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How to Strengthen Your Workforce With Neurodiverse Talent

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Neurodiversity, an umbrella term for differences in brain functioning within normal variations within the human population, is an emerging area of focus for workplace hiring and retention. Though some cases of neurodivergence can make various tasks difficult (listening, spelling, reading, writing, focusing), neurodivergent employees are critical to creating more diverse workplaces.
Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research recently published a report on embracing neurodiversity. But approximately 10%–20% of the global population is considered neurodivergent—a group often overlooked in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) conversation and hiring efforts. Estimates vary for different neurodivergent types (ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and Tourette’s syndrome), age groups, regions, and geographies.
“Neurodiverse people make up one of the largest underrepresented groups in the workplace,” Kay Sargent, director of Workplace, HOK, noted in this WorkSpace Connect article about creating spaces for neurodiverse employees. Yet, according to SHRM, corporate attempts to improve DEI strategies are “falling short.” To make matters worse, according to Elevating Equity: The Real Story of Diversity and Inclusion, a report published by Amazon Web Services (AWS) based on survey responses from 804 HR professionals, 80% of companies are "only going through the motions [of DEI] and not holding themselves accountable."
The lack of awareness surrounding invisible disabilities requires a wake-up call. Here’s why DEI initiatives include neurodiversity, why you need it, and how to create an inclusive and supportive environment for neurodivergent candidates.
Why You Want (and Need) Neurodiversity in Your Workplace
Research suggests that neurodivergent employees bring a competitive advantage to the workplace with their skills and talents. For example, employees with Asperger syndrome can perform thorough and attentive work because they prefer routine to novelty and exhibit steady focus and repetitive behavior patterns. Employees with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to hyper-focus on topics that interest them. They also tend to work well under pressure, are proactive, and don’t mind adjusting to change.
“Neurodiverse talent can strengthen the overall workforce in many ways: they can help foster diversity of thought, improve work productivity, and drive innovation in products and services,” Brenna Sniderman, managing director, Deloitte, said. Sniderman co-authored Deloitte’s report on neurodiversity and emphasized that teams with neurodiverse professionals in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without them. “With better talent acquisition and an inclusive work culture, organizations can benefit from a larger number of thinkers and problem solvers, thereby strengthening their competitive advantage.”
Lisa Richer, a neurodiversity consultant, spent many years as a human resources (HR) leader. Richer recently had a conversation with a large digital media corporation and asked its head of operations under the DEI umbrella what they are doing for Autism, ADHD, and all other facets when it comes to wellness. The head of operations responded with, “we’re doing things for anxiety and depression.” Richer played devil’s advocate by firing off a series of questions: “Do you have any idea what causes anxiety or depression? Do you know where that potentially is triggered from?”
Richer explained how being Autistic or having ADD/ADHD can lead to anxiety and depression because you don't have access to the tools you need to do your job. These individuals may also not feel comfortable asking questions or feel comfortable speaking up. “To me, it’s not so much about putting the hammer down and enforcing [neurodiversity], because until you educate [yourself] on it, you can’t enforce it.”
She added that it's not about teaching and training because teaching and training entails discussing neurodiversity. To educate on neurodiversity is to embrace the group of people and help them start to understand, reflect, implement, and sustain it.
Without that education, Richer explained that none of the other things ever happen—which is where she emphasizes we fall flat as a world in the DEI space. “We can talk about [neurodiversity] until we’re blue in the face; we can implement something, but until organizations understand what’s in it for them, and what's in it for others who actually implement it and sustain it. Nothing changes.”
Actualize a Neurodiversity-Friendly Work Environment
How can you create an inclusive and supportive environment for neurodiverse candidates while making them feel a sense of belonging? Hiring managers can begin by changing the recruitment, screening, and interviewing processes, raising awareness, understanding, and having conversations about learning and thinking differences, even in the context of disabilities.
Sniderman advised organizations to rethink their recruitment processes to ensure they’re based on competency-based assessments. These allow everyone to demonstrate their skills and capabilities rather than relying on social measures such as an eye contact or handshake. Organizations could also re-evaluate their screening processes to mitigate artificial intelligence (AI) and human biases. “If the AI screening algorithm is built and trained using a majority of neurotypical data, the algorithm could be biased, for instance, against applicants with autism due to atypical facial or speech expressions.”
Employers can also explore multiple interview formats to maximize neurodiverse candidates’ opportunities. “Some organizations provide trial work periods that allow neurodiverse applicants to demonstrate their skills better compared to a rapid-fire interview,” Sniderman said. Some also allow candidates to use their own laptops for tests instead of a whiteboard or a company-provided device so that they feel more comfortable, or hiring managers will arrange collaborative interviews allowing the candidates to meet more employees beyond the interviewers, so that the applicants get to know the organization better, Sniderman explained.
“As hiring is the first step toward neurodiverse inclusion, hiring managers should consciously ensure they’re not boxing neurodiverse candidates in stereotypical roles,” Sniderman said. Once neurodiverse professionals are in the system, Sniderman added, organizations should create an inclusive culture where workers have a sense of psychological safety with the freedom to voice their opinions and work in a manner that maximizes their performance.
The Requirements for Inclusion Will Continue Evolving
“The checklist for success around neurodiversity inclusion will keep evolving as the needs of the workforce evolve,” Sniderman said. “It’s important for organizations to continuously seek feedback from neurodiverse workers and their allies to understand what’s working well and what isn’t so that workplace practices can be best aligned to the evolving needs of the workforce.”
What organizations do to support their neurodiverse employees will have a positive ripple effect on the overall workforce.