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Executive Search Topics: How To Be A Neuro-Inclusive Leader

May 2021
Eleri Dodsworth
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Embracing neurodiversity is a crucial part of successful D&I policy

Humanity is neurodiverse; we all have unique brains. Neurodivergence is defined as having a brain that functions in ways that differ significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal” or neurotypical. Neurodivergent broadly refers to the community of people who have autism, ADHD, ADD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, or other neurological conditions.

Many neurodivergent people do not appear “different” to society’s perception of a neurotypical individual. The pressure to conform means many people learn to “mask” to fit in and/or feel that they are unable to disclose to their employer that they are neurodivergent. Much of the world is designed for neurotypical people, and many neurodivergent people find their progress in life hampered by expectations that they will behave in the same way. Consequently, they can be misunderstood and fail to reach their potential.

Combined with the media’s stereotypical portrayal of neurodivergence, this means that many organizations remain largely ignorant of the reality, let alone the capabilities of these individuals.

“Organizations who embrace the spectrum of neurodivergence can play their part to make sure this important part of society is not overlooked in the hiring process and given equal opportunity in the workforce.”

For executives, an understanding and consideration of neurodiversity is a crucial part of a successful policy of diversity and inclusion. Organizations who embrace the spectrum of neurodivergence can play their part to make sure this important part of society is not overlooked in the hiring process and given equal opportunity in the workforce.

Globally, the number of neurodivergent people is estimated to be around 20% of the population (1% of whom have autism.) The recent Office for National Statistics 2021 UK report revealed that only 21.7% of people with autism are in employment, and they are the least likely to be in work of any other “disabled” group. These figures can only reference diagnosed/declared cases, and there remain many undiagnosed people, particularly among females and older generations. Regardless, these figures are concerning, particularly as the report highlights that these differently abled people are also likely to be underpaid, poorly supported, and less likely to be in senior roles.

Some companies such as Microsoft, SAP, Google, JP Morgan, and GCHQ are very supportive and actively promote and attract neurodivergent employees. For example, GCHQ seeks to employ people with dyslexia, as it values their pattern recognition skills – vital for sifting through huge amounts of data to prevent terrorist attacks. Organizations like these have already recognized that this can be an enormous competitive advantage, well worth the small adjustments to make workspaces and work processes neuro-inclusive.

Sadly, these businesses are in the minority, and many are missing out on the opportunity to benefit from the strengths that neurodivergence can bring to the workplace. As a parent of a child with autism and a passionate advocate for equality, I want to do what I can to change this and encourage organizations around the world to build neuro-inclusive cultures and diverse teams where everyone can belong.

My aim is that this guide will educate and empower leaders to feel more confident in hiring neurodivergent talent – replacing labels and fear with the knowledge and courage to act now.

Why Employ Neurodivergent Individuals?

Just like neurotypical people, neurodivergent people are unique individuals with differing strengths and weaknesses. It is important to try to understand their needs and what may cause them difficulties while appreciating what benefits and fresh ways of thinking they can bring to the workplace. In addition to their qualifications for a particular role, they are often:

A great source of innovation, creativity, and ideas

Business success is often about being different from the competition, and neurodivergent brains are wired differently and sense the world in alternative ways so can be a great source of innovation. They can be highly creative and can be integral in the creation of new and different products and ideas.

Fantastic problem solvers

They can make connections that others do not see and come up with new approaches to tricky problems. These fresh solutions to problems and innovative ways of doing things can help a business to grow. 

Able to focus intensely

They can have a great eye for detail and may spot and recall points that others miss. Their memory can be phenomenal.

Loyal employees highly committed to your business

They can be very caring, passionate, and committed about what they believe in, although they may not demonstrate their feelings outwardly in ways that you are used to.

Not afraid to uphold justice by speaking up

They often cannot help themselves from challenging injustice wherever they find it, so they will strive to see their colleagues and customers treated fairly and will not be afraid to speak up when necessary or challenge the status quo.

Well educated and qualified

Many neurodivergent people can be highly intelligent and astute, particularly when they can freely dedicate their energy to their work rather than using their energy on masking to fit in.

How To Hire Neurodivergent Individuals

A few small adjustments to working environments and practices can make neurodivergent employees incredibly valuable as they bring highly sought-after skills and ideas to businesses – and this is not just limited to the technology sector.

You can start by:

Looking critically at your hiring process.

Ensure that role descriptions and adverts are as clear and concise as possible. Avoid jargon, differentiate between core skills and ‘nice-to-have’ skills, and include a diversity and inclusion statement clarifying that you are happy to discuss reasonable adjustments – this signals that your organization welcomes candidates with different identities and thinking styles. Ensure you adhere to this statement.

Being open-minded.

Avoid penalizing neurodivergent applicants for patchy education or work history; they may never have previously had a supportive working environment. Overly tough critique of a spelling error in a CV or application form may mean you unintentionally screen out talented people with dyslexia.

Abandoning the traditional interview.

