Neurodiversity at Work (2022) is a practical guide to recruiting neurodiverse employees and creating work environments that allow them to thrive. Thanks to the digital revolution, the world of work has changed dramatically over the last decades. Yet corporate culture has remained trapped in archaic hiring practices that don’t work for the neurodiverse. By updating these practices, you’ll create a more inclusive workplace, which will yield more successful and innovative teams.
Introduction: Discover how a neurodiversity-inclusive approach can transform your workplace.
Imagine you’re looking for a job, and you finally find one that you know you’re qualified for.
You research every possible aspect of the company and brainstorm potential questions you could be asked during the interview.
And then, on the day of your interview, your nerves get the better of you. You become completely tongue-tied when the interviewer asks you a relatively straightforward question.
You don’t get the job – even though you know you would be great at it, if only given the chance.
Scenarios like this happen in every hiring process, at every company. That’s because the way we interview people, scrutinize CVs, and generally behave in an office environment is extremely ritualized. It also rewards a specific kind of performance.
Prospective employees who don’t perform well under these ritualized conditions, like many neurodiverse individuals, are therefore excluded from a large portion of the job market. But this isn’t just a problem for those who are neurodiverse; it’s also a problem for the companies that fail to hire them. Strong, innovative teams need a range of perspectives. They need the insights that neurodiverse minds can bring to the table.
So, as a hiring manager or recruiter, how can you make sure that you don’t exclude neurodiverse candidates? And, even more urgently, how do you ensure that your workplace is an environment where different kinds of people can thrive?
That’s exactly what we’ll cover in this summary to Neurodiversity at Work, by Theo Smith and Amanda Kirby. We’ll delve deeper into what neurodiversity is, how to build a neurodiverse team, and explore three concrete steps you can take to attract – and keep – talented, neurodiverse employees.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- what neurodiversity is;
- how to confront your hidden biases about what makes for a good employee; and
- how to create an inclusive workplace that helps everyone thrive.
What is neurodiversity, and why does it matter?
In a sense, we’re all neurodiverse. After all, each of us has 100 billion brain cells, firing and making connections every second of the day. No two brains are exactly the same. They’re like our thumbprints – each one is wholly unique.
But often, being “neurodiverse” is taken to mean that someone has a specific diagnosis, like dyslexia, ADHD, or autism. The term indicates that their brains work differently in the specific ways that are associated with that particular diagnosis.
Like with any definition, there’s a lot of controversy about what the exact meaning of neurodiversity is. But what’s commonly agreed is that the term points to the fact that we don’t all process information and think in the same way. In fact, the ways our minds work are affected by a number of factors: past experiences, our specific neurobiological makeup, the kind of education we’ve received, the traumas we’ve been exposed to, and a host of other things. Of course, all of these factors affect how we think and work.
That’s why it’s such a problem that workplaces are designed to be one-size-fits-all. Not everyone can function well in an open office, or between the hours of nine and five. Not everyone is able to come up with answers on the spot, or lead a presentation with aplomb. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot to contribute to the workplace. On the contrary, some of our greatest entrepreneurs have described themselves as being neurodiverse. Seeing the world differently can mean having unexpected solutions to complex problems.
That’s why companies like Microsoft, JP Morgan, and IBM, among others, are working furiously to recruit and support neurodiverse talent in the workplace. But how exactly do you adapt hiring practices to support neurodiversity?
To answer this question, let’s explore the three steps you can take to begin building a neurodiverse team in your workplace.
Step one: confront your hidden biases, and stop looking for someone who “fits” the team.
A Harvard Business School study showed that we usually make up our minds about someone only 30 seconds after meeting them. This is often based on subtle things, like whether someone makes eye contact or has a firm handshake.
But not everyone is comfortable with those social rituals. If you happen to be an anxious person or someone who, for example, has trouble making eye contact, you won’t necessarily be able to live up to these implicit social standards.
Hiring managers often pride themselves on being able to evaluate prospective employees based on their intuition. But you need to recognize that intuition can also be full of unconscious bias. It’s been well documented that people usually hire others who look like them – for instance, those with a similar racial or class background. But this leads to homogenous teams. And homogenous teams are weak teams.
