Neurodiverse people are still underrepresented in the UK workforce, with the latest ONS report finding that disabled people with severe or specific learning disabilities, autism, and mental illness had the lowest employment rates in 2021. Just 22% of autistic adults are employed.
And yet, some of the world’s most successful business leaders are themselves neurodiverse, and hiring neurodiverse people is an excellent way to diversify an organisation’s skillset and benefit specific business goals, such as bridging the digital skills gap.
The strength of a neurodiverse workforce
Every individual experiences neurodivergence differently. For some, it can be a source of strength and aid them in their career. For example, Virgin’s Richard Branson says of his dyslexia: “I simply wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t dyslexic. In the real world, dyslexia can be a huge advantage. Many people with dyslexia have great imaginations, creativity and problem-solving skills.” In addition, Ingvar Kamprad, founder and chairman of IKEA, famously adapted the inner workings of his business to accommodate his ADHD.
Despite this, employers still tend to focus on the perceived challenges of incorporating neurodiverse people into the workforce, rather than acknowledging the unique abilities, talents and skills that neurodivergent people can bring to the workplace. Autistic people can have extraordinary powers of pattern recognition; people with ADHD can have the ability to maintain a deep focus; and many dyslexics have extraordinary spatial reasoning and visual imagination.
As with any type of diversity, neurodiversity also brings a wider range of opinions and mindsets to an organisation. This in turn drives further innovation, positive change and learning. Hiring employees with specific needs based on their neurodiversity, for example, will encourage everyone to think more creatively about the ways in which they work.
Having a more diverse workforce also naturally promotes a more inclusive and welcoming company culture.
How to hire more neurodiverse talent
With 72% of people saying DEI is a major factor in their decision to stay at a company, having an inclusive, diverse workplace has never been more important.
The first step to welcoming more neurodiverse people to your workforce is simple: make them feel welcome and psychologically safe at work. This means that employees feel safe bringing their whole, authentic selves to work, without fear of backlash. Gallup found that having a psychologically safe workplace leads to a 27% reduction in employee turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity. One way to achieve this is by ensuring there are open channels of communication throughout the organisation. Leaders can set the example by being open and transparent, and employees will soon follow suit. In a hybrid work environment, it is especially important to make sure that those working remotely are not left out by ensuring that any digital communication channels work well for all employees.
Organisations may also benefit from implementing specific hiring practices for neurodiverse candidates, such as allowing candidates more time for assessments. IBM, for example, has a specific neurodiversity hiring programme to enable applicants to fully demonstrate their abilities. This programme also helps IBM fill skills gaps within its workforce by opening up opportunities to a broader pool of candidates and removing bias in the hiring process.
Empower your neurodiverse talent
Hiring more neurodiverse talent is just the first step – organisations then need to ensure these employees are able to succeed at work in the long term. This doesn’t mean ignoring neurodiverse employees’ differences or forcing them to work in the same way as everyone else. Instead, organisations should embrace employees’ differences – as these are after all what makes them human.
There are many ways employers can accommodate neurodiverse talent, and find ways of working that suit their strengths. This could be something as simple as providing neurodiverse employees with noise-cancelling headphones when they’re in the office or ensuring that they have access to digital communication channels like Slack so they can interact with colleagues online, rather than face-to-face if that’s more comfortable for them.
The easiest way to ensure success is to ask each individual what would work best for them. Leaders should also seek out external expertise for answers on how best to meet neurodiverse employees’ needs on a company-wide level. Neurodiversity Hub, for example, offers a directory of resources for employers.
Continuous Performance Development is a great way to ensure all employees are succeeding and happy at work. Checking in with employees on a regular basis, rather than just once a year, can have a huge impact on their engagement and productivity, as managers are always able to keep an eye on how employees are doing, both from a productivity and personal perspective.
Focus on culture
In the long term, the most effective way to ensure that neurodiverse talent feels welcomed and included in your organisation is to prioritise building a culture of connection and belonging for all employees.
Peer-to-peer social recognition programmes – through which employees recognise each other’s hard work from a central platform – work particularly well, as they encourage everyone to show their gratitude for one another, thereby fostering a positive culture of mutual appreciation throughout the organisation. Global commercial operations leader Conga, for example, decided to implement a rewards and recognition strategy to support its company culture framework, the Conga Way. The resulting platform, Conga Stars, saw immediate success, with 650 recognition moments recorded after just one week. Such programmes are especially helpful in connecting colleagues still working from home.
Recognition is especially powerful when it is used to not only celebrate work achievements, but also life events such as marriage, children, and birthdays. Workhuman’s recent research in partnership with Gallup found that when an employer recognises life events and work milestones, employees are:
- Three times as likely to strongly agree that they feel connected to their company culture
- Three times as likely to strongly agree that their organisation cares about their wellbeing
- Over 30% more likely to say they plan to be at their organisation in five years
When it comes to empowering diverse talent, it is especially important that leaders ensure that recognition across their organisation is equitable. Recognition can reflect inclusivity at an organisation, or reveal underlying attitudes and biases – with serious consequences for employee experience and wellbeing. To ensure an equitable experience, organisations can use AI-powered data analysis to identify and mitigate unconscious bias in recognition programmes.
As with any form of diversity, focusing on hiring and retaining more neurodiverse talent will strengthen your organisation by providing a broader pool of knowledge, experience and skills. Employees will be most able and willing to bring their unique talents to a workplace that first takes the time to understand their needs, provide the necessary resources and accommodations, and ensure an inclusive and welcoming culture for all.
By Niamh Graham, Senior Vice President of Global Human Experience, Workhuman.