With 700,000 people in the UK now on the autism spectrum and Morrisons having just launched a weekly “quieter hour” for autistic shoppers, Michelle Morgan considers ways employers can build a neuro-inclusive workplace and adapt to employees’ needs.
Neurodiversity is a relatively new term that refers to people who have dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and other neurological conditions. These are “spectrum” conditions, with a wide range of characteristics, but which nevertheless share some common features in terms of how people learn and process information.
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.
This is despite the fact that, 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 make to support neurodivergent employees can benefit all employees. Who wouldn’t want clear communication, a quiet space to concentrate, and a management style that considers individual needs?
Having acted for clients and worked with employees with spectrum conditions, what is apparent is that, as a result of their condition, there is in fact a great amount that they can and do contribute positively to the working environment. Here are four areas where employers can make the best of a neurodiverse workforce.
When recruiting, for example, make role descriptions as clear and concise as possible, avoiding jargon. 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 and 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”.
Attention has focused far too much on the challenges often associated with neurodivergence in the workplace, rather than on the strengths”
For example, candidates with Aspergers may have difficulty looking directly into the interviewer’s eyes – which can be misinterpreted. 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 neurodivergent people may be overly honest about weaknesses, struggle with eye contact, or lack confidence due to negative experiences in the past.
Problems with underperformance are particularly likely to arise where managers are not aware of somebody’s neurological condition. Disclosure can be very helpful in preventing performance issues – but this needs to be handled carefully. A working environment in which employees are accepted and have the chance to play to their strengths is key.
When dealing with performance issues, there is a need to be sensitive and conscious of the extent to which the employee needs guidance (or alternatively wishes to input into the process themselves). Clear communications are crucial and these should focus on the individual’s strengths as well as their areas of weakness.
Greater awareness can help. Employers should be proactive in providing information on neurodiversity for those with neurological conditions as well as for those without. Employees with certain conditions are not always fully aware of the ways in which it might affect their ability to perform particular work tasks. Having access to a network of employees can be an invaluable source of information and support.
Some aspects of good support and management apply to all employees generally, not just those with neurological conditions: giving clear instructions, ensuring staff are not overloaded, providing a working environment that is free of distractions. Allowing staff to channel themselves into tasks where they can excel rather than demanding that they continue to perform tasks that they are less suited to can benefit the majority. Placing too much emphasis on all-round generic competences can disadvantage staff with neurological conditions who may have highly specialised skills that could be harnessed differently.
4. Tailoring support to individuals
Other practices do require tailoring to the individual. For example, when organising autistic employees, managers should lead on discussions and suggest solutions, communicate unambiguously and give advance notice of changes so individuals can be fully-prepared.
In providing appropriate support, think not just about employees’ roles and their work environments but about a wider range of situations, such as training. And bear in mind that these are spectrum conditions and that characteristics will vary across individuals and how they cope with the associated characteristics of their condition over time.
The potential merits of having a neurodiverse workforce should not be overlooked. Positive attributes commonly associated with this group include creativity, lateral thinking, bringing a “different perspective”, development of highly specialised skills and the consistency in tasks once mastered.
Provided ways of minimising any areas of weakness can be put in place, employers should be attuned to the possible benefits and even the competitive advantages that may be possible from having employees who think differently. After all, it would be a very boring workplace that lacked innovation if we all thought in exactly the same way.