Neurodiversity is a fairly new term which applies to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information. It highlights that people naturally think about things differently.
Recently there has been growing awareness of the benefits that an inclusive and neurodiverse workplace can have, with the growing thought that by allowing those who don’t conform to societal norms to flourish, it can provide business with a competitive advantage.
Most people are neurotypical, meaning that the brain functions and processes information in the way society expects.
However Acas research suggests that 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently. Neurodivergence includes Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia and Developmental Coordination Disorder (also known as Dyspraxia).
It is important to note that those who are neurodivergent may be protected by the Equality Act 2010 if they can show that the neurodivergence has a significant adverse effect on their day-to-day activities. This will vary on a case-by-case basis, but where an employee shows traits of neurodivergence, or discloses that they possess one of the aforementioned diagnoses, they may well qualify for protection from disability discrimination. As such, it is extremely important that any policies or expectations put in place for job applicants or existing employees can be relaxed or tailored where such a practice puts a neurodivergent individual at a disadvantage.
Neurodiversity and recruitment
Inclusive hiring processes must both attract neurodiverse talent and bring out the best in those candidates that apply. It is estimated that the neurodiverse talent pool is severely underutilised in today’s workplace. While there are pockets of industries that are starting to realise that neurodiverse talent can help them thrive, many are still at the early stages of recognising the value that neurodiversity can bring.
An employer cannot ask an applicant if they suffer from a disability, or indeed are neurodivergent, prior to offering them a job, and therefore it is wise to make processes as exclusive as possible. Encouraging disclosure of neurodivergence so that adjustments can be made is allowed, but employers should look out for traits of neurodivergence and be mindful of flexibility, rather than remain steadfast in a long list of essential criteria.
In order to encourage applications from a wide a pool as possible, employers can consider simple steps, such as the following:
- Attempts should be made to clarify and simplify job descriptions, ensuring they are clear on key skills, and those which are merely optional. This will encourage more applicants to apply as opposed to where a generic job description is posted. Specifying that reasonable adjustments can be made for those that require them is also advisable to demonstrate an inclusive employer.
- Classic assessment processes should be adapted for neurodiverse candidates, where required, to ensure processes are fair and inclusive. For example, classic job experience that is routinely required for a role could be relaxed for neurodivergent applicants who may have taken a different career path. Generic personality tests can discriminate against neurodiverse applicants.
- Where interviewing, presumptions and biases need to be mitigated. Expectations around body language should be relaxed given that neurodiverse candidates may display traits which appear rude to dismissive – such as avoiding eye contact. Removing surprise elements from the interview process could be considered, and additional time may be offered if specific tasks or simulations are part of the process.
It is common for organisations to have policies to support employees with protected characteristics, such as, race, ethnicity, and gender, but it is less common for organisations to have policies to support those who are neurodivergent. While an Equality or Equal Opportunities policy may apply in part, a specific policy is encouraged which is aimed at those who are in the minority when it comes to how their brain functions (neurominority).
A neurominority policy could cover hiring targets for neurodiverse talent, extensions and exceptions to an organisation’s flexible working policy, workplace environment adaptations, internal support available and performance management adaptations.
Many neurodiverse people struggle to work in environments that are not inclusive of their individual needs. An example being that some people with autism report that lighting, sound, temperature and furniture set-up in an office can cause pain, discomfort or difficulty concentrating. Easy solutions can be applied such as providing noise-cancelling headphones or ear plugs, screen readers, privacy screens, or private spaces to work where necessary. These are all things that could be accommodated by encouraging an open dialogue rather than expecting people to simply cope.
As with employees with disabilities, it is sensible to implement support mechanisms for neurodivergent employees. This could be by way of regular support and mentoring, as a way for them to feedback any updates or changes that they would like the organisation to implement to help meet their needs. A simple monthly catchup could be sufficient, which would be good management practice in any event.
Team building and social events
Team building activities or social events are widely seen as being beneficial to the workforce, and there is no suggestion that they should cease. Employers, should, however, be aware that an employee with social anxiety, for example, might wish to avoid such events, or could be uncomfortable with certain activities proposed. It is important that where employees do not wish to participate that they are not penalised or seen as not being committed.
Performance management and career development
Clearly, where an employee is not adequately performing their work then an employer has the right to manage them. However, employers must be aware that a standardised process will not work for everybody. A neurodivergent employee may react adversely to excessive pressure being placed on them, in which case a management process could essentially set them up to fail. In this scenario an employer needs to be mindful of what can be done to allow the employee to successfully perform their role. A sensible first step would be to discuss support that can be offered, and if necessary, obtain occupational health advice. Similarly, career development should not depend on defined criteria which could place neurodivergent employees at a disadvantage, and this ties in to a regular dialogue between the employee and their mentor as to what they are doing well and what support can be offered to maintain or improve performance.
The key with neurodiversity is for employers to keep an open mind and be flexible in its operation of criteria and processes which are applied. By failing to engage with neurodivergent employees, employers put themselves at risk of legal risk, but possibly more importantly, will lose out on employees who could prove to be invaluable assets if given the right environment and support to excel.
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