reports and experiences indicate there are many benefits to improving neurodiversity in the workplace, the reality is that many organisations are simply not set up to help these employees be successful. One of the biggest challenges is around improving understanding and awareness.
“Research we conducted found 32pc of UK workers said their employer fails to offer additional help or support for neurodiverse employees – but that’s often because they’re unaware of it,” says Mike Blake, wellness lead at Willis Towers Watson.
“The first thing employers have to do is accept they’re likely to have neurodiverse staff in the first place. These are people who might be suffering because they’re trying to do a job that their neurodiversity makes very difficult.”
Organisations also need to ensure that, culturally, colleagues are aware and accepting and thoughtful of their peers’ different needs.
“This is the tougher ask,” says Dr Nancy Doyle, CEO of Genius Within. “The paradigm shift is for everyone to ask, ‘What is it neurodiverse people can bring?’ Currently, thinking around neurodiversity is still closer to disability and discrimination legislation – about making reasonable adjustments – rather than seeing it as a benefit in the whole.”
Making adjustments at interview stage is key
When it comes to making adjustments to recruitment practices, Aspiritech’s Cohen says there are a number of barriers to overcome. “Primarily, it is identifying the skills that a candidate has and how to accommodate for their challenges. Specifically, weak social skills, a lack of eye contact, and difficulty with interviewing skills can hide the candidates’ true abilities.
“Awareness of these issues can open up opportunities for both the jobseeker and the employer. There are many resources to assist employers with best practices and tips on hiring.”
He says the secret to Aspiritech’s success in hiring neurodivergent employees had been offering them the support they need. “We employ 116 QA testers who are autistic plus a handful of support staff to help our autistic employees with both hard and soft skills. We also offer daily and weekend social activities, coding clubs, women’s groups and many other planned free activities to build an environment where our staff can shine and be effective QA testers for our paying clients.”
Helen Needham, managing principal at global management consultancy Capco, has experienced the differences small adjustments can make first-hand. She was diagnosed with autism in her 40s and says she struggled with the decision to ‘come out’ in 2018.
“My condition means I can’t read people’s emotions the way normal managers can. I was conflicted about opening up,” she recalls. “Because once you do, you can’t take it back and I didn’t want people to think it was me excusing myself for a certain type of behaviour. What I decided, though, is that this is simply me. My brain just operates differently.”
Since revealing her autism, Needham, who also runs the Me.Decoded forum for other autistic people, says she’s had huge support. She now has what she calls her ‘social bridges’ – trusted people that report back to her the feelings of her team and emotions she might have missed.
Improving neurodiversity will require everyone to think differently
While there are challenges, there are some organisations taking formal steps to set up programmes to improve neurodiversity and ensure workers with differing needs and abilities are catered for.
“Supporting neurodiversity requires HR directors to think about more than just tapping into skills or new conversations that come as a result of thinking differently, but being totally supportive of differences,” says Nadya Powell, co-founder of Utopia and chair of the diversity committee of the British Interactive Media Association.
Powell helped write Universal Music’s neurodiversity handbook, and consults on its creative differences project aimed at supporting its 10pc of staff who claim to be on the autistic spectrum disorder scale.
She says that just by starting to talk about neurodiversity, staff are learning to spot – and be more accepting of – signs that their colleagues might be different. But Powell and others accept being neurodiverse isn’t easy.
To get started, open conversations
For those looking to make concerted efforts to make their work environment an easier place for neurodiverse colleagues, Cohen suggests simply taking the plunge. “Just do it! Start by being really nice but think about the social challenges that the candidate is facing. Don’t forget that the skills and abilities are there.
“Once a person becomes an employee, find them a mentor or co-worker who they can meet with. Ask the employee what simple accommodations will make them more productive. Many of these accommodations are really easy; a quieter area to sit, noise-cancelling headphones, a place to decompress or eat lunch in private,” he adds.
“Why not ask them to lunch or coffee? But don’t be offended if their response is frank. Be clear about communication protocols and listen to their ideas, you will be surprised. With a successful hire, the loyalty and long-term job retention will benefit everyone.”
By Yvonne Smyth
Yvonne Smyth is the group head of equity, diversity and inclusion for Hays. A version of this article appeared on the Hays’ Viewpoint blog.
10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.