The greatest of leaders are skilled at identifying talent. They make room for everyone under their tent and cultivate greatness out of those around them. Unfortunately, many skillful employees, leaders, and team members go unrecognized due to the stigma surrounding disability, mental illness, and chronic illness. According to the University of Washington, “people with disabilities may be denied jobs, housing, or other opportunities due to false assumptions or stereotypes about disabilities…this still occurs today, despite disability rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act” (2016). In response to these disparities, many leaders have moved towards creating workplaces that are neurodiverse, ultimately challenging these stereotypes and creating workplaces ripe with a variety of skill sets, thought processes, and capabilities.
What is neurodiversity?
According to Harvard Health, neurodiversity is “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits” (Baumer & Frueh, 2021). At its core, neurodiversity is acknowledging and appreciating the differences in the ways people think, see the world, and behave. While the term neurodiversity applies to “all people,” it is often used in regards to “autism spectrum disorder, as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities” (Baumer & Frueh, 2021). Neurodiversity challenges the stigma surrounding a variety of groups including those with intellectual, physical, learning, and other disabilities. An important feature of neurodiversity is the understanding that there is no one “right way of thinking” or seeing the world. For example, those with autism spectrum disorder can have “differences in communication, learning, and behavior.” A neurodiverse workplace would acknowledge these differences as valid and valuable to the work environment and team.
Faces of neurodiversity
There are many examples of leaders and employees that have produced great successes and represented the neurodiverse population. Below we outline three specific examples of neurodiversity in the workplace, but recognize that there is a massive variety of successful individuals with intellectual, developmental, physical, and/or other disabilities. Consider the following examples of neurodiversity at work in the world:
Temple Grandin is a prominent American scientist and industrial designer with a specialty in agriscience and agriculture (Britannica, n.d.). She was born in 1947, was unable to talk at 3 years old, and “exhibited many behavioral problems” in her childhood. Later in her life, she was diagnosed with autism. At that time, it was common to place those with autism in institutions. However, her parents refused to do so and “instead sent their daughter to a series of private schools where her high IQ was nurtured.” Instead of stalling her growth in an institution, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, earned a master’s degree, and also earned her doctorate in animal science.
According to Britannica, because of her thought patterns, behaviors, and autism diagnosis, she “possessed an awareness that intense fear, born of a hypersensitivity to sound and touch.” She has used this awareness to revolutionize the agricultural industries and alleviate the anxiety of those with autism and has also applied this understanding to the handling of animals in the livestock industry. She has given the agricultural community several innovations including nonslip entrances, solid false floors, and solid hold-down racks to “eliminate pain and fear from the slaughtering process” of livestock (Britannica, n.d.). Today she is an advocate for the autism community, has written several books, has been honored with a sculpture at the JBS Global Food Innovation Center on the Colorado State University Campus, has been named one of the top 10 college professors in the country, has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and earned the Dole Leadership Prize (TempleGrandin.com).
CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk, shared as he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2021, “I don't always have a lot of intonation or variation in how I speak ... which I'm told makes for great comedy. I'm actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger's to host SNL…” He jokingly explains “I won’t make a lot of eye contact with the cast tonight. But don’t worry, I’m pretty good at running ‘human’ in emulation mode… Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things, but that’s just how my brain works. To anyone who’s been offended, I just want to say, I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?” (Berman, 2021).
According to Autism Speaks, Asperger’s generally involves difficulties with “social interactions, restricted interests, desire for sameness, distinctive strengths, hypersensitivities to sensory, difficulty with conversation and nonverbal communication, uncoordinated movements or clumsiness, anxiety, and/or depression. Asperger’s is also associated with several strengths including a “remarkable focus and persistence, aptitude for recognizing patterns, and attention to detail” (AutismSpeaks, n.d.).
Elon Musk has used the skills associated with his diagnosis to benefit his business. For example, his “remarkable focus and persistence” might be an explanation for his ability to live at his Tesla factory, “fixing robotics as needed late into the night and sleeping under his desk in order to meet the company’s ambitions production goals” and prove profitability. Although his dedication to his work at times concerned those around him, his dedication, high attention, and persistence could be considered an advantage potentially stemming from his character and diagnosis with Asperger’s (Zeetlin, 2021).