Imagine a sports team composed entirely of goalies. They’d be very good at one specific part of the game: blocking goals. But they’d be terrible at scoring them. A homogenous team composed of the same kinds of people will have a similar effect. You might have figured out one specific corner of the market – but there’s a lot more that you’re potentially missing.
Instead of thinking about “who fits into the team,” a much better question to ask is, “What unique skills and perspectives can this person add to the team?” With this as your leading question, you can start to reshape your recruitment process.
First, examine how you communicate the job, and consider the requirements. Most job ads ask candidates to have specific educational qualifications and a laundry list of hard and soft skills. But is it really necessary that your future hire has an MBA, the ability to multitask, and a knack for coding? Could work experience replace educational qualifications? And could coding be learned on the job?
Drill down into which qualifications or skills are absolutely essential, and which are simply nice to have. Consider that there may be different ways of doing the same job, and that a neurodiverse candidate could bring an unexpected approach you haven’t even considered yet.
When you’re writing the job posting, be as clear and concrete as you can about what the job actually entails. Avoid buzzwords and slang, and use accessible language. Indicate which requirements are absolute, and which are negotiable or can be made up with equivalent experience.
Even more importantly, state explicitly that you’re interested in hiring neurodiverse people – that you’re committed to creating a truly inclusive workplace. You can do that by crafting a diversity and inclusion statement that highlights neurodiversity as a core workplace value. By putting those values down on paper, you’re sending a powerful message to neurodiverse candidates that you value what they potentially have to offer.
Step two: make sure that your interview process is a productive collaboration instead of an exam.
The very first step is to confront your own hidden biases about what a “good” candidate looks like.
Too often, the interview process is seen by both sides as being a kind of test that candidates need to “pass” to “land” the job. But, as any hiring manager knows, the candidate who “aces” the interview could actually be a terrible hire.
Some people thrive in interviews. Others shut down completely, even if they’re actually very qualified. It can be hard to process information and answer questions on the spot in a high-pressure environment. Some neurodiverse people are also very sensitive to light and noise; they can be overwhelmed by the stimulation.
As a hiring manager, you want to find out what the prospective candidate can add to your team – and which unique skills and perspectives they’ll bring to your workplace. To do this, you need to create an environment where the candidate can really show themselves and what they’re capable of.
Instead of framing the interview as an intimidating test, ask candidates whether there are ways you could adjust the interview process to make it more accessible. For example, you could offer to send a question list ahead of time, so they can already start thinking about it. Or you could propose doing a remote interview, so they can navigate the first meeting from the comfort of their own environment. Taking these steps doesn’t just allow neurodiverse candidates to showcase their talents more accurately in the interview; it also demonstrates that you’re serious about inclusivity and are prepared to put in the work to turn your values into reality.
In addition to tweaking the interview process, consider what other evaluation methods you could use to get a complete picture of the candidate. Could you ask to see a portfolio of work? Would it be useful to ask the candidate to complete an assessment or a specific task? Or would it be helpful to spend more time with the person – maybe by inviting them to the office to shadow someone in the role they’re applying for? Any one of these methods might offer more information than you could get in an interview.
Step three: create a person-centered environment with space for different ways of working.
Say you’ve just hired a talented new employee who uses a wheelchair. You tell her you’re thrilled that she’s decided to join the team. But on her first day of work, she can’t even get through the door because there are steps leading up to it – and no ramp.
Disability justice activists have led the way in creating a movement to fight for environments that allow disabled people to participate in everyday life. Disability isn’t an individual problem. Rather, it’s created by a society that builds offices without elevators, stairs without ramps, and bathrooms that are too narrow to fit a wheelchair. Just as a wheelchair user requires a ramp to be able to do her job, neurodiverse employees require different kinds of support to really be able to thrive at work.
So, what does an inclusive workplace look like when it comes to neurodiversity?
