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Thinking differently: How businesses can incorporate neurodivergent hiring

Posted by Kanika Sinha

March 15, 2022    |     6-minute read (1051 words)

As businesses are increasingly challenged to rethink long-standing operating models and workforce strategies, neurodivergent hiring opens up new horizons. Many individuals with neurological conditions such as dyslexia and autism spectrum disorder possess superior intellectual functioning, excellent math abilities and extraordinary problem-solving skills. 

Businesses are starting to take note of neurodivergent employees’ capacity to reinvigorate processes, spark innovation, and thereby gain a competitive advantage. 

Delve deeper

What is neurodivergent hiring? Neurodivergent hiring refers to promoting inclusion for individuals with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, dyspraxia and other learning or neurological differences in the workplace. 

Why does it matter? Individuals with these conditions often have higher-than-average abilities and unique gifts, as illustrated in the findings below. 

• Research from Harvard Business Review shows that some neurological conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow exceptional skills in pattern recognition, memory and math. 
Drexel University’s National Autism Indicators Report finds that 51% of autistic employees have skills higher than those their jobs require.
• An Ernst & Young report suggests many neurodiverse individuals have a strong propensity for details and can concentrate for extended periods on complex tasks, in addition to possessing other unique mental capabilities.
HBR’s research also suggests that teams with neurodiverse employees in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without them. In addition, the inclusion and integration of neurodiverse employees can boost team morale.
• The CIPD’s Neurodiversity at Work report finds abilities associated with neurodiversity, such as visual thinking, attention to detail, analytic thinking, pattern recognition, visual memory and creative insights, can drive ideas teams might otherwise miss.

Labor force changes make room for neurodiversity

The case for neurodiverse hiring is especially compelling given the current labor shortage and an anticipated increase in the number of people with autism entering the workforce. According to the CDC, 1 in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. 

Additionally, researchers from Drexel University estimate that between 700,000 and 1 million young Americans with autism will turn 18 by 2029. Diversifying the talent pool by including these professionals can help combat the hiring crunch faced by U.S. businesses

That said, certain traits common to neurodiverse people may prove ill-suited to a fast-paced corporate environment, and some may exhibit eccentricities. But supportive employers who are familiar with the ways that neurodivergent people process information and interact with others can help bridge such challenges. 

How businesses can embrace neurodiversity

Supporting neurodiverse employees isn’t about trying to neutralize their differences. It’s a matter of looking at their strengths and creating situations in the workplace where they will flourish.

Here’s how to promote neurodiversity in your firm:

1. Adapt your interview and screening processes.

The traditional interview process can lead you to miss out on top candidates by failing to explore cognitive differences. And in so doing, your process is biased to shut out neurodiverse candidates. 

Adapt your interview process for neurodivergent candidates by:

• Making adjustments such as taking notes; allowing extra time to compensate for slower processing speed; using a whiteboard or flipchart to set aside questions to address later.
• Instead of conducting formal interviews, hold comfortable gatherings of about a half-day in which neurodiverse candidates can demonstrate their abilities.
• Offering take-home interview assignments for select neurodiverse candidates. Using brief, high-level case studies or test assignments will give you an opportunity to assess a candidate’s creativity and communication skills. It is also helpful for neurodiverse individuals who become stressed by being evaluated.
• Prolonging the assessment process or conducting short-term internships for further evaluation of neurodiverse candidates. Such programs allow time for their capabilities to surface.

2. Train other employees and managers.

Educate managers and leaders with training on normal personality differences: 

• Conduct short, low-key training sessions to help existing employees understand what to expect from their new neurodiverse colleagues. For example, they may need certain accommodations and might seem different.
• Managers should get more extensive training to become familiar with sources of support for neurodiverse team members.

3. Create a well-balanced work environment.

Neurodiverse employees tend to be significantly impacted by their environment. Whether it’s a physical office or a remote work setup, your workplace culture can affect your new employee’s productivity. 

To create a well-balanced environment, consider the following:

• Provide individualized work accommodations to help neurodiverse employees feel comfortable. For instance, some may prefer headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation or to work their best, while others may be happier with an open floor plan or a different lighting setup. A few may need voice-to-text/text-to-voice software to process information.
• Model a strong work-life balance by clearly defining work hours and expected response times. Also, encourage time off as neurodiverse employees tend to be so committed that they overwork and risk burnout.
• Normalize no-meeting days and the use of “do not disturb” on work email or messaging apps. This will increase productivity and work quality from your entire team, but especially your neurodiverse employees.
• Remove toxic employees who bully, belittle or lead through coercion and fear. If that’s not possible, be sure to avoid pairing them with your new employees.

4. Set up a support ecosystem.

Put time and effort into maintaining simple support systems for your neurodiverse employees. Consider the following:

• Define two separate support circles for your neurodiverse employees — one for the workplace and the other for addressing their personal life issues, something like what SAP offers. The workplace support circle can comprise a manager, mentor and a life skill coach for guiding/motivating the employee; and a team buddy who can aid with daily tasks, workload management and prioritization. The second support circle can include a personal counselor and families of employees for support and assistance with social difficulties and daily life affairs.
• You can take a cue from Hewlett Packard and place your new neurodiverse employees in groups of about 10-15 people, where they work alongside neurotypical colleagues in a roughly 3:1 or 4:1 ratio. Assign managers and at least one consultant with the task of addressing any neurodiversity-related concerns of the group.

Takeaway: Embracing neurodiverse talent presents a huge opportunity for businesses to transform their leadership, processes, revenue and impact. High-performing teams and organizations require a mix of personalities and perspectives, so when neurodivergent individuals find roles and workplaces in which they can thrive, everyone wins.

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