How could employers think differently about neurodiversity in the workplace?

One of our most-asked questions right now centres around how we accommodate and adjust to neurodivergent employees. Neurodiversity is a hot topic – an overdue acknowledgement of the reality of a varied workforce, and of the value of a range of angles and experiences. But as much as it’s increasingly on our minds, there’s also a lack of understanding about how we can act and enforce proper accommodations for neurodivergent employees, and why we should do so.
There are a number of reasons for this lack of clarity. Neurodiversity is relatively new as a mainstream employment conversation, which means that understanding and action isn’t yet embedded as habit or norm. It’s also an immensely wide spectrum, which covers a huge range of people and needs. That can result in confusion and a nervousness about getting things wrong, which can lead to a reticence about doing anything at all.
It is a legal requirement for employers to provide reasonable accommodations for neurodivergent employees, but these are often upheld very minimally. So what would happen if we thought about it differently? And instead of doing the legal minimum, essentially just ‘covering our backs’, we started creating workplaces which celebrate and encourage the full range of possibilities that a truly diverse workforce can bring?
We reached out to Laura Lenox. Laura is the co-creator and facilitator of Well and Being’s Neurodiversity in Hospitality training. This training is aimed at HR personnel, recruitment teams, learning and development teams, managers and all employees. Learn how to reduce stigma and foster empathy by educating your teams on neurodivergent conditions like ADHD, autism and dyslexia and how to accommodate neurodivergence in the workplace practically to create a more inclusive, supportive, productive and motivating environment.

Hiring differently

Employers should be adopting inclusive mindsets and updating their hiring practices. Educating their workforce on neurodivergence promotes awareness and empathy, which reduces stigma and helps to create a supportive work environment.

During recruitment, employers should prioritise a diverse range of candidates and adapt their interview processes to focus on demonstration of skill, rather than the traditional Q&A style of interviewing, which often bears little resemblance to the typical working day of the role being advertised. Simple tweaks can include job adverts being clear about salary and expectations, interview questions provided in advance, and interviews conducted in comfortable settings, allowing for breaks without judgement. I recently spoke with a hirer in an educational setting, who told me they had a standout candidate in a practical, group exercise, only to find they fell apart when sitting behind a desk facing two interviewers and subsequently exited the recruitment process.

Answering prescriptive questions, in a cold environment, something they will never need to do in the day-to-day role, and more akin to a disciplinary meeting, ended their prospects on this occasion as it ‘had to be’ satisfied on the application form, while the practical element allowing them to demonstrate their skills in a realistic setting, wasn’t enough to override the tick box element – I was stunned! It seemed clear to me that following the practical assessment, in the same or similar room it was conducted in, a conversational interview over a cup of tea would have been far more beneficial for both parties.

Flexible work arrangements, clear communication, sensory-friendly environments are essential. Quiet spaces, frequent breaks, and written communication for important messages are useful accommodations, and where it’s difficult to create the required environment, employees often know what adjustments they need to support them, such as noise-cancelling headphones where possible, tinted glasses, or preferred methods of communication.

Employers can collaborate with agencies that support neurodivergent candidates, who will often support employers in ensuring their adverts are accessible. Perhaps more crucial though is seeking to establish their reputation as a neuro-inclusive employer throughout the lifetime of the employee, not only helping them attract excellent neurodivergent talent, but also support their current staff, many of whom may be neurodivergent, whether they know it or not.

Finally, employers are legally bound to provide reasonable accommodations. Managers should have access to training which supports the management of neurodivergent employees and neurodivergent employees should have access to their required accommodations, utilising initiatives like the Access to Work scheme for necessary support.

Thinking differently

Too much emphasis is placed on the individual to overcome barriers society has created. Neurodivergent people thrive when they are properly supported, it’s impossible for them to do this on their own, yet society and themselves have created the narrative that only we can look after ourselves. Creating an environment which allows people to feel safe ‘unmasking’, and works to reduce sensory overwhelm and emotional dysregulation, so people don’t have to exert an incredible amount of energy on just existing and fitting in, requires acceptance, understanding and collaboration. Requiring those who are already structurally disadvantaged to pull themselves out of a hole they haven’t dug doesn’t work for any marginalised community, it puts the onus back on the individual to succeed and becomes their fault when they don’t. This creates frustrating and distressing experiences in the workplace and can eventually lead to (often unfair) dismissal of neurodivergent employees.

