Neurodiversity and performance: what employers need to know

Climate activist Greta Thunberg credits her Asperger's with helping her "think outside the box"
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Employers are waking up to the advantages of having a neurodiverse workforce. But when it comes to performance management processes, don’t assume the same strategies you use for neurotypical employees will bring the same results, says Anne Cockayne.

Neurodiversity is big in the media right now – teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg’s honesty about her Asperger’s is just one example. But while this may mean it’s on our radar more than before, managers may still be making mistakes in how they deal with any issues arising with neurodiverse members of their teams.

Here at Nottingham Trent University we have been completing a study into how employers support those on the autistic spectrum. One of the consistent issues they encounter arises when they initiate performance management or capability procedures, sometimes even leading to dismissal. Look a little deeper, and it may emerge that the reasons behind their decision to do this are rooted in an employee’s condition.

For example, many autistic employees are hypersensitive in some way – this could be to light, noise or both – and the open-plan set-up of most modern workplaces can make them uncomfortable. For some this may make them reluctant to come to work, which creates a spike in absence, in turn leading to absence management procedures and potentially sanctions.

Another example could be where someone is required to be able to judge emotions, for example in a childcare setting. We became aware of one employer where an autistic child carer could not discern if a child was distressed so the parent complained and the employee put through a capability process. This person had many other skills, and is a case where alternative jobs ought to be considered rather than dismissed out of hand.

Making adjustments

In the first case at least, these problems can be overcome by changing the employees’ environment or allowing them to work from home or wear noise-cancelling headphones. The technology we have in place now means not everyone always needs to be present in an office. However, this can also mean that many autistic people end up in roles well below their intellectual capability because they’d rather continue in a job that’s beneath them than work in an environment that they find uncomfortable.

One of the thorny issues for managers is disclosure – you cannot force an autistic person to disclose their diagnosis, even if you suspect that this may be behind their behaviour. The HR managers we spoke to in our study made statements such as: “We just knew something wasn’t right” or “We wouldn’t have noticed they were autistic unless there was a performance issue.” And because many autistic people choose not to disclose, the reason for their behaviour might only become clear once capability proceedings have been initiated.

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So what can HR and managers do? If an employee chooses to disclose a diagnosis of autism, this means they can follow the “reasonable adjustments” route as dictated by the Equality Act Disability Discrimination Act. This could involve recrafting a job so the employee does more of what they’re good at or feel comfortable with, and other aspects are shared among the rest of the team.

Find out more

Anne Cockayne works for Nottingham Business School and offers employers guidance on neurodiverse talents, one-to-one coaching with managers, workforce awareness programmes and support with discrimination claims.

If you would like to know more, contact [email protected]

This does not have to mean others end up with extra work – reshaping roles can reduce their workload or take away aspects they find boring or repetitive. One restaurant manager discovered that an autistic member of the team hated the table-waiting aspect of his role, but loved greeting guests with the welcome script – a task not enjoyed by his colleagues.

And when it comes to performance appraisals, managers need to adjust their own expectations. It’s natural to want your employees to progress in their career, but what if your autistic employee enjoys what they are doing now? This may mean they do not follow the same linear career route as others in the organisation, or within the same timescales.

Don’t make assumptions

It’s important not to make assumptions, either. Not all autistic people like repetitive tasks, despite this stereotype. Many autistic people are skilled communicators, and do well in advocacy or public speaking roles.

Take your cue from your employee. Should you change duties or give them a different role completely? Similarly, if there have been complaints from customers or other members of staff because of their behaviour, try to put yourself in the autistic employee’s shoes. Is the complaint justified or is it just another way of seeing things? Someone not smiling constantly, or not making lots of eye contact, does not necessarily mean they are bad at customer service.

Finally, while awareness of neurodiversity is growing and it’s being talked about more, it’s crucial to raise awareness among staff. Be proactive about providing information on neurodiversity for all employees – not just those with diagnosed conditions. Furthermore, simple good management practices such as giving clear instructions, offering a peaceful working environment and not overloading staff benefit everyone in the workplace as well as those with autism and related conditions.

Anne Cockayne

About Anne Cockayne

Anne Cockayne is senior lecturer in human resource management at Nottingham Trent University

6 Responses to Neurodiversity and performance: what employers need to know

  1. Avatar
    Amanda 7 Jun 2019 at 2:24 pm #

    Nobody ever mentions adhd and other ND conditions

    • Nancy Doyle
      Nancy Doyle 21 Feb 2020 at 9:44 pm #

      I know! This drives me mad given that autism has less than half the prevalence of ADHD, DCD and a fifth of dyslexia….

      • Avatar
        John 7 Mar 2020 at 5:23 pm #

        This article and case is about an autistic emoyee…there may be such cases for employees who have ADHD, ADD, OCD, PTSD etc… to search for and find.

  2. Avatar
    Melbourne Victoria 16 Jun 2019 at 1:05 am #

    Is also important not to screen out autistic candidates with irrelevant assessments like psychometric testing. I was recently discriminated against by a government graduate scheme that stressed disability inclusion, despite refusing to replace the barrier with a written work sample that actually related to the job. Don’t expect fair treatment from SOVA Assessment, Fusion Graduate Consultancy or the Victorian public service if you’re a disabled jobseeker.

    • Avatar
      John 7 Mar 2020 at 5:25 pm #

      Sorry to hear this….awareness of autism and reasonable adjustments appears to be archaic in UK.

  3. Avatar
    Amanda kirby 8 Dec 2020 at 1:46 pm #

    The panels understanding of the person’s profile is important as some people ( often ) have neurodivergent traits relating to ‘other conditions’ to the one they have a diagnosis for and hence the need to take a person centered approach. What training do the panel have as well?

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