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How can you encourage neurodiversity in your organisation?

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 16 Jul 2021

Neurodiversity

Neurodiverse teams bring together people with different ways of thinking. Chartered accountants can help to monitor and report on the success of recruitment and retention policies.

Empathy and strategic thinking, the ability to multitask, creativity and analytic prowess – on paper at least, these traits would suggest that a candidate could be a top-notch hire. So, why would a diagnosis of autism, ADHD or dyslexia make them any less likely to be recruited?

Most businesses subscribe to the widely proven thesis that employing a diverse workforce makes good business sense. Yet, for many organisations, neurodiversity simply isn’t on their radar. 

Neurodiversity is a term used to describe the fact that no human brain is wired in the same way, so we all think, act and communicate differently. However, while most (neurotypical) people broadly think and respond to meet average social expectations, some people sit outside the norm and communicate, process or move differently. These neurodivergent individuals can have conditions such as dyspraxia (also known as DCD), dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyscalculia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Tourette’s syndrome.

Encouraging more people with neurodivergent conditions to join and thrive in business isn’t just an altruistic exercise. Alison Kay, EY’s UK&I Managing Partner for Client Service, says: “Neurodivergent individuals, such as those with dyslexia or autism, often excel in creative thinking, design and visualisation, and the skills that support innovation and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, data analytics, automation, blockchain, cyber and more."

Kay adds: “This is a hugely talented group of individuals, who are highly proficient in some of the in-demand skills of right now and in the future. As a business leader, it makes total commercial sense and fits entirely with my passion for purpose in business and how that can help to drive social change.”

“Diversity in the workforce leads to new perspectives, skills and attitudes,” says Dr Robby Allen, Director of the Management and Leadership MSc at Cranfield University. “We are in a global market and maximising the intellectual capacity of those that are employed should be high on the agenda of all ambitious companies.” 

Given the financial implications of getting this right, neurodiversity isn’t only an HR issue, argues Professor Amanda Kirby, CEO Do-IT Solutions, a neurodiversity consultancy. “It’s important for CFOs and finance teams to be involved. Chartered accountants can think about how much it costs to recruit, but also, if it goes badly, what it costs to retain. When it comes to unconscious bias, we’re at the start of that in terms of neurodiversity.” 

While the true extent of bias against neurodivergent individuals is difficult to quantify, research published by the Office for National Statistics earlier this year found that just one in five autistic people in the UK are in any form of employment, prompting experts to urge the government to offer greater support and information to employers. 

However, collating data on the neurodiversity of your organisations is not without its challenges, not least because many neurodivergent individuals may not have a diagnosis (or want or need one to gain support). Even if they do, the ongoing stigma attached to neurodivergent conditions puts many people off going public.

“Disclosure rates come with a dilemma because not everyone needs to disclose under the Equality Act to gain support and you don’t have to have a diagnosis to have disclosure,” says Kirby. “People won’t disclose unless they feel it’s psychologically safe to do so. They may also not see themselves as disabled.”

Cranfield University’s research shows that traditional recruitment methods are not working for people with neurodivergent conditions. Indeed, they can find the whole process traumatic, Allen warns.

As a result, the onus on employers to do more to transform the employment prospects of neurodivergent individuals is far from altruistic – it’s a question of business competitiveness. But to attract and retain diverse talent across the board, including people with neurodivergent traits, many businesses will need to rethink their recruitment processes, practices and systems. 

A lot of organisations fall at the first hurdle because the language used in job adverts inadvertently puts certain people off. Descriptions such as ‘team player’, ‘good sense of humour’, and ‘lively’ are all commonly used without considering who might be excluded as a result, warns Diane Lightfoot, CEO at membership organisation Business Disability Forum.

The same applies to career paths or opportunities. “Do you really need a degree or five years’ experience, or could someone demonstrate their skills in a different way?” Lightfoot asks. If you have online recruitment portals, make sure that algorithms don’t automatically screen out people who, for example, have a gap in their CV. 

Many people with autism or a communication challenge will struggle in a traditional panel interview, but given the opportunity to demonstrate their skills in a test or work trial, they will excel. “If you do need to interview, make sure the questions you ask are clear and unambiguous – and consider sending them to candidates in advance to reduce anxiety on the day,” Lightfoot says. 

Once you have appointed someone who has neurodivergent traits, getting the onboarding right is vital, she argues. “Reasonable adjustments are a legal right, yes, but work with a range of neurodiverse people and listen to their solutions. Agreeing up front with your new recruit how they like to work and communicate, for example, and what to share that with the team and how, can make a huge difference,” Lightfoot says. 

Above all, don’t be guided by preconceived ideas about neurodivergent conditions and traits – these are often fuelled by misinformation and unhelpful stereotypes. “We have an instinct to categorise and attach labels to groups of people, which is not always beneficial,” Allen adds. “Some neurodiverse may choose not to reveal their difference and that creates an unhelpful paradox. Companies cannot help if they do not know, and the neurodiverse may not reveal if they are unsure of the reaction from the companies.”

Business Disability Forum offers access to advice and resources including its Neurodiversity Toolkit. Lightfoot says it’s important to remember that people with neurodivergent conditions such as autism are all individual and all different. However, “it can be true that some people on the autism spectrum are very good at technical roles, those which require a high degree of accuracy and attention to detail and/or the ability to spot patterns and identify anomalies in these: all of which are great strengths for the accountancy profession to take into account.” 

She adds: “Creating a culture of psychological safety where people feel safe to ask for the support they need is critical.” That requires senior leader buy-in – sharing personal experiences if they have them and normalising the conversation about disability and neurodiversity. 

“When individuals disclose their cognitive differences, organisations need to handle that well, with integrity and care, because it will only happen once,” warns Caroline Turner, Founder of neurodiversity consultancy Creased Puddle. Training and education are key, she says, but fundamentally it boils down to good bespoke people management. “We’re in danger of siloing people into different protected characteristics, but it’s the intersectionality that makes every person unique.”

Turner says COVID-19 has been a unifying experience in terms of highlighting how we all work in different ways and the challenges of dealing with change. “We’ve benefitted from the conversation around mental health and well-being. These days, it’s all about being authentic, admitting that sometimes you’re not in a good place and accepting your vulnerabilities. 

“The message that has historically been given to society about neurodivergent individuals has been about deficit and weaknesses,” Turner adds. “It should be a positive message about identifying people’s strengths and helping them to thrive.”