Neurodiversity: how Direct Line Group is putting theory into practice

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Employers have now woken up to the value that people with neurodivergent characteristics like autism and dyspraxia can bring, but is this awareness translating into action? Kate Burnett from the Data & Marketing Association explores how Direct Line Group has become more neurodiverse-friendly.

For several years, the Talent division at the Data & Marketing Association (DMA) – the UK trade association for the data and marketing industry – has been leading our Neurodiversity Initiative with the main aim of helping organisations to become more neurodiverse-friendly.

We have been offering organisations guidance on reasonable adjustments they can make to recruitment procedures and working environments to better support a diverse workforce. But another key motivation of the initiative has been to raise awareness of the low employment rates experienced by neurodivergent individuals and inspire businesses to help reverse this.

Awareness activity needs to highlight the fact that autism is a very broad spectrum and every individual will have a different mix of challenges and strengths.”

Louise Calvert works as a propositions development manager in Direct Line Group’s (DLG) marketing division; she attended our training workshop back in September 2018. Like many people who attend our workshops, Calvert and DLG believed organisations can be doing things better to integrate neurodivergent people.

DLG’s internal ‘Diversity Network Alliance’ has since implemented change that has helped make a difference for all DLG staff.

The training that Calvert received at DMA Talent’s workshops played a key role in helping DLG shape its policies and practices. Our lead trainer, Matthew Trerise, has spent over 15 years working as an autism and neurodiversity consultant for the NHS Bristol Autism Spectrum Service.

“I think what was most helpful was Matt’s real-life experiences. His knowledge was invaluable. He was able to bust some myths and really help us identify where perceptions are often wrong,” says Calvert.

“One thing that really stuck with me was that many people still think of autism as being on a scale that goes from low to high functioning – which is a really damaging misperception.”

Awareness activity needs to highlight the fact that autism is a very broad spectrum and every individual will have a different mix of challenges and strengths.

Having positive role models from any walks of life can really help: “We’ve personally found that talking about famous people who are neurodivergent can be a useful tool to broaden people’s perspective on what is possible, as does talking about some of the incredible strengths that can come with being neurodivergent.”

Although, Calvert adds, nobody should feel they are underachieving if they are not a famous actor, entrepreneur, or genius; or if they don’t feel they have a ‘superpower’.

Putting theory into practice

DLG’s ‘Neuro-Diversity Network’ has expanded rapidly in the past 18 months, beginning with just two staff members to now having more than 140 members across the UK. It is one of the most active of DLG’s Diversity Network Alliance groups.

Direct Line Group’s approach

DLG has a three-pronged approach to neurodiversity:

  1. Raising awareness of neurodiversity – by focusing on the positives and strengths that people have, which are often overlooked.
  2. Ongoing staff support – making sure existing staff are getting the right support to be the best version of themselves including any workplace adjustments they need.
  3. Recruitment – actively encouraging more neuro-divergent people to join DLG and learning from best practice activities outside of the organisation.

This approach helped it develop an action plan, focusing on what DLG felt was most important.

Calvert and her colleagues started by asking neurodivergent staff for their own experiences, to bring to life the challenges that neurodivergent individuals faced, how it was impacting their jobs, and also the emotional toll it was taking on them.

Once they had sufficient insight, they took their recommendations to a monthly Diversity Network Committee meeting, which includes representatives from HR.

“Our HR team actively sought to learn more about staff members’ experiences and how to best implement any necessary improvements,” says Calvert.

Top tips for implementing change

Talking to neurodivergent employees is a great way to learn about their reality and helps when talking to decision makers – it’s difficult to ignore emotive stories.

“One of the most powerful things we’ve found for improving understanding, helping others to come forward and to create a safe atmosphere, is to share some personal stories with the whole company on the staff intranet,” adds Calvert.

Ideally, these would include comments from someone quite senior in the organisation – but this person could also be anyone that people will easily identify with.

Employers should try to get a few people who can commit to being actively involved in implementing change, so that the workload can be spread fairly. If you can, find someone senior in the organisation who has a personal connection to the issue to become a sponsor. This can really help in terms of opening doors and making sure it gets the priority it deserves.

It can be quite difficult for those who are neurotypical to really understand what it’s like to be neurodivergent and so anything that can bring this to life is likely to have a big impact; for example, there are websites which demonstrate what it can be like for a dyslexic person to read.

Recruitment and working conditions

Within the marketing division at DLG, the main focus has been on creating a culture where everyone feels safe to be themselves and can be appreciated for their strengths and differences.

“To this end, we have been amending job descriptions on our company website to only include skills and qualities relevant to the advertised role. People are unique individuals and must be seen that way,” says Calvert.

They have also held a number of awareness talks specifically around neurodiversity to improve understanding of some of the challenges people might have, what can be done to provide support, but, most importantly, what benefits are associated with ‘thinking differently’.

“We’ve also had a number of really inspiring speakers come in and share their stories with us from relevant industries, which really brings this to life and provides real role models.”

Any adjustments should not be implemented in a way that makes people feel different – this is just about ensuring everyone has the right ‘set up’ to help them.

“We also have a range of items available for anyone to try to see if it helps them, whether that’s noise cancelling headphones, glare reducing glasses, coloured screen covers, or even different coloured notebooks,” says Calvert.

Ready to start your journey?

A recent British Dyslexia Association study showed the benefits of providing workplace adjustments outweigh the costs by at least six times.

In this world where innovation, creativity, problem solving, efficiency, technical skills are becoming ever more important, there are a group of underrepresented people with those skills readily available.

“Starting is the main thing – this isn’t just about doing the right thing, it’s good for business too and that can help to convince those in high places,” says Calvert.

DMA Talent has a free Autism Employer Guide to download. We are also creating our new ‘Dyslexia Employer Guide’ and ‘ADHD Employer Guide’.

Kate Burnett

About Kate Burnett

Kate Burnett is general manager of DMA Talent, part of marketing association DMA Group.
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