There are a variety of individuals that are part of the neurological diversity and disability community that have made great impacts in their places of work. Consider Mohamud, from Puget Sound Personnel. Mohamud has been a Safeway Courtesy Clerk since 2009. He is said to “offer the brightest smile in Seattle.” So much so that customers “ask for him by name to assist them to their cars after he is done bagging their groceries.” He helps escort “the elderly and disabled to their vehicles and returns their motorized carts to the store when finished.” He also quickly responds to clean-up calls and is a “reliable, punctual, and driven” employee. According to Puget Sound Personnel, “Mohamud loves his position at Safeway and is excited to continue working there for many years to come” (Pugest Sound Personnel, n.d.)
Why invest in neurodiversity?
Now that we have an understanding of what neurodiversity is, let’s examine why business leaders should invest in neurodiverse strategies.
Corporate social responsibility
One of the many reasons why employers should invest in neurodiversity is the corporate social responsibility they have towards the communities they serve. Investopedia defines corporate social responsibility as “a self-regulation business model that helps a company be socially accountable to itself, its stakeholders, and the public.” Companies that are socially responsible are “conscious of the kind of impact they are having on all aspects of society, including economic, social, and environmental” (Fernando, 2022). By hiring individuals with disabilities and/or neurological differences, businesses can improve the communities around them and the lives of those hired.
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10.1% of persons with a disability were unemployed. This is about “twice as high as the rate” of unemployment for those without a disability. For those employed, having a job can improve their social life by giving them the “opportunity to be part of a team, make new friends, and engage in workplace activities.” It also allows them to gain more skills, make a difference in the lives of those around them, offer them the chance to achieve financial independence, and increase their emotional wellbeing (Parsons, 2020). All of these benefits can have a positive cascading effect on the societies and culture around a corporation. By investing in the quality of life that those with neurological differences and disabilities have, not only are corporations providing opportunities for them, but they are also providing opportunities for their families, friends, and potentially caregivers to achieve increased independence, confidence, and emotional wellbeing.
Benefits to workplace innovation and productivity
As seen in the examples of the neurodiverse population above, it is clear that those with differences in their abilities and neurological makeup can be excellent team members and employees. According to Deloitte Insights, “one big benefit of an inclusive work culture is that it fosters diversity of thought, different approaches to work, innovation, and creativity” (Mahto et al., 2022). Researchers Timo Lorenz, Nomi Reznik, and Kathrin Heinitz from the Free University of Berlin found that those with autism are associated with “certain strengths and abilities… such as logical reasoning or attention to detail” and that through these strengths, they are “able to find different effective solutions to overcome the barriers detaining them from entering the job market.” They conclude that these findings indicate that those with autism are not “ill or disordered, but rather capable individuals with certain ‘hidden’ potential” (Lorenz et al., 2016). In short, a neurodiverse workplace gives way to diverse perspectives and ideas.
Research from Cambridge University states that “neurodiverse people possess useful talents and are capable of functioning productivity in organizations.” Because of the skills and talents the neurodiverse population has, some neurodiverse employees can “do valuable work for which others lack patience or similar ability.” Researchers also indicated that managers of neurodiverse populations have to “shift their thinking toward designing customized working conditions that maximally activate individual talents; and this thinking, if generalized to all employees, results in great productivity per employee and in aggregate” (Krzeminska et al., 2019). According to Harvard Business Review, when neurodiverse teams are hired, teams are 30% more productive than those without neurodiversity (Austin & Pisano, 2017). The innovation and productivity that a neurodiverse population affords employers can give corporations a competitive advantage against the competition without neurodiverse workforces.
Better representation of customer consumer bases
Research from Cambridge University points out that many businesses who employ neurodiverse populations “cite public relations and marketing advantages that follow from perceptions that a company is ‘doing good’ (Krzeminska et al., 2019). Deloitte Insights points out that today’s “organizations are under pressure to integrate a diverse workforce…” (Mahto et al., 2022). It has been estimated that 15-20% of the population is neurodiverse (Doyle, 2020). By employing those who are a part of the neurodiverse community, business leaders can more accurately represent the populations their goods and services are being sold to. This can help with decision-making, advertising, and customer relations.
Increased pool of job candidates
A key challenge that employers face is the Great Resignation and difficulties hiring new employees. With the neurodiverse population ripe with untapped potential, neurodiverse individuals “could be an integral part of the solution” by helping “employers turn the tide on the current labor shortage” (Mahto et al., 2022). As discussed previously, the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics states that neurodiverse individuals or individuals with disabilities experience “twice as high as the rate” of unemployment than those without a disability (2022). Furthermore, 85% of people with autism are considered “unemployed,” compared to 4.2% of the overall population (Mahto et al., 2022).
