[co-author: Emilee Schipske]
Neurodiversity is the inherent differences in neurological structure and function. The term encompasses neurocognitive differences such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, intellectual disability and schizophrenia. Although most governments do not provide neurodiverse individuals with the support necessary to enter and remain in the workforce, multinational employers are becoming aware of the benefits of having a neurodiverse workplace and are developing hiring and retention initiatives to support neurodiverse applicants and employees.
Common Elements of Employers’ Neurodiversity Initiatives
Employers have begun to develop and implement programs to support neurodiverse candidates and employees. Although employers’ specific neurodiversity programs may vary, most neurodiversity initiatives have seven elements in common:
1. Team with social partners where employers lack expertise
Most employers are not experts in neurological conditions or conditions that have neurological implications. As such, employers with neurodiversity programs form relationships with government or nonprofit organizations that are committed to helping individuals with disabilities secure jobs. Examples of these groups include EXPANDability and the Arc, EnAble India and Autism SA (South Australia). These groups help analyze disability employment regulations, candidate selection, prescreening, and receipt of public funds and provide mentorship and support to neurodiverse employees.
2. Use nontraditional, non-interview-based assessment and training processes
Employers with neurodiversity programs have altered their hiring practices to allow neurodiverse job candidates to demonstrate their abilities in an extended, causal environment. Once selected for a position, neurodiverse individuals may be expected to attend further training sessions or internships that are intended to help them become familiar with employers’ norms. Typically, neurodiverse trainees/interns are paid and the government or nonprofit funds the program.
3. Train workers and managers
Neurodiverse individuals are stigmatized in the workplace in many countries. A 2018 survey conducted by the UK Westminster AchieveAbility Commission found that 52% of the 600 neurodivergent individuals surveyed stated that they faced discrimination during recruitment processes. Of these neurodivergent individuals, 73% chose not to disclose their neurodivergence during the selection processes, and only 35% of those who disclosed their neurodivergence did not regret their disclosure. The Commission also collected personal accounts from neurodivergent individuals during their employment. Collectively, neurodivergent employees’ experiences demonstrate a general lack of support and understanding from colleagues and management. Neurodiverse employees stated that they felt undermined in meetings, received greater scrutiny, had limited promotion opportunities and had negative overall experiences (e.g., being told that colleagues may not feel comfortable working with autistic individuals). To address these stigmas, employers have implemented training sessions for existing employees and managers.
4. Implement a support system
Employers with neurodiversity initiatives have created support systems for neurodiverse employees. Support systems typically are implemented in one of two ways. First, neurodiverse employees may be placed in groups of approximately 15 individuals for social support. Then, for work purposes, four neurodiverse employees are grouped with one neurotypical colleague. This entire process is monitored by managers and consultants to ensure that neurodiverse employees receive social and job-related support. Second, employers may roll out a support system by assigning neurodiverse employees several mentors. In both cases, these support systems are designed to create a sustainable neurodiverse employment ecosystem.
5. Tailor methods for managing careers
Employers create assessment programs that consider neurodiverse employees’ special circumstances to ensure career longevity. While employers still expect neurodiverse employees to satisfy fundamental performance objectives, managers work within such processes to set specific goals. Neurodiverse employees, however, always may be integrated into the mainstream organization.
6. Scale the program
Employers that have implemented neurodiversity programs set goals and, at times, numerical targets to expand their programs and to increase neurodiverse employees’ representation. Employers work to expand neurodiverse employees’ representation in positions, roles and departments beyond those that typically are assigned to neurodiverse talent.
7. Mainstream the program
Some employers review standard HR processes to determine how recruiting, hiring and development may be mainstreamed. Employers strive to reform their recruitment, hiring and development processes so that, in time, a separate, standalone neurodiversity program is no longer necessary.
