Diversity & Inclusion, Recruiting, Talent

Neurodiversity Is an Untapped Pool of Immense Potential

Neurodiverse individuals have perspectives, skills, and talents that can provide organizations with a competitive edge. Hiring and supporting neurodiverse employees creates a more equitable, inclusive, productive, and innovative workplace.

neurodiverse talent

What Exactly Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is the range of differences in brain function and behavioral traits. Neurocognitive variation and differences can include individuals with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, intellectual disability, and schizophrenia, as well as “typical” neurocognitive functioning. Neurodivergent individuals are those whose brain functions differ from those who are neurologically typical, or neurotypical.

So Why Don’t More Organizations Hire Neurodiverse Talent?

Reason 1: Familiarity

We hire who’s familiar and is a culture fit versus thinking about how to hire a culture-add to strengthen our teams and organization. Culture-adds bring in more diverse perspectives and innovation and ultimately contribute to increased revenue.

Interestingly, a 2015 Cambridge University study found that “people working in science and engineering jobs are more likely to have autistic-like traits than less technical professions.”

Reason 2: Traditional Interview Expectations

Standard interviews aren’t always the best way for candidates to show how they shine, but that’s the method used. Interviewers look for traits like strong communication skills, ability to network and build relationships easily, ability to be a team player, and emotional intelligence. While these traits are important, they need to be balanced with others; if not, the end result just promotes more of the same type of workforce.

Here are a few questions for you to explore:

  • What are the traits and skills your organization needs? Is this list really accurate, or does it conform to how you typically look/have always looked at things?
  • How can you ascertain what you need from a candidate outside of a “standard interview”?
  • Is your job description neurodiverse-friendly so people even pay attention?
  • Is your culture inclusive enough to attract neurodiverse talent?

Reason 3: Lack of Experience

Their leaders don’t know how to support the needs of neurodiverse talent. And the reason for this is they haven’t had to before. When leaders are provided with tools and best practices, they and their neurodiverse team members succeed.

According to Harvard Business Review,A growing number of prominent companies have reformed their HR processes in order to access neurodiverse talent; among them are SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft, Willis Towers Watson, Ford, and EY. Many others, including Caterpillar, Dell Technologies, Deloitte, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and UBS, have start-up or exploratory efforts under way.” What does your organization need to succeed in this area?

What Are Specific Advantages to Hiring a More Neurodiverse Workforce?

Advantage 1: Innovation

As noted in the “Neurodiversity in the Workplace” report, “As children at school and now adults in the workforce, neurodiverse participants spoke of the constant need to develop creative solutions to manage the challenges presented by a world designed for neurotypical people. As a result, several of the participants spoke of their creativity at work, their unique way of finding solutions to difficult problems, and their entrepreneurial spirit. For some, the typical work environment didn’t accommodate their unique perspective and they set out to start their own businesses. The three participants who had done so had very successful careers, navigating the challenges, free to adapt as they needed to.”

Advantage 2: Efficiency

Hiren Shukla, Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence leader at EY, explained how processes that took 2 to 3 hours were reduced to just 2 minutes, thanks to programming by members of the company’s neurodiverse workforce. These employees were able to see inefficiencies that neurotypical employees had either become used to or never even noticed. “Their thought process and their delivery are different to what we are used to,” Shukla said.

Advantage 3: Loyalty

As the report “5 Benefits of Hiring Neurodiverse Staff” indicates, “We are loyal and change jobs less often. Neurodiverse people tend to be quite loyal to their employers and are more likely to stay in a job long term. Provided the working environment is supportive, accepting and inclusive, your neurodiverse hire will likely stick around. Recruitment is expensive and staff turnover can significantly impact productivity. Goldman Sachs recently announced their plans to run a neurodiversity hiring program and recognized our ‘often higher retention rates’ as a benefit to hiring us.”

So How Do We Attract and Retain Neurodiverse Talent?

Strategy 1: Enhance your hiring process to be more inclusive. 

The neurodiversity report recommends paying attention to key aspects within the hiring process, such as “Avoid long application forms – be willing to speak to candidates on the phone or send a CV and cover letter if easier. Avoid on the spot forms or timed tasks at interviews.”

Strategy 2: Enhance your onboarding process with neurodiverse needs in mind.

Communicating clearly is a top priority, according to “How to successfully onboard your new autistic employee.” “For the autistic individual, the onboarding experience can be overwhelming because there is a lot of information — usually delivered verbally — to process and absorb. For example, I don’t instinctively read between the lines and I find it easier to understand information that is precise and direct. That’s not to say I need you to over-simplify my tasks or patronize me. I’m someone who doesn’t make assumptions and I base every decision on evidence — that’s a good thing! I need you to meet me halfway by communicating as clearly and directly as possible.”

Strategy 3: Provide relevant resources for the employee and leader to succeed.

Be informed—learn about the specific neurodiversity, and don’t rely on your assumptions. According to “How to get the best out of your autistic employee,” “Clarify your expectations of the role. Instructions should be concise and specific. Provide patient and ongoing training and monitoring. Create a well-structured work environment. Regularly review performance. Provide sensitive but direct feedback. Provide reassurance in stressful situations. Avoid dismissive language, for example: ‘not a big deal’, ‘don’t worry about it.’”

An understanding employer, an active leader, and supportive colleagues who take the time to understand a neurodiverse employee and support his or her strengths and needs will be rewarded with an outstanding employee.

Strategy 4: Check in quarterly to understand the neurodiverse employee experience.

What’s working well? Where do we need to improve at the organization and team levels?

You know unique ways of thinking and working are a huge benefit to your business, so recognize the potential of neurodiverse employees, and provide them with space and resources to excel.

Global companies such as AMC Theaters, Ernst & Young, and Microsoft are focused on hiring neurodiverse employees. Microsoft notes on its Neurodiversity Hiring FAQ page, “We built the Microsoft Neurodiversity Hiring Program on the belief that traditional recruiting does not allow individuals who are neurodiverse to demonstrate their strengths and qualifications. Through this program, applicants engage in an extended interview process that focuses on workability, team projects, and skill assessment. Our process gives candidates the opportunity to showcase their unique talents while learning about Microsoft as an employer of choice.”

Once they’re hired, the focus shifts to continual development and retention, which should be the organizational focus for all your employees. Checking in quarterly ensures alignment, feedback, improvement, and progress. All of this shows how much you value and care about their employee experience and translates to retention.

Neurodiverse individuals are an untapped pool of immense potential. There are limitless advantages to hiring them, and I’ve only shared a few. If your organization is committing to inclusion, then (fully) do so. Being selective to include only certain dimensions of diversity is exclusion. We can all do better. We need to. This is a journey, and we’re all in this together.

Anu Mandapati serves as the Vice President, Head of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion at Talking Talent. In addition, she is also a certified Leadership, Team and Well-being coach with 20 years of diversity, inclusion, leadership and organizational development experience. She offers a powerful combination of real-world and academic qualifications, while being a warm relationship builder and data driven leader known for impactful results.