For too long, businesses have overlooked neurodiverse talent. However, as companies begin to embrace diversity and inclusion processes, many are starting to adapt at a cultural level to welcome and champion neurodivergent employees.
The words “neurodiverse” and “neurodivergent” are umbrella terms generally used to describe people with brain development or cognition that differs qualitatively from “neurotypical” people, who make up the majority.
This often encompasses Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADD/ADHD), all of which are relatively common, with the CDC recently estimating that one in 44 children have been diagnosed with an ASD.
Despite this large number of neurodiverse people within our society, many undergo discrimination and underrepresentation in and around the workplace.
For example, it has been reported that up to 85% of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed.
Internal biases can affect hiring decisions, and when neurodivergent people are in work environments they are often negatively impacted by stereotypes and inconsistent expectations from co-workers and workplaces not designed to suit their needs.
This can additionally lead to some employees trying to hide their neurodivergent traits to avoid discrimination, potentially provoking further anxiety and in turn affecting their wellbeing and quality of work.
Improving the environment for neurodivergent employees should not be limited to changing company culture and philosophy.
Codified management practices that create an equitable and supportive workplace are crucial to welcoming neurodivergent staff and making the workplace more inclusive for all new employees.
Organize and educate
Organizations must set goals early to foster an environment inclusive of neurodiverse teams. Neurodivergent talent is being unnecessarily excluded because of shortcomings in recruitment, assessment, and culture, so companies need to ‘audit’ themselves to understand how to strip existing unconscious biases from their processes.
Businesses looking to become more equitable will be unable to provide an inclusive and psychologically safe environment for neurodivergent employees if they don’t know how they are failing to do so currently. For this, expertise is needed.
For the most part, business leaders and HR professionals are not neurodiversity experts. To identify a company’s neurodiversity-friendly deficiencies and outline a plan to improve them, it’s important to consult specialists who can educate management on current exclusionary practices and internal biases.
Similarly, neurotypical employees are unlikely to fully understand the nuances and details of how neurodivergent people act and work as their perspectives may be affected by implicit biases or stereotypes.
To educate staff, businesses need to provide workshops from inclusion training experts that promote a deeper understanding of models of inclusion that work.
In my work, this includes perspective-taking exercises that foster insight into the perspective of diverse thinkers. These workshops are very effective at cultivating an organizational culture that values authentic inclusion.
Crucially, such practices also show existing neurodiverse team members that their employers are committed to including them.
Flexibility is vital to attracting, welcoming, and retaining neurodiverse talent. Given the light or noise sensitivity that some neurodivergent people may experience, providing options like quiet spaces or headphone access accommodates these needs.
While working together in a bullpen five days a week may boost rapport and morale for many employees, it may make some neurodivergent people feel anxious and uncomfortable.
Lazy stereotypes that have obstructed neurodivergent people from jobs for decades are often the byproduct of exclusionary working environments that prevent many from harnessing their full potential.
An unwillingness to adjust traditional and often archaic policies – like rules banning headphones – signals a lack of inclusivity within an organization. In fact, adaptability is crucial to getting the best out of all talent, not just neurodivergent team members.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a major shift towards remote work, which has helped to debunk past myths that home-workers were idle or work-shy.
The option to work from home is becoming increasingly commonplace, and this flexibility can allow neurodivergent employees to work in a way that helps them actualize their potential, be that in-person or remote.
Understanding and opportunity
The unemployment rate among neurodivergent people will not decrease unless we improve the accessibility of workplace environments.
The first step to fostering inclusivity for neurodiverse talent is to hire them in the first place by eliminating existing biases in the recruitment system.
As with neurotypical staff training, external experts should consult with hiring managers to actively remove internal prejudices from interview and talent assessment procedures.
Allowing personal feelings, perceptions of seemingly quirky behavior, or office politics to impact employment decisions is not only discriminatory but risks excluding those who may be as or even more qualified to perform if hired for the job.
Bias-free choices should be implemented at all levels of an organization, not just in recruitment. This includes internal processes such as performance evaluations or promotions, where social familiarity with management can often lead to marginalized groups being unfairly overlooked.
For organizations to truly “walk the walk” of inclusivity, neurodiverse team members must be given opportunities for advancement.
Diversity in management is a significant indicator of equality within a business, and there is no better way to demonstrate to new employees that they are in a neurodiversity-friendly environment than to have people with lived experience in leadership roles.
Diverse management often fosters a more understanding atmosphere for staff from similar backgrounds, which can help shape an inclusive hiring process for everyone.
Employers should not only weigh up how they can accommodate neurodiverse talent, but value the unique contributions that they can make. Talent management that embraces and celebrates difference will help to get the best out of a team by tapping into the unique strengths team members bring to the equation.
Diversity of background generates diversity of thought, and neurodivergent workers bring with them a host of unique perspectives and cognitive strengths, including ‘Outside the Box’ thinking and a wide array of problem-solving skills.
Capacities that differentiate neurodivergent staff – such as creativity, intense focus, and attention to detail – ought to be celebrated rather than viewed as an accommodation burden.
The same advantages apply to progression, as companies with diverse management are reported to have 19% higher revenue than less diverse businesses.
Workplaces that embrace neurodiversity are not only doing the right thing from a social and ethical perspective.
By recognizing the distinct talents neurodivergent employees bring to the table and providing the tools to best harness them, businesses stand to reap rewards in the form of better performance and a healthier organizational culture.
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