When employers do make an effort to improve the experience of their neurodivergent employees, they often ask everyone but their neurodivergent employees! For example, creating quiet spaces for people to work or have their breaks is a common adjustment employers offer. This can be a great solution for some people, but for others who need to socialise and only get the opportunity to do so through work, yet struggle with sensory input, moving them to a quiet space might be more detrimental to their mental health than it is beneficial to their sensory processing. Providing them with noise reducing, or noise cancelling, headphones is a much more suitable option, allowing them to filter some of the sensory input while still being able to engage in the environment around them. Asking individuals what works for them and being as flexible as possible in fulfilling their support needs is key to creating an inclusive workplace. It’s also crucial to recognise that some people don’t know how to articulate what they need, they should be given time and patient support in figuring this out, bringing in a third party to help them assess their needs and make recommendations if necessary.

Different benefits

Neurodivergent individuals often bring unique perspectives and skill sets but more broadly; a neurodiverse team will always see issues from multiple perspectives, leading to more diverse discussion, analysis, and problem solving, which ultimately contributes to better team dynamics and decision-making.

When employees feel supported and valued, they are more likely to have higher job satisfaction and a stronger commitment to the company they work for. Inclusive policies promote a culture of acceptance and empathy, encouraging all employees to appreciate diverse contributions and ways of working, and signals to neurodivergent team members that their contributions are appreciated.

Being regarded as an inclusive employer enhances brand reputation, not just with potential candidates, but also with clients and within your industry. Companies that openly support neurodiversity attract a wider range of applicants, giving them access to a broader and more diverse talent pool. It positions the company as a forward-thinking, socially responsible entity.

Policies that support neurodiversity, also place companies in good standing by ensuring compliance with anti-discrimination laws, reducing the risk of workplace disputes, and creating a safer and more stable work environment. By cultivating an environment where neurodiversity is understood and supported, companies not only uphold the values of inclusivity and equality but also capitalise on the benefits that a diverse workforce can deliver.

Key advice for people who are seeking to take the first steps to create a positive workplace and career growth for neurodivergent employees:

Understand neurodiversity: Invest time in educating leadership and HR on what neurodiversity means and the wide range of neurotypes that exist.

Develop inclusive policies: Review and revise workplace policies to ensure they are inclusive and flexible enough to meet the needs of neurodivergent employees. Include clear processes for requesting and implementing reasonable accommodations.

Create supportive environments: Look at your work environment through a neurodiversity lens. Simple changes, like providing noise-cancelling headphones, quiet workspaces, offering flexible scheduling or structured routines, and flexible workstation setups can make a significant difference in productivity and wellbeing. Recognise and value the different ways your neurodivergent employees contribute to the company.

Foster open communication: Encourage a culture where employees feel safe to share their neurodivergence (should they wish to) and communicate needs without the fear of stigma or discrimination.

Train management and teams: Provide training that sensitises managers and co-workers to the experiences of neurodivergent individuals. Team members who understand how to support their neurodivergent colleagues contribute to a positive working environment.

Recruitment and onboarding: Adjust recruitment processes to be more neurodiversity friendly. This might include offering written interview questions in advance, using skills-based assessments, providing a clear structure for onboarding and training, and offering a buddy system for new joiners.

Promote neurodivergent leadership: Encourage and support neurodivergent individuals in taking on leadership roles, which can inspire others and bring diverse perspectives to decision-making.

Implement Mentorship Programs: Pair neurodivergent employees with mentors who can guide them in navigating workplace dynamics and career progression.

Above all, listen to your neurodivergent employees, be curious in your approach and flexible in your problem-solving.

And finally –

Oversimplification, generalisation, and poor representation are the challenges presented by talking about something with such a wide spectrum. There are many neurotypes, many neurodivergent people have two or more neurotypes, some neurotypes receive more attention and resources than others, and neurodivergence can manifest in infinite ways. No one can understand or be an expert on everything; so being open, curious, understanding, and accepting of the fact that you might not understand some things, or that it’s a constant learning curve is a great stance to take.

Assuming anyone who is Autistic or ADHD, are the same as all other Autistic or ADHD people, is unhelpful and requires individuals to have an almost expert level knowledge of neurology to explain their neurodivergence and its unique presentation. We often don’t know the ‘why’ but are expected to, to gain access to accommodations that are usually simple, cheap or free to implement. The only thing we should be assuming when someone tells us they are neurodivergent, is that the next questions will be ‘what does this mean for you’ and ‘what support do you think you need from us?’ and then believing them when they give us their answer.

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