Several countries have developed support systems for neurodiverse individuals. In the UK, many foundations, organizations and research groups support neurodiverse individuals, and the government provides neurodiverse individuals with financial assistance. For example, the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions funds the Access to Work program, which provides a free assessment to over 30,000 disabled individuals each year, including approximately 6,000 neurominority employees or other individuals with mental health needs. The program allows employees to self-refer and to receive an assessment of workplace need and helps pay for the support that employees may require. Northern Ireland has implemented a similar program as well.
The UK also has several charities, including the National Autistic Society, which are designed to provide support to certain neurominority groups. Autism Awareness Australia is another program that promotes awareness and education regarding how to recruit and employ employees who are on the autism spectrum.
The UK’s Government Communications Headquarters, an organization that works with military intelligence and law enforcement to prevent cyberattacks and terrorist acts, actively recruits dyslexic and neurodiverse individuals. The agency has three times the national average of dyslexic individuals in its apprenticeship programs.
Neurodiverse individuals also are recruited in other countries, such as Israel. The Special Intelligence Unit 9900 of the Israeli Defense Forces employs primarily young autistic adults, as such individuals tend to recognize data patterns that others cannot.
Borrowing assessment methods from the Israeli Defense Forces, the Australian Defense Department is developing a cybersecurity neurodiversity program. In addition, the Australian Human Rights Commission conducted Willing to Work: National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability. This initiative reviews and analyzes employers’ experiences regarding employing individuals with disabilities and provides case studies and best practice recommendations to employers for engaging disabled employees.
In addition, in Germany, the government recognized the benefit of moving individuals off public assistance and into jobs that generate tax revenue. As such, the government created publicly funded positions that support the retention of neurodiverse employees.
These country-specific approaches and efforts may be instructive to employers that are considering how to implement neurodiversity programs.
Addressing Neurodiversity Initiatives: Practical Considerations
Creating a neurodiversity program may be a daunting effort. To simplify the challenge, employers may view neurodiversity initiatives in two distinct stages: (i) recruitment; and (ii) post-hire.
Employers first may reform existing hiring practices or create separate hiring practices for neurodiverse candidates. Recruiting neurodiverse candidates begins with communicating the business’ commitment to building and maintaining an inclusive and diverse workplace. For example, job descriptions only should include skills that are essential for the job. In addition, employers may consider simplifying the language contained in job descriptions and on application forms. Employers also may use larger font sizes and include images/pictures on application forms. Furthermore, employers may provide space on application forms for applicants to request any adjustments that may be required for an interview. Because the glare of white paper and white backgrounds interferes with dyslexic individuals’ ability to view text clearly, employers may use pastel background colors on application forms. Employers also may adapt the interview process for neurodiverse candidates by providing interview questions in advance, implementing a less formal interview approach, providing directions to the location of the interview and the names of the interviewers, providing a clear timetable of events and allowing candidates to wait in a quiet space prior to interviews. Employers also may consider utilizing work trials (i.e., a period of work experience) as an alternative to the traditional interview experience for neurodiverse candidates, as work trials may be better suited to assess such candidates’ skills.
Employers also may consider post-hire workplace reforms that may help neurodiverse employees remain with the business for an extended period. Providing neurodiverse employees with training and a support system (e.g., a job coach, a peer mentor and an employee resource group) may support their transition to employment. Employers may provide neurodiverse employees with a well-structured work environment and clear job expectations. For example, employers may (i) provide neurodiverse employees clear instructions regarding how to carry out certain tasks, (ii) help such employees prioritize activities and organize tasks and (iii) schedule regular performance reviews. Employers also may consider providing neurodiverse employees with a flexible work environment and flexible work schedule by allowing remote work, flexible work hours and the use of private meeting rooms. Employers always should effectively communicate with all employees to ensure strong office morale and comradery. Employers may do so by providing all employees with training sessions highlighting the purposes of neurodiversity programs and by explaining why neurodiverse employees are granted certain accommodations.
In the end, building and maintaining a diverse workplace has been a priority for many multinational employers. Such employers now also may consider integrating diversity efforts specifically for neurodiverse candidates and employees as well.