• Managing people

Welcoming Neurodiversity at Work

Hult Ashridge’s Emma Day-Duro considers the benefits ‘neurodiverse’ employees can bring to an organization, and how they can best be supported

Wednesday 10 June 2020


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At its core, diversity is about welcoming alternative ways of thinking and gaining access to different ways of seeing the world. By embracing diversity organizations can unlock innovation, embrace new insights, and be better prepared to navigate today’s fast changing business environment.

As a group, individuals with neurodiverse traits are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed or malemployed, than the wider population. However, as part of the growing movement towards improving diversity and inclusivity, employers are now recognising the value that ‘neurodiverse’ individuals—those on the autism spectrum, with dyslexia, dyspraxia, or otherwise neurodivergent traits—can bring to the workplace. With artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing and other technological advances set to characterise our future workplaces—organizations may need, more than ever, to seek new ways of thinking and working. Large companies including, GCHQ, Virgin, Microsoft and the BBC have acted upon this potential and have been running targeted neurodiversity recruitment programs, to specifically attract individuals with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and those on the autism spectrum.

Our recent study Thinking Differently: Neurodiversity in the Workplace—undertaken by myself, Grace Brown and Julian Thompson—investigated some of the challenges neurodiverse employees face in the workforce. Crucially, we considered the actions HR professionals, recruiters, and business leaders can take to ensure any ingrained biases they may hold do not restrict the progression of the neurodiverse.

It is important that employers understand how to nurture these individuals, not least to benefit the companies and businesses they operate in

Now that there is a growing acknowledgement amongst employers of the untapped potential of those with neurodiversity, there comes with it a need for greater understanding and adaptation to facilitate inclusive working practices. Having grown up in a world designed for the neurotypical, neurodiverse individuals face multiple daily challenges, which are often exacerbated in work and educational settings. It is important that employers understand how to nurture these individuals, not least to benefit the companies and businesses they operate in. With this in mind, our research identified several positive changes and additions that could be implemented by executive teams, managers and employers.

As a starting point, managers and HR professionals should ensure their recruitment processes do not disadvantage neurodiverse candidates. Job adverts and application procedures are hugely important sources of information about a company. A job description laden with cliqued requirements or a rigid round of timed tests and interviews, will quickly highlight the reality of a company approach and dismantle any attempt to appear inclusive elsewhere. Only by being truly inclusive, striving to understand and accommodate those with neurodiverse traits will you reap the benefits of their employ.

Above all, employers, HR professionals and executive educators must be willing to accept that their way is not the only way, or even the right way

It is also crucial that those designing training and executive development programs recognise that people with neurodiverse traits have typically had less than perfect learning experiences at school and college. There are many more engaging methods of learning that L&D professionals can explore. Practical learning opportunities, role play exercises and interactive experiences move education away from a PowerPoint and a textbook and into a realm that is more accessible for many.

Above all, employers, HR professionals and executive educators must be willing to accept that their way is not the only way, or even the right way. To harness the potential of those with neurodiverse traits, workplaces must ensure they are creating environments where people feel truly safe to be themselves.  

Recommendations for employers

Write inclusive job descriptions when hiring – Avoid generic and cliched requirements in job descriptions such as ‘confident communicator’ or ‘highly organised’, if these skills aren’t essential.

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.

Be informed – Learn about the specific neurodiversity, don’t rely on your assumptions or media representations. Establish the individual’s strengths and allow them space to demonstrate them and build confidence.

Be aware of the impact of a last-minute change – Avoid asking employees to quickly absorb and respond to new information, provide time and support when change is unavoidable.

Think before you speak – Using terms like ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’, even in jest, can have a damaging effect on those who may have been incorrectly labelled as such as children.

Recognise potential – Unique ways of thinking and working are a huge benefit to your business. Recognise the potential of neuro-diverse employees and allow them space to excel.

Recommendations for executive educators

Explore alternatives – The way neurodiverse employees learn is different to the way you might expect. Explore practical or experiential learning, be visual, tell stories, allow participants to role play.

Be flexible – Allow for more time to digest and record information, don’t insist on this being done in a certain way, let people draw, write or record if it helps them. Repetition is key, allow space and time for employees to re-read and repeat tasks.

Be prepared – Provide physical aids (blue lights, overlays) for those with dyslexia and be cautious of the physical space for those who have sensory or spatial sensitivities.

Keep it brief – Avoid text heavy presentations, use bullet points of key information or audio-visual modes of delivery. Write and speak in plain language, avoiding jargon as much as possible.


Read the full research report here: Thinking Differently: Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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