There’s no one right solution. You may have three employees with ADHD who require completely different kinds of support. One person may need to work more at home to minimize distraction, while another may benefit from the structure offered by coming to the office every day. Rather than creating yet another one-size-fits-all model, you’ll need to adopt a person-centered approach. In practice, this simply means that you ask the individual what they need – and work with them closely to make sure they receive those accommodations.
Person-centered support should start even before the job begins. Send your new employee as much information as possible about the workplace and what your expectations are. One of the most exclusionary aspects of any office culture is that a lot of the expectations are implicit. It’s almost like there’s a secret rulebook that everyone knows about, but no one talks about.
One of the most important steps in creating a neurodiversity-inclusive workplace is to make all of those expectations crystal clear. Are employees expected to react to emails within a day, or within an hour? Are employees expected to attend every meeting? Put that all in writing.
Ensure that you also make the social expectations of the workplace explicit. Do colleagues always chip in to buy an office birthday present? Is it the custom to greet people by their first name when you run into them?
These specifications may seem so obvious to you that it feels silly to spell them out. But remember, each workplace is a world unto itself. It’s obvious to you because you’ve been there for a long time. And, if you’re a senior employee, you’re in a position of power. To another person just joining the workplace, it may take enormous amounts of energy – and cause untold stress – trying to decipher these unspoken rules.
Describing the office culture doesn’t mean that you’re just demanding new employees to comply with the way things are. After you’ve made all the expectations explicit, your next step should be to sit down with your new employee for an induction meeting. Discuss whether any of these expectations will be difficult for them to meet. If there are potential challenges, talk about how you could come up with a new arrangement that would support their working style.
For example, you may have employees who thrive on social interaction but find it hard to keep up with emails. In this case, you could arrange to have weekly in-person check-ins to discuss the progress on a certain project rather than bombarding them with five separate mails every day. Or maybe you have an employee who requires an office with walls instead of an open environment, so he can block out the world when he needs to focus.
Getting explicit about expectations and accommodations right at the beginning of your working relationship will set both the company and the new employee up for success. The employee will have a clear picture of what’s expected of them. And you’ll have the opportunity to rethink what’s really needed to get the job done well while considering which aspects of your company’s policies or culture need to be made more inclusive.
You’ve just finished our summary to Neurodiversity at Work, by Theo Smith and Amanda Kirby.
The most important thing to take away from all this is:
Inclusive workplaces don’t only benefit the neurodiverse. In imagining how to make your workplace more inclusive, you’ll start to question the status quo. You’ll be pushed to become truly innovative and create a workplace culture that prizes different perspectives. Every employee will benefit from an inclusive approach to work that facilitates the trust and support needed to thrive. And this starts with three concrete steps: confronting your hidden biases, making sure that your interview process is a collaboration and not an exam, and creating a person-centered environment that welcomes different ways of working.
And here’s some actionable advice that you can get started on today: Create or join a neurodiversity network.
Neurodiversity networks are groups of neurodiverse employees who work together to advocate for more inclusive workplaces. These groups also provide a forum for employees to share experiences and learn about best practices from different organizations. Working together can put pressure on management to make necessary changes faster – and create a sense of solidarity among employees.
About the author
Professor Amanda Kirby is the Founder and CEO of Do-IT Solutions, a tech for good company specialising in neurodiversity screening tools. She has more than 25 years’ experience working in the field of neurodiversity, publishing more than 100 research papers, and is internationally recognised for her work with 1000s of families and neurodivergent adults. She is also a medical doctor. Based in the UK, she advises Department of Work and Pensions on Neurodiversity as well as being an emeritus professor at the University of South Wales. She was one of the top 20 Linkedin voices in the UK in 2020.
Theo Smith is a VP of a HR tech start-up Zinc.Work, and previously, the Recruitment Manager at NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence). Based in the UK, he was selected to be part of the Resourcing Leaders 100 (RL100), Europe’s leading network of resourcing leaders. Prior to this he was the Resourcing Manager at TMP Worldwide UK, now part of PeopleScout. He is also the host of several podcasts including ‘Neurodiversity – Eliminating Kryptonite & Enabling Superheroes’.
Corporate Culture, Business Culture, Human Resources, Workplace Culture, Human Resources & Personnel Management