Deloitte Insights shares that many organizations are recruiting “directly from a set of colleges and universities that have few or no neurodivergent candidates” and that “only when they cannot find matching talent directly that they partner with employment support agencies to source neurodivergent talent.” By incorporating schools that have programs for neurodivergent individuals into the search for job candidates, employers can increase their pool of qualified applicants. By adjusting recruitment and hiring strategies, business leaders can widen their pool of job candidates and include those with neurodiverse backgrounds.
Companies with neurodiverse policies
One of the best ways to examine neurodiversity in the workplace is by reviewing the success that others have achieved with neurodiverse policies. All of the following examples of neurodiversity in the workplace are from an organization called EARN (Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion) which seeks to advance workforce diversity. Consider the examples below.
By specializing in training for managers and staff, employers and customers on the autism spectrum were made to feel more welcome and included. According to EARN, “In January 2011, FACE partnered with the Autism Society of Minnesota and members of Best Buy's corporate training team to develop a comprehensive eLearning course to educate employees on ways to ensure autistic employees and customers feel welcomed and included.” After creating a training software application, “Best Buy management felt” that their investment “yielded a tremendous return on investment” and employees who completed the training “learned to recognize certain behaviors that coworkers or customers may exhibit as part of being on the autism spectrum and work with them more effectively.”
CVS, the winner of the Excellence in Disability Inclusion Award, has an Employee Assistance Program that has helped employees “adjust to changes in their personal and professional lives resulting from the Covid19 pandemic.” This program includes mental health counselors that are available 24/7 to “support employees and their families members experiencing feelings such as stress, anxiety, or depression.” They found that this not only benefits employees but had a positive impact on “corporate culture.” they also implemented an HR hotline for HR-related questions “including leaves of absence, work from home, and other policies.” They also offered a variety of other resources to employees such as bonuses, a remote working tool kit, transitional assistance, sick leave, and financial grants. The variety of tools CVS provided allowed employees who are neurotypical and neurodiverse to best meet their needs as an employee.
How to invest in neurodiversity
Because of the benefits neurodiversity has on innovation, productivity, customer relations, social responsibility, and hiring processes, it is important to examine how business leaders can invest in neurodiversity.
Implement policies and procedures that support neurodiversity
Employers that implement “awareness training” for all employees within an organization make those who are neurodiverse feel respected and welcomed. Furthermore, employers can also implement “information resources for all staff, mentoring, self-help groups, workplace assessments, and where necessary the use of a specialist advisor who would be available to neurodivergent individuals as well as their line managers” (Bewley & George, 2016). Employers can also clearly state in their employee handbooks the importance that neurodiversity plays in their organization.
Hiring and recruitment processes
To further reduce the barriers to job entry for neurodiverse individuals, employers are recommended to reevaluate their hiring and recruitment processes. For example, instead of having online applications without spell and grammar checking software, “online applications with spelling and grammar checking software can reduce barriers for dyslexia and accommodate those who find computer-based communication easier” (Bewley & George, 2016). Offering multiple application methods is also ideal as it would allow applicants to choose the application method that best suited them (Bewley & George, 2016).
Recruitment and screening
As discussed previously, many employers are failing to recruit job applicants from colleges that have specific services for those who are neurodiverse (Mahto et al., 2022). Businesses can also hire third-party services that work with those who have disabilities or are part of the neurodiverse population. Furthermore, when screening job applicants, it is important to consider the impact that AI hiring systems can have on neurodiverse populations. If an AI machine is created only with neurotypical input, it can have a bias toward neurotypical job applicants (Mahto et al., 2022). It is also recommended that interview processes are examined and adjusted to “focus on the skills needed on the job to keep the conversation closer to reality.” Some organizations are even asking how job candidates would like to be interviewed and offering “trial work periods” that give applicants an opportunity to demonstrate skills" (Mahto et al., 2022).
Supporting those who are neurodiverse in your workplace
Because it is estimated that 15-20% of the population is neurodiverse, employers should consider how they are supporting the employees they have that are neurodiverse (Doyle, 2020).
According to Bewley and George, “problems with under-performance amongst employees with neurological conditions seemed most likely to arise where managers were not aware of their condition, or where the person’s job-role changed” (2016). In organizations with good policies and procedures for those with neurological differences, managerial awareness of neurological differences can help managers best suit an employee’s workplace and resources to best fit their needs. Bewley and George recommend that “there is a need to be sensitive and conscience of whether the employee needs guiding towards a particular resolution, or would want to have an input into this process themselves” (2016). It is recommended that “clear communications on both the individual’s strengths and weaknesses” is used to help employees with neurodiverse backgrounds (Bewley & George, 2016).
