It’s time to harness neurodiverse talent

26 June, 2023

Not all great minds think alike! Step up and be more inclusive by embracing neurodiversity.

I was recently speaking to an acquaintance who talked about raising her son who is autistic. The young man had persevered to join college. She was lamenting that scant employment opportunities are available for autistic people. Few organisations seemed to be interested in understanding the unique needs or recognising the tremendous potential of such talent.

When it comes to DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts at work, unfortunately one aspect is getting overlooked. And that is neurodiversity. Neurodiversity describes differences in human brain function and cognition, offering the viewpoint that there isn’t one “right” way of thinking, learning and interacting with the world. Simply put, it’s about seeing brain variations as intrinsic and normal — rather than as deficits.

The spectrum of neurodiversity includes dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and social anxiety. Based on some estimates, 10-20 percent of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence. And there are countless examples of neurodiverse individuals who have made amazing contributions in fields such as sports, business, politics, arts, and literature.

This week, my message focuses on embracing neurodiversity at the workplace. What are the benefits of building a neurodiverse workforce, and how can organizations go about it?

Besides being a moral imperative, creating a diverse and inclusive workforce also offers a crucial competitive advantage in areas like innovation, productivity, and culture.

Neurodivergent individuals bring an array of different skills to the table, many of which are highly valued by employers. For instance, pattern recognition, attention to detail, mathematical prowess, visual memory, out-of-the-box thinking, and the ability to focus deeply on complex, repetitive tasks.

Unsurprisingly, greater diversity of thought yields greater creativity. In 2018, a Deloitte study found that companies with inclusive cultures were six times more likely to be innovative and agile. Specifically with regards to neurodiversity, the head of the Autism at Work programme at JPMorgan Chase stated that their employees were 90-140 percent more productive than neurotypical employees.

Managers with neurodivergent team members also reap indirect benefits. As a Forbes article on this topic explains:

Many managers of neurodiverse professionals have reported developing an increased understanding of the individual needs of all their employees, helping them embrace the talents of everyone in their workplace.

Unfortunately, the neurodiverse population remains a largely untapped talent pool, with several barriers preventing them from entering and contributing to the mainstream workforce. The first and biggest challenge is the hiring process. Because neurodivergent individuals behave and interact in different ways, it can be difficult for them to succeed in interviews designed for neurotypicality.

Additionally, to enable neurodiverse employees to shine, workplaces need to make certain adjustments — which many are unaware of or simply unwilling to explore. As a piece published in the Harvard Business Review explains:

Neurodiverse people frequently need workplace accommodations, such as headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation, to activate or maximally leverage their abilities. Sometimes they exhibit challenging eccentricities. In many cases, the accommodations and challenges are manageable and the potential returns are great. But to realize the benefits, most companies would have to adjust their recruitment, selection, and career development policies to reflect a broader definition of talent.

Even when neurodivergent individuals are recruited, they are frequently underemployed. Recent research has uncovered countless instances of highly qualified, highly capable professionals who were hired for junior positions that left them underutilized and unfulfilled — a classic “lose-lose” situation.

Leading the way to a more neurodiverse future

In recent years, several forward-thinking companies have begun to make the changes needed to access neurodiverse talent. Frontrunners include SAP, IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft, HSBC and Bank of America. Nick Wilson, the former managing director of HPE South Pacific — which has one of the largest such programmes — has stated that no other initiative in the organization delivered benefits at so many levels.

Because neurodivergent employees think differently, they can open up valuable new perspectives and solutions. At HPE, for instance, neurodiverse software testers realised that a certain client’s projects always went into crisis mode just prior to launch. Instead of accepting this chaotic scenario as a given, they dug deeper to find the root of the problem and helped to successfully reformat the launch process. At SAP, meanwhile, neurodivergent employees developed a technical fix that saved the company an estimated US$ 40 million.

What does neurodiversity at work look like?

