Neurodivergent individuals can often be misunderstood or misperceived when viewed through neurotypical expectations - and rejected too quickly for the wrong reasons. Learn how to adapt hiring processes, workplace arrangements and norms to enable neurodiverse talent to join and thrive in your organization.
Unlike gender, race or age, invisible diversity includes the many differences that are not readily seen and are often undisclosed. Being aware of invisible diversity reminds us not to make assumptions about others, even when they look like us.
Neurodiversity, also known as cognitive diversity, is one form of invisible diversity and is the core topic of this article. Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that refers to the natural variation in the "wiring" of the human brain and reflects "the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population.”
With active intention, it is possible to override the traditional hiring processes, workplace arrangements and norms that inhibit neurodiverse talent from entering and thriving in your organization. By engaging neurodivergent talent, businesses can benefit immensely from neurodiversity inclusion.
An estimated 15% to 20% of the population are neurodivergent - including conditions such as autism, asperger syndrome, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, social anxiety disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, etc. The term ‘cognitive diversity’ also includes mental health conditions.
Neurodivergent individuals have particular strengths and challenges. Even those who share the same neurodivergent condition - such as autism - are vastly different to each other, requiring sensitivity to understanding and managing such individuals. Neurodivergent people are differently abled to neurotypical individuals: this include variations in how neurodivergent individuals concentrate, think, remember, process, problem-solve, learn, speak, and socialize.
While often having higher-than-average capabilities in many sought after skill sets in today’s workforce, neurodiverse individuals remain unemployed or underemployed. Only 16% of people with autism have full-time paid employment and 51% say their skill-level is above their current job requirements.
Major companies have recognized the business opportunity of becoming neurodiversity inclusive and have introduced neurodiversity hiring programs. Some of them have been pioneers in the field - such as SAP, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, EY, Deloitte, Ford, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, to mention a few.
Neurodiverse employees possess many unique strengths that offer a competitive talent and business advantage to companies who invest in inclusion:
Neurodivergent individuals can often be misunderstood or misperceived when viewed through neurotypical expectations - and rejected too quickly for the wrong reasons. Neurodiverse people have different communication and working patterns. They often don’t meet the social expectations of interpersonal interaction such as small talk, eye contact and soft skills, which can disqualify them as a perceived cultural fit. Direct and unfiltered communication, common among neurodivergent individuals, is hugely valuable but can be abrasive to egos when the norm is socialized politeness. And neurodiverse people don’t always tick the box of what a good communicator, a team player, a persuasive salesperson, an emotionally intelligent manager or an adept networker would be like - traits that are overvalued in hiring, but not necessary for every position - and not always accurately assessed.
Many factors inhibit companies from hiring and supporting cognitively diverse talent. The traditional approaches to recruiting and hiring talent; the standardized ways of working and environments; and the lack of awareness to recognize or understand neurodivergence are some of them. Neurodiversity inclusion requires a proactive approach that challenges established processes. Companies that prioritize inclusion have begun specific neurodiversity programs designed to reduce barriers to hiring and supporting neurodivergent talent.
To become neurodiversity inclusive, an organization and its leaders must acknowledge, value, accommodate and celebrate the perspectives and contributions of neurodivergent individuals. Support is available from firms, such as Lexxic, who specialize in building workplaces supportive of neurodiverse talent.
Here are four key areas that matter in creating neurodiversity inclusive cultures:
1. Inclusive Recruitment and Hiring: Recruiting neurodiverse talent requires deviating from traditional interviewing and hiring processes that often rely heavily on social interaction or written tests. Many companies - such as EY and JP Morgan Chase - partner with organizations who specialize in neurodiverse recruitment to help source and support talent. They define clear recruitment intentions specific to particular needs and roles in the company, where extraordinary skills and talents can be best leveraged. Alternative hiring approaches often involve extended periods with less face-to-face conversation and more skills-based assessment in completing work-related tasks to meet the job’s specific needs, as well as customized onboarding.
2. Inclusive Workplace Accommodations: Neurodivergent individuals are often sensitive to and easily overwhelmed by factors such as lights and sounds that neurotypical people may find normal. Many prefer repetition, predictability and clear boundaries to provide safety and sense of orientation and control. Neurodivergent people often require basic, non-expensive workplace interventions to support their ability to focus and mitigate distractions - such as noise-canceling headphones, softer lighting and more private working spaces with more personal control over surrounding sensory stimulation.
3. Inclusive Ways of Working: Neurodivergent individuals often miss unspoken social cues and subtleties. They require direct and clear communications and expectations, consistent communication and explicit feedback. When it comes to time management, many thrive on predictability, consistency, routine and unstructured time breaks - and are more sensitive to abrupt and unexpected disruptions and schedule changes. Many prefer prioritization of focus over multitasking and may need schedule flexibility that optimizes to high-performing hours. Many neurodivergent individuals will not thrive in a large meeting setting with many people speaking out and participating. They may need regularly scheduled invitations to express themselves to managers and 1:1 relationships to build trust. Managing neurodivergent people within the workforce can actually sensitize managers to paying more attention to individual needs in general, to better leverage everyone’s talent, and can benefit everyone by encouraging more clarity, consistency and transparency.
4. Inclusive Culture: Creating a neurodiverse and inclusive culture requires cultivating positive awareness and understanding of cognitive diversity across the organization and leadership. It may require, such as SAP has done, training on the importance of soft skills to neurodivergent employees. Cultural interventions can include creating alternative structured socializing opportunities (such as presentation lunches for learning and socializing), affinity groups and workplace mentors. When disseminating information, organizations can provide the same content in different ways to address neurodiverse differences in processing.
Companies often report that when an organization becomes more neurodiversity inclusive and experiences the frictional influence of neurodivergent employees, the overall culture benefits from what is akin to an integrity upgrade: organizations become clearer and more direct in communication, question whether common problems must be inevitable and witness a greater level of awareness among manager and employees for individual differences and sensitivities.
Neurodiversity inclusion is not only good for both businesses and neurodivergent individuals, but it is also a way to catapult organizations towards a culture of inclusion for everyone, in all our invisible diversity.