Although awareness of an employee’s neurodiverse background can be helpful to managers and “prevent many performance issues” with those with neurological differences, they might hesitate to disclose their diagnosis for fear of stigma. Because of this, it is important that there is a business-wide standard of acceptance of those with neurological differences and that there is no tolerance of the treatment of neurologically diverse individuals in any way that would “limit their career prospects" (Bewley & George, 2016).
Flexibility, inflexibility, tolerance, and compassion
At its core, developing a workforce that is neurodiverse requires flexibility, inflexibility, tolerance, and compassion. Flexibility in work schedules allows those with neurological differences to “take time off for therapy appointments and self-care” (Mahto et al., 2022). Businesses can be flexible in how they make use of “an individual’s abilities” resulting in gains “for both employees and employers” (Bewley & George, 2016).
For some individuals with neurological differences, a set schedule is preferred. Some neurological conditions are associated with a preference for repetition and predictability. Having a workplace that can accommodate both of these needs can be beneficial for those with neurological differences. Additionally, an atmosphere of tolerance and compassion for mistakes, learning periods, and needs can also help those with neurological differences feel more comfortable sharing what resources can make them more successful (Bewley & George, 2016).
It is also recommended that “neurodivergent employees should also be given a sufficient amount of time to get used to adjustments before any further performance management is initiated” and that organizations should make use of “HR specialists… before they initiate performance management procedures” (Bewley & George, 2016).
Connect with organizations that support neurodiversity initiatives
Below we share some of the organizations that work with employers and prospective employees within the neurodiverse community.
The organization EY uses several key strategies to ensure that employees and internship opportunities are inclusive. They use a “consultative approach to respond to accommodation requests from interns and employees.” In their approach, they have learned three key lessons. First, it is vital that employers and employees have “an extensive conversation about any tasks or office structures that will require an accommodation.” Secondly, it is important to acknowledge accommodation requests and “work to address the challenges early on in the internship” or employment. Lastly, it is also important that employers and employees “collaborate to find the right solution that improves work performance.” EY also has an Abilities Strategy Leader who works with interns and employees who require accommodations in a variety of ways. One way she helps these employees “is by talking with them about how to communicate with co-workers about their disability if needed.” EY has also “created several tools for employees with disabilities on communicating with co-workers including a discussion protocol for employees who are deaf or hard of hearing and a handbook for working with non-visible disabilities.”
Chronically Capable works with job seekers who have chronic illnesses and disabilities to “remove the fear and stigma of living with chronic illness or disability from the hiring process.” They provide job seekers with “hand-picked jobs for every ability” while working with organizations that offer “flexible and remote work opportunities from a range of industries.” They also offer job seekers a community of professionals living with chronic illness or disability which has events, resources, and a 24/7 private forum. When working with employers, Chronically Capable gives employers access to “research, unique insights, and tailored recommendations” for their business, direct hire placements based on applicants' “accommodation, needs, and work experience,” and access to federal tax credits “for employers hiring individuals who have consistently faced significant barriers to employment.”
Neurodiversity Hub works to support the untapped talent in the neurodiverse community. They offer neurodivergent students “programs, skills, and experience” that helps them prepare for the workplace. They also offer neurodiverse students assistance in “obtaining work experience and internship” while increasing their “overall employment opportunities.”
The Neurodiversity Hub also works with potential employers, offering them a “pipeline of neurodivergent talent, that are typically creative, quickly learned, task-focused, attention-to-detail oriented, or problem solvers.” They also give employers access to training in “how to work more effectively with neurodiverse people, including employees, customers, and supplies”, increase the “scale and sustainability for neurodivergent employment”, and “reduce the costs of recruitment, assessment, on-boarding, and support.” The Neurodiversity Hub has a variety of “partners, employers, universities, and service providers that support and contribute to programs” which include Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, IBM, and Deloitte.
As business leaders examine the diversity of their workplaces, it is important that employers examine the neurological diversity of their workplace. Employers who invest in neurodiverse strategies are improving their corporate social responsibility, benefiting their business’ innovation and productivity levels, and leading employees who are a better representation of their consumer base. Employers interested in establishing neurodiversity programs within their workplaces are encouraged to implement policies and procedures that support neurodiversity, reexamine the hiring process, and find new ways to support current employees with neurological differences.
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