An interview can be difficult as some can struggle with conventional social skills such as eye contact and small talk and find unfamiliar people and settings challenging. This, combined with the effort of sitting still for long periods of time and the pressures we all feel in job interviews, may often lead to them giving a poor account of themselves. A much better way of assessing suitability would be a combination of their written application, reports or references from other employers, and sample tasks related to the requirements of the job. Work trials can also be highly effective; remember to always ask about any special requirements the individual may have.

Assessing aptitude for the role.

Interviews only assess how good candidates are at interviews, rather than assessing a candidate’s aptitude for a role. Ensure you assess their capability to do the job, not the interview. Give information about the specific areas that will be covered in any assessment and allow the candidate to refer to notes.

Providing detailed information in advance of any meeting.

Think about the noise and space where a meeting is due to take place and give plenty of advance information about any meeting or assessment. This includes describing the environment that it will take place in; the length of the meeting; information about the process; providing a map, transport, and parking information or, if online, arranging a time to check that the link works to ease any anxiety.

Using a diverse panel of decision makers.

Whatever process you are using to hire, always involve a diverse team in the decision making. It is so important to check for bias (conscious or unconscious) in any type of assessment and question whether the skills that you are assessing align to the role.

Avoiding words, phrases, or questions with double meaning.

Think about the vocabulary that you use and try to avoid words or phrases with a double meaning such as “flexible” or “we need you to hit the ground running.” Do not make open-ended requests such as “tell me about yourself.” Some neurodivergent individuals, particularly those with autism, may interpret this very literally.

Asking for feedback.

Request candid feedback from those who have been through your processes to understand how it made them feel and continually strive to improve the experience for all candidates, whether neurodivergent or neurotypical.

“A few small adjustments to working environments and practices can make neurodivergent employees incredibly valuable as they bring highly sought-after skills and ideas to businesses.”

How To Retain And Get The Best From Neurodivergent Employees

Listen, try to understand, and act on what they say.

This is the simplest and most effective way to retain any employee. While there are some common threads among many employees, there is no single issue faced by all. Tailor your approach to the individual and, if relevant, make the time to explain any unwritten rules.

Adapt the work environment.

Physical surroundings can be a significant factor in performance as many suffer from sensory issues that can make it difficult to concentrate. For example, sounds – such as numerous voices in a large open-plan office or the hum of a nearby air-conditioning unit – may be difficult to ignore. Alternatively, a very white or bright space, fluorescent lighting, or the smells from a nearby kitchen may also cause problems for some. All of these are usually relatively straightforward to address but will only come to light by asking the person concerned.

Encourage frequent breaks.

Sensory saturation can limit the capacity to think clearly, so having frequent breaks allows the brain to reset and refresh.

Offer remote working.

Where possible, remote or hybrid working arrangements should be offered as an alternative to the office environment.

Accept that people work in different ways.

Accept differences; some may work in intense bursts followed by periods where they appear to do very little but deliver just as much work, if not more, overall. They can also become hyper-focused on a piece of work to the extent that they do not respond to being spoken to or the phone ringing.

Provide clear instruction and feedback.

Neurodivergent people can often think very literally and may not be good at understanding body language or tone of voice; this can be particularly applicable for people with autism. Provide clear and specific instructions of what is expected from them and precise, constructive feedback on their performance. In return, accept that their own words may seem blunt and direct at times as they tend to be driven by the need for clarity.

Autistic inertia

People with autism may also appreciate help in getting going on a new task, as an effect known as autistic inertia can make starting anything difficult at times. Once focused, the problem is generally resolved.

Face-to-face communication

Meetings may be tricky. Always provide an agenda in advance and offer alternatives to group meetings, such as one-to-ones, and follow up requests made in meetings with emails. Some people prefer to communicate by text-based methods such as email where possible. Ascertain their preference and try to accommodate.

Provide mental health and well-being support.

Many may struggle with the balance between sleep, diet, exercise, and rest. Ensure a proactive support network is available such as a mentor, sponsor, or coach.

C-suite advocacy

Senior leadership need to get involved and champion neurodivergence. Make it clear that the organization both embraces it and takes it seriously.

Create inclusive teams.

Consider the workforce as a whole and facilitate coaching and training to allow others to understand. It is incredibly important that colleagues are educated so that everyone on the team can be respectful, supportive, and inclusive.

If leaders can embrace everyone as individuals and adopt a person-centric approach, we will create inclusive cultures where everyone can be themselves, reach their potential, and feel that they belong.

Neurodivergence is a natural and valuable form of human diversity. If you can see past the false preconceptions that exist, there is a wealth of unique talent seeking employment that could be an enormous asset for your organization. Start tapping into this rich source of talent before your company gets left behind.

It takes a global village; please play your part and help close the employment gap.

About the Author:

Eleri Dodsworth is a Partner at the London office of Stanton Chase and Regional Leader of the firm’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Practice for Europe, Middle East, and Africa. Eleri also represents the firm on the AESC Diversity Leadership Council for Europe and Africa. She is a passionate, active, and vocal supporter for equality within employment and works to educate and support leaders in the creation of inclusive cultures and diverse teams.

Eleri co-authored this guide with Mark Palmer, a copywriter and neurodivergent individual with autism.

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