March 6, 2023

Neurodiversity in the Workplace: What Employers Should Know

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Tags: HR

Key takeaways

  • Neurodiversity describes the fact that every person relates to others and the world differently.
  • Applying a standardized approach to talent acquisition and management hampers a company’s ability to innovate.
  • Hiring neurodivergent people adds value to an organization by boosting productivity, innovation, morale, and product quality.

Recruiting, retaining, and nurturing neurodivergent talent means embracing a wider range of skills and abilities. Companies like Microsoft, SAP, and HPE can attest to the competitive advantages that come with nurturing neurodivergent job candidates and employees.

What is neurodiversity in the workplace?

Neurodiversity acknowledges that individuals think, learn, behave, and interact with the world around them in different ways. People who have been evaluated and diagnosed with the following conditions typically fall along the neurodivergent spectrum:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Asperger syndrome
  • Down syndrome
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Dyslexia

In interpersonal situations like an interview or a brainstorming session, neurodivergent people may interact or behave in ways that stray from the dominant social norms that neurotypical individuals might come to expect. These aspects of social interaction might include eye contact, enthusiasm, verbal communication skills, and other soft skills. 

As a result, neurodivergent individuals are typically misunderstood or underestimated in their abilities in the workplace. This has a real impact on recruiting, for example. When assessing candidates’ emotional intelligence and verbal communication skills, a recruiting team might have unconscious biases against neurodivergent candidates if they’re uninformed about the range of ways an individual might engage in an interview.

This impact isn’t hypothetical. Neurodivergent individuals make up an often overlooked talent pool with an unemployment rate of 30–40%, according to the University of Connecticut’s Center for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation. Furthermore, the 2020 Workplace Neurodiversity Report from The Institute of Leadership & Management revealed that half of surveyed leaders and managers said they would be uncomfortable hiring someone with one or more neurodivergent conditions.

Persistent misconceptions and stigma about neurodivergent people’s capabilities stem from the norm of neurotypicality that is taken for granted. Neurotypicality might be the most dominant way people experience work, socialization, and other aspects of life, but it’s not the only — let alone the best — way.

Plus, neurodivergence and neurotypicality are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they present a spectrum that captures a wide breadth of neurological differences.

Carrying prejudices about neurodivergent people into the workplace starves a company’s creative and innovative potential. A company, its employees, and the neurodivergent individual themselves all benefit from employing differently-abled employees.

Also read: Strategies for Cultivating a Diverse Talent Pool

The benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace

Neurodivergent workers’ strengths in areas like visualization, concentration, persistence, pattern recognition, and creative thinking, as well as attention to and memory of detail, help uncover ideas and opportunities that others miss. These strengths challenge neurotypical employees to think outside of the box and enable businesses to be more competitive through innovation.

Productivity

Neurodivergent employees often bring greater productivity to their teams. For example, the head of JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work program said employees with autism were generally “90–140% more productive” than their neurotypical counterparts and made fewer mistakes. This increased productivity and attention to detail can often be linked to some neurodivergent employees’ abilities to concentrate more diligently on their tasks.

Innovation

Neurodivergent employees contribute creative ways to solve problems, improve processes, reduce downtime, and deliver better quality services and products to customers. For example, a neurodivergent customer support analyst at SAP found a way to let customers crowdsource solutions to common problems. This led to quicker solutions for customers and fewer support tickets generated.

Morale

Intentional efforts to include neurodivergent professionals boost employee morale across the board, and implementing changes to cultivate a more inclusive workplace ultimately benefits all employees. Managers, for example, report being better at their jobs as a result of adapting their communication styles and approaches to various employees.

Hiring

Companies have found success in hiring neurodivergent workers in high-demand, hard-to-fill roles in fields such as cybersecurity, data analysis, and software engineering. These employees often demonstrate strengths in pattern recognition and hyperfocus, which allow them to detect irregularities, errors, and other mistakes faster and with more precision. In this context, recruiting from a neurodiverse talent pool increases competition for these roles.

How to embrace neurodiversity in the workplace

A company that’s serious about valuing neurodiversity among its workforce must move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to talent management. This means rethinking work processes and environments in more inclusive ways that benefit the entire workforce.

Tailor communication styles

Managers of neurodivergent employees should consider the unique needs and communication styles of each of their employees to better set them up for success. Some employees might need clear, multi-step instructions once, while others might need instructions on a step-by-step basis. Some may prefer verbal interactions, while others may prefer asynchronous, written communication.

It’s also helpful to emphasize the action words of a task that make it clearer what the employee needs to do. For example, instead of giving broad instructions to “publish this press release,” the manager might instruct the employee on the various steps that go into publishing the press release: interview a subject matter expert or [X person] about [Y topic], draft a statement, consult with the public relations team, and post to the press page.

Managers also need to be clear and direct about the outcome they expect from their employees. They should have realistic expectations that challenge the employee without overwhelming them.

The way a manager explains instructions and expectations will depend on the employee’s background and strengths which become clearer over time as the manager builds the relationship with the employee. In any case, managers shouldn’t assume their employees intuitively know something they haven’t previously been told.

Make small, but impactful changes to the work environment 

The work environment can make all the difference in setting up any employee, but especially neurodivergent employees, for success. Reasonable accommodations for a workplace that’s in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) include but aren’t limited to:

  • Flexible work schedules and settings.
  • Quiet workspaces.
  • Adjustable lighting in workspaces.
  • Closed-captioning in video calls.
  • Noise-canceling headphones.

Provide specific feedback often

Managers should take care to provide feedback to their employees on a frequent basis. This avoids a pattern of only giving feedback when things are going right or wrong. When a manager only reaches out when something goes wrong, the points of contact can produce more anxiety in the employee.

Additionally, since some neurodivergent people have perfectionist tendencies, managers should be sure to praise the employee for what they’ve done well while tactfully yet clearly describing the areas where they can improve. This might mean pointing to concrete examples in their work where they did well and where they fell short.

Use clear language

Company-wide communication should be clear and direct, avoiding irony, innuendos, and other stylistic devices that distract from the core message. However, in individual interactions, company leaders should follow a similar approach to middle managers and adjust their communication style depending on the person and setting. This helps them strike a balance between professionalism and approachability. 

Be aware of neurotypical biases

In many cases, neurotypical expectations cause managers and leaders to perceive neurodivergent behaviors as negative, especially in social settings. Managers and leaders should be aware of the differences that comprise neurodiversity and work to unlearn biases that favor neurotypical standards.

For example, some employees may use eye contact, while others avoid it. Some thrive at social events, while others prefer to be alone. In these instances, employees may appreciate the option to conduct virtual meetings with cameras off and participate in various engagement activities at their discretion.

Furthermore, some employees might have unconventional methods of staying focused and absorbing information in meetings.

For example, some employees may need something to keep their hands occupied during meetings, like a fidget toy, some sensory dough, or a piece of doodling paper. Others may need to take frequent breaks to stand up and walk around instead of sitting in one place for extended periods of time.

These differences shouldn’t be taken personally, nor should a company’s culture value some communication styles more than others.

Personalized talent management nurtures neurodiversity in the workplace

Companies benefit from understanding and embracing the range of ways people relate to each other and the world. Fostering neurodiversity in the workplace boosts productivity, innovation, morale, retention, and product quality.

When company leaders and managers adjust work processes to accommodate employee preferences and strengths, neurodivergent and neurotypical employees alike benefit from the strategies described above. Though some changes require more effort upfront than others, the benefits are worthwhile to cultivate a better, more inclusive workplace for all employees.

Read next: Gen Z Values and How Companies Can Prepare for the Workplace of the Future

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