A lot of companies have made an effort in recent years to hire a more diverse cadre of employees, but not many have considered creating a more “neurodiverse” workforce, according to a survey out of the United Kingdom.
Neurodiversity is “the natural range of differences in human brain function,” according to the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
“Often, alternative thinking style can be associated with a unique strength... like being able to spot patterns and trends and data-driven thinking or inferential reasoning, being able to see the big picture, and also creativity and innovation,” said Jill Miller, public policy adviser at CIPD in London.
However, only one in 10 HR professionals are focusing on the concept in their staffing efforts, found the survey of 303 people.
“A lot of HR professionals would like more information about how best to hire people (who are) highly neurodivergent individuals and how best to manage people and recruit people, to get the best out of them,” said Miller.
About 10 per cent of the U.K. population is neurodivergent in some way but only 16 per cent are employed full-time, while 77 per cent of autistic persons want to work, according to CIPD, a professional body for HR professionals, with 145,000 members in the U.K., Ireland, Middle East and Asia.
“That’s a really significant number of people,” said Miller. “If we have a better understanding of neurodiversity, we can make sure that we’re helping people to work for us to perform at their best as job applicants (and) we’re not inadvertently screening out some really talented people.”
“We’re already seeing quite a few large organizations that are running new diversity programs and focusing on the unique strength that neurodiverse individuals bring to the workplace,” she said.
The CIPD recently released an employer’s guide (co-authored by neurodiversity training company Uptimize) about tapping into the benefits of hiring workers who are neurodivergent, which includes people with autism, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Creating more neurodiversity in the office can change an entire operation’s way of thinking, according to Cris Brady, neurodiversity consultant and founder of LYV Educational Consulting in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“When you have a neurodivergent thinker coming in and changing the way that things are done or things are thought about, then you can start changing everything that you do at the company,” she said.
“We’ve got so many studies on placing neurodivergent thinkers on to neurotypical teams and seeing the progress that diversity makes, because it’s not just the diversity and gender or culture — it’s a complete perspective shift.”
This finding was reinforced by CIPD in researching the guide, according to Miller.
“What was really interesting actually was that line managers were telling us that by going through this kind of training and having more of an understanding of neurodiversity, the fact that everybody does think differently and experiences work differently, this made them a better manager overall because then they made the effort to understand every single member of the team, whether they were neurodivergent or neurotypical.”
SAP embraces diversity
In 2013, software company SAP decided to tap into this potential workforce by creating an Autism at Work program.
“Many of these people have difficulty finding jobs; they don’t make it through the interview process given different social behaviours. And those challenges are easily remedied, and when you get them into the organization, their skills are just a tremendous fit,” said Kirsten Sutton, vice-president and managing director at SAP Labs Canada in Vancouver.
“For us, it was definitely not just a good thing to do and the right thing to do, but it is a business imperative for us to have a diverse workforce, and the talents of individuals on the autism spectrum fit perfectly into the IT industry.”
SAP’s initiative is now running in 10 countries, at 22 different locations. The company’s three main offices in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto include 12 employees who are on the autism spectrum.
“We’re putting people into many different roles. People would assume it’s just in the software testing where there’s quality assurance of some sort, but they’re across a broad spectrum of roles,” said Sutton. “Everything from marketing specialists and data scientists to IP and compliance rules — it really runs the gamut — all the way through to customer support.”
And SAP’s program yielded instant results.
“The very first cohort of individuals that came in, one of the guys in his first day — first eight hours on the job — found a bug that had been in the software for 15 years and nobody had seen it,” she said. “Day one, way before he’d even finished the eight hours in our organization — their productivity is outstanding.”
SAP has worked with the Pacific Autism Family Network (PAFN) in its endeavour.
“Your first order of business is to find a trusted partner in the local market and work with them because they have the connections into that network of individuals and they know the support systems available and they can help you identify the talent,” said Sutton. “In Canada, in each location where we’re hiring, we have a social partner and we work with them to do the recruiting, find those individuals and help them all through the recruiting and onboarding process and then, in the job, coaching and continuous coaching that goes on.”
Shift in thinking
The hiring process is a challenge for these individuals because many hiring practices are just so archaic, according to Brady.
“We have a description of what we think an employee should be like or what we think a student should be like, and you have fake descriptions like ‘team player,’ and we don’t really know what that means.”
“On what level are you actually playing with the team? Do you need to communicate with them verbally every single day? No, probably not; most teams don’t but it doesn’t state that in the job description, and it implies that you do need to communicate very often verbally, when most likely you might be communicating a couple times a week through email,” she said.
Even for people who are classified as neurotypical, the interview process can be trying, according to Miller.
“When I go into (interviews), I struggle sometimes to think at speed for my answers and I think interviews are typically a test of our recall speed and of social interaction,” she said.
“So some things that I think employers can do to create more of a level playing field is to give people interview questions in advance... it’s not just a neurodivergent adjustment, this is what we call a universal adjustment, so it’s good for everybody.”
More focused wording on job descriptions would go a long way to actually encouraging these people to apply, according to Miller.
“Something that HR needs to look at is job descriptions, because there’s a tendency for employers to write job descriptions that ask for a huge range of skills and we were including great communication skills and things that are not necessarily integral to the job that we want the person to actually do.”
“We need to go down to basics and get line managers and HR to work together to say, ‘Let’s not just reuse job descriptions that we’ve used before, let’s really think about what skills and talents do we want the person doing this job to actually have, what is critical?’ And then ‘What are the nice-to-haves that we’d like?’” she said.
It’s also important for HR and managers to be better educated on what the issue entails, said Brady.
“The neurodiversity programs that are out there right now are catered very directly to people with autism, which is great, but what we’re seeing in education is that when we take a more universal approach to teaching and learning and productivity and the workplace, we catch everyone.”
SAP put its HR departments through a learning process to “ensure that we are true ambassadors of this program and we can convey the value of that to our business leaders,” said Agnes Garaba, head of HR at SAP Canada in Vancouver.
“We also had to do a lot of learning around ‘How do we enable the team that they’re working on to ensure that they understand some special characteristics of people on the spectrum? How can we best support them? How can we create an inclusive environment?’”
So far, according to Garaba, the feedback from HR has been positive.
“We were fully aware that this would come with quite a bit of work and the truth is there had been sometimes situations that were quite tricky to handle.”
“Generally there had been just really an outpouring of support for the program among the HR people,” she said.
“To be perfectly honest, it’s not been always the easiest ride but everybody has seen the bigger purpose and truly the motive behind this program.”
“We’re looking at this program as just a gateway to open the door to many other initiatives to include other groups that are differently abled into our talent pools and bring them to SAP.”
HR departments should foster a “very open mind” to employ these new techniques, said Garaba, because “sometimes HR can be a very traditional line of business and even to the point of being risk-averse.”
“It’s interesting because you could see from that experience, we are taking risks in other areas and then in other ways as well, so it actually has a ripple effect that’s really good for us.”
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