To foster a more neurodiverse workforce, we need to understand what neurodiversity might look like in the workplace. An article in Entrepreneur provides a helpful snapshot:

  • Employee #1 may be mildly autistic but doesn’t show typical symptoms at work. But they may be antisocial which may impact their work relationships.
  • Employee #2 may be neurodivergent and struggle with job interviews. However, once on the job, their skillset shines and they perform outstanding work.
  • Employee #3 may struggle with focusing in noisy environments, but having quiet rooms to work in can support them in producing their best work.

Neurodiverse behaviours can clash with our traditional understanding of “good” employee behaviours. Neurodivergent employees may lack in areas such as communication, emotional intelligence, collaboration and networking. However, they bring other (equally important) strengths to the table! Hence, to harness the gains of neurodiversity, we must expand our understanding of the ways in which team members can add value.

Building a neurodiverse workforce

Companies can take several steps to access and leverage neurodivergent talent. Here are five suggestions to get you started.

1. Talk about it.

Initiating a dialogue is the first step. When leaders, recruiters and team members openly exchange views around neurodiversity, then barriers and stigmas begin to dissipate. Frank discussions around potential benefits, challenges and adjustments will lay the groundwork for embracing neurodiversity within the organization.

2. Rethink hiring.

In general, recruitment processes are developed with a view to scalability. However, applying the same process to everyone can cause us to miss out on neurodiverse talent. As the HBR article mentioned above points out:

Although neurodiverse people may excel in important areas, many don’t interview well. For example, autistic people often don’t make good eye contact, are prone to conversational tangents, and can be overly honest about their weaknesses. Some have confidence problems arising from difficulties they experienced in previous interview situations.

Companies with strong neurodiversity programmes have found it helpful to use non-traditional hiring techniques. For instance, half-day “hangouts” invite neurodiverse candidates to interact informally with managers, followed by a longer-term assessment spread out over a few weeks. While back-to-back interviews on a single day can stress the candidate and fail to reveal their capabilities, extending the hiring process can allow their strengths to surface more naturally.

A paper by Deloitte also emphasizes the importance of orienting recruiters towards neurodiversity:

Recruiters may have unconscious biases; so, it is important to sensitize recruiters and hiring managers to different personality types and alert them against drawing conclusions based on deviations from what may be an expected response related to eye contact, handshake, gestures, etc.

3. Create a supportive environment.

As you move towards a more neurodiverse workforce, the goal should be to customize spaces, processes, and practices to support employees with different needs. Possible adjustments include establishing quiet zones, offering noise-cancelling headphones, and adding a dark-mode option for computer screens. Such provisions, which are mostly simple and relatively inexpensive, can help to make the workplace more conducive for neurodivergent individuals.

4. Provide one-to-one support.

When it comes to accommodating neurodiversity, we cannot take a cookie-cutter approach. Each individual has unique strengths and limitations, which must be taken into account to enable them to deliver their best work. This requires managers to shift their emphasis from compliance and standardization to tailoring individual work settings.

One-to-one discussions allow managers to get a clear picture about the needs of their neurodiverse team members and make necessary adjustments around communication, scheduling, remote work, flexible breaks and so on. Additionally, setting up simple support systems — such as assigning a “team buddy” and a mentor — can provide valuable assistance in areas like workload management, collaboration and career growth. Over time, these people tend to become vital allies and advocates for their neurodiverse counterparts.

5. Train teams and managers.

While neurodiversity is all around us, it isn’t talked about openly. As organizations start actively recruiting neurodivergent candidates, existing employees may find themselves confused about their behaviours. For example, why do they choose to sit alone in their office during office parties? Why are they sensitive to loud noises? Why don’t they want to make small talk?

Basic training can help your neurotypical team members understand these behaviours better and learn how to respond compassionately and respectfully. The HBR piece offers the following suggestions:

Short (some are just half a day), low-key training sessions help existing employees understand what to expect from their new colleagues — for example, that they might need accommodations and might seem different. Managers get somewhat more-extensive training to familiarize them with sources of support for program employees.

Certainly, there is a compelling case for building a neurodiverse workforce. Organizations that seek to build a genuinely supportive and inclusive workplace must start to provide support to individuals with different cognitive styles. Doing so will not only allow neurodiverse employees to get the opportunities that they deserve but also enable organizations to access a vast pool of untapped talent.


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