When human resource (HR) leaders are developing workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies, they must consider how to focus on including people as a whole by fostering an understanding that workplace accommodations
designed for a select few can benefit everyone.
During her session at Unily's virtual event, Unite 22
, "Empowering a Neurodiverse Workforce," Aoife Casson, internal communications manager at Alzheimer's Research UK
, offered a framework for HR leaders to help their workforce hire, retain and manage an increasingly neurodiverse workforce.
Neurodiversity Is A Component of Any DEI Program
Casson says any workplace strategy intended to make an organization and leadership teams more diverse, equitable, and inclusive should include neurodivergent people, not treat neurodivergence as a separate feature with a separate program. If you single out specific initiatives for neurodiversity
, Casson says, it’s easy to forget about other identities that can intersect with it—like race, religion, or socioeconomic background. “It makes more sense to put [all those identities] together and focus on including people as a whole.”
Lead By Example
Casson characterized this consideration as "scary" because it entails having uncomfortable conversations. However, doing so models leadership: when senior leaders engage in uncomfortable discussions, communicate openly, and stress the value of difference, it permits other people to do the same.
Casson gave an example by sharing what happened during a virtual all-employee meeting her company hosted during the 2020 lockdown. The then-CEO ended the meeting by telling everyone, “It’s a lovely sunny day outside, I’m going into the garden to play football with my son, and I hope you all take some time now to enjoy the sunshine while it lasts.” Casson says the CEO's words weren't scripted, nor did anyone know he would say that. “What that did, was remind everyone [our CEO] is a human being. It also gave everyone else permission to be themselves, bring [their authentic selves] to work, try [their best] and make mistakes because they knew they were safe.”
When workplace leaders choose to lead by example and model how to make and recover from mistakes, Casson explained that other people feel safe to try—because they know if they fail, they can keep trying. When people feel safe at work, they know they can bring their whole selves to work and know they’ll feel appreciated vs. singled out for bringing new ideas or approaches to the office. “That’s important because when we have lots of different people, we have lots of different ideas, and that’s what everyone wants.”
Embrace Two-Way Conversations
Casson says that when you ask for help, are open to other people, and open up about your learning journey—everything you do will have more authenticity. “When you come across as authentic, people are more likely to open up to you.”
Casson shared a personal experience with attendees from when she started working full-time at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “It wasn’t working for me. I was too tired, completely overwhelmed, and had to cut down to four days a week.” Naturally, the thought of bringing this to her manager’s attention was stressful. But when Casson opened up and told her manager the entire story, she was praised for her honesty. “She said to me: ‘thank you so much for sharing that with me. I’m going to put that paperwork through right away. But in the meantime, what can I do to support you?’” Casson emphasized a weight was lifted off her shoulders. “In that moment, I knew that I felt safe, and knew my manager was on my side and I didn’t have to keep fighting.”
Conversations and education are essential when discussing DEI or neurodiversity. Plus, when people feel safe, they can ask for the support they need, knowing they will be treated with respect and won’t be treated differently or judged as a result.
Don’t Assume Anything
Casson reminded workplace leaders to understand that everyone is at different stages of their learning journey. What might seem obvious to you might be brand new information for your organization.
How can you know what people need to thrive if you don’t ask them? “It’s like putting a cactus in a rainforest. That cactus isn’t going to thrive. It’s going to struggle,” Casson quipped. “Then you’re going to turn to the cactus and say, ‘you’re not thriving—all the other plants are thriving.’” Chances are you didn’t ask the cactus what it needed.