CIPD Voice: Issue 13

We are really pleased to be working with Uptimize – pioneers of neurodiversity through online learning – to develop a guide for HR professionals and employers to embrace neurodiversity at work, to be published next year.

Neurodiversity refers to the infinite variety of human neurocognitive styles. While societies have often celebrated biodiversity and cultural diversity, aspects of human neurodiversity such as autism, dyslexia, and ADHD have long been considered as medical disorders, with attention focused on how to overcome these differences. The new perspective of the ‘neurodiversity paradigm’ sees these as natural differences in thinking style that can lead to strengths, as well as challenges, in the workplace. There is much discussion about the benefits of ‘diversity of thought’ for organisations, and we at the CIPD are excited to see how our empirical understanding of the benefits of workplace neurodiversity evolves.

We’re increasingly hearing the term ‘neurodiversity’ used to describe the emergent subcategory of workplace diversity and inclusion that is focused on better including people with alternative thinking styles. Neurodivergent people, as is increasingly recognised, can bring a variety of unique strengths to their work – from creativity and insight, to outstanding information processing, data-driven thinking, and an ability to focus on tasks over long periods. Less well understood – yet exciting – is the potential creative power of neurodiverse teams.

“Much of the business case for diversity as a whole rests on the concept of ‘diversity of thought’”, says Uptimize CEO, Ed Thompson, whose firm is already supporting neurodiversity-at-work programs at firms such as Microsoft, Google, and JPMorgan. “Most companies say innovation is a priority. Do you have a talent strategy to achieve that? Organisations that thrive in the future are likely to be those that make the most of people’s unique strengths and skills, especially for the complex individual and collective work that can’t easily be automated. A smart step is to recognise the importance of diversity of thought – and the potential of people who literally think differently”.

As yet, though, few organisations are seeing the potential of a neurodiverse talent pool. One reason is that attention has focused far too much on the challenges often associated with neurodivergence in the workplace, rather than on the strengths. However, four main factors are helping to turn the tide:

  1. There is a greater awareness of the prevalence of people who are neurodivergent in some way. This has resulted from higher diagnostic rates over the past two decades – most notably in the US – as well as the cultural influence of books, plays and TV series that highlight the reality of neurodiversity and the prevalence of neurodivergence. Data on the total number of neurodivergent people in the UK is hard to come by, but the figure is thought to be 10% or more – likely representing a significant proportion of employees, job seekers, and customers.

  2. Celebrities have been openly discussing their neurodivergence - and often in positive terms. For example, Sir Richard Branson has talked about dyslexia being a reason for his success, rather than a hindrance, stating in his blog: “dyslexic people can be hugely creative in identifying solutions to problems, and to coming up with new ways to tackle challenges… Many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, artists, and tech professionals are dyslexic – yours truly included. From my own experience, I know that dyslexic people can achieve great things when they focus on their strengths and get the right support in school.”

  3. There has been a profound shift in the way neurodiversity is understood. The so-called ‘neurodiversity paradigm’ has challenged the orthodoxy of the highly medicalised framing of autism, ADHD and other conditions - presenting them instead as natural forms of human neurocognitive variation. This has led to a more balanced perspective, with an increased appreciation for unique strengths, as well as potential challenges, when navigating a society (including workplaces) typically shaped largely, or exclusively, for neurotypicals.

  4. The ongoing, global search for talent. According to Manpower, 40% of global employers are struggling to find the talent they need. With competition for talent, organisations are starting to look outside of their traditional talent pools for competitive advantage. Given the high prevalence of neurodivergent individuals – and the strengths they can bring to the workplace – this represents a significant, largely untapped talent pool. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review states that unemployment is high among the neurodivergent population and even when in work, talented people are often underemployed. In short, there is a growing recognition that talented neurodivergent people have been underutilised both in terms of access to work and in-work progression.

How do we make workplaces neurodiversity-smart?

On the whole, workplaces and people management approaches have been designed with ‘neurotypicals’ in mind. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments to support disabled job applicants and employees. This means ensuring disabled people can overcome any substantial disadvantages they may have doing their jobs and progressing in work’. It’s important to seriously consider reasonable adjustments as a matter of course so you can ensure your workplace is inclusive. In fact, many adjustments organisations are making to support neurodivergent employees can actually benefit all employees. Who wouldn’t want clear communication, a quiet space to concentrate, and a management style that considers individual needs?

Increasing the inclusiveness of your attraction approach, making role descriptions as clear and concise as possible, and avoiding jargon, is important and can benefit all applicants. Job descriptions should be very clearly demarcated into ‘must have’ and ‘nice-to-have’ skills and experience. Strategically assessing your entire current hiring processes can be a valuable exercise, addressing questions such as what the right mix is between recruiting for generalist skills, or people with outstanding abilities.

Another part of the recruitment process to consider is the fact that the conventional face-to-face interview is often largely a test of recall and ‘social competence’. Such a form of assessment can put some neurodivergent people at a disadvantage, making it harder for them to demonstrate the skills and talent required in the job and often leading to them being excluded for roles that they might have been right for. For example, some people may be overly honest about weaknesses, struggle with eye contact, or lack confidence due to negative experiences in the past.

There are of course many other aspects of the working environment and workplace culture that also need careful thought. We have found, though, that relatively simple and low-cost action often can go a long way towards creating a workplace that works for everyone. Organisations with neurodiversity-at-work programs are also reporting wider benefits, beyond those initially sought.

“Neurodiversity inclusion is really about a complete shift in perspective – not just relating to neurodivergent people, but relating to all employees, job applicants, and customers”, says Thompson. “Once you acknowledge that everyone has a unique brain – and one that predisposes them to certain strengths, and certain challenges, as it relates to their work – then it makes sense that many of the accommodations made to include neurodivergent people are likely to be ‘universal’ accommodations benefiting everyone”.

How can you find out more?

The CIPD/Uptimize Guide to Neurodiversity at Work, to be published in the coming months, will provide an overview of common forms of neurodivergence (including autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and more) as they relate to the workplace. The guide will include the rates of these conditions in the UK, common characteristics associated with each, examples of strengths that such individuals may bring to their work, as well as some of the common challenges faced at work by people with one of these alternative thinking styles.

The latter half of the guide will give practical examples of what you need to consider, within your people management approach and in terms of workplace design, to make your organisation neurodiversity-smart. It will highlight what employers need to think about to ensure they’re not excluding people through their attraction and recruitment process, and that they are enabling people to play to their strengths and reach their potential at work. The guide also features a range of case studies from global employers to illustrate what such organisations are doing to provide inspiration for practice.

Jill Miller

Dr Jill Miller, Research Adviser

Jill Miller joined the CIPD in 2008. Her role is a combination of rigorous research and active engagement with policy makers, academics and practitioners to inform projects and shape thinking. She frequently presents on key people management issues, leads discussions and workshops, and is invited to write for trade press as well as offer comment to national journalists, on radio and TV. She specialises in diversity and inclusion, employee well-being, people management in SMEs and future HR trends.

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