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Supporting neurodivergent workers

A benefit that goes both ways

6 minute read
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Everyone’s brains work a little differently, but for people with neurodivergent conditions, it can cause significant issues in the wrong workplace.

With the modern workplace being more diverse than ever, it’s becoming increasingly important for workplaces to embrace diversity – and that includes neurodiversity.

What does it mean to be neurodivergent?

Employ for Ability Managing Director David Smith runs employment and training programs to help neurodivergent individuals enter the workplace and finds that many people are not as familiar with the relatively new terms around brains.

At the forefront is the concept of neurodiversity, which he noted is of particular importance.

“It is the concept that all of us have different brains, and in the normal variation in the human population, there are all types of different brain functions,” Mr Smith said.

“So, someone whose brain is autistic is part of the normal variation in the human population.

“Neurodiversity is really like a social movement or concept."

“Basically a group of people in a room or a team are all neurodiverse because all their brains work differently.”

In this neurodiverse group, there might be someone who is considered neurodivergent.

A term focused on inclusion and diversity, neurodivergent conditions can range from autism spectrum disorder to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.

“Neurodivergent is a term for someone who has a diagnosis, rather than saying ‘atypical’ or ‘disabled’,” Mr Smith said.

“Neurotypical is a term for someone who doesn’t have a diagnosis.”

In the workplace, different neurodivergent conditions can have a harsh impact, with individuals at a higher risk of unemployment and facing a lack of support once they do get hired.

However, Mr Smith said in the right workplace with the right support structures, neurodivergent workers could thrive.

Hiring neurodivergent workers

Supporting neurodivergent workers begins where any job begins – in the hiring process.

“It starts with a job advertisement,” Mr Smith said.

“Neurodivergent talent won’t apply for jobs with exclusionary points in them, so someone who is writing a job advertisement needs to bear in mind that if they are after neurodivergent talent, they do not put things in there which are not mandatory.

“Particular ones are ‘must have strong communication skills’ or ‘must be a team player’.”

“They go ‘well, what does that mean?’.

“So, if they can’t do those things or they are weaker in them, they will not apply.”

Mr Smith also recommended, if you were looking for a diverse team, to include a line encouraging neurodivergent applicants to apply.

Even if neurodivergent workers can get past this stage, he noted that job interviews could also provide a significant barrier to being hired.

“Many of our clients who are neurodivergent really struggle with interviews because of the nuance of the questions,” he said.

“When asking somebody ‘where do you want to be in five years?’, a neurotypical person knows it means something to do with where their career will be in five years.

“But for a neurodivergent person, they might not understand what you mean. So, vague questions do not work very well.”

Instead, Mr Smith encouraged hiring managers to think about the skills needed for the job.

Interviews measure social and communication skills, so if those are not part of the skill set required for the role, a job test or assessment will both provide a more accurate impression of the employee’s abilities and help neurodivergent applicants.

“I did a project with the Australian Capital Territory Government, where we hired a data analytics specialist,” Mr Smith said.

“They insisted on doing interviews, and then the second part was an assignment sorting out a heap of data.

“All five applicants were terrible at the interview, and the young man who came fifth out of five – the candidate which interviewed particularly poorly – ended up getting the job because he could do the assignment so much better and quicker than anyone else.

“However, he would have never gotten the job based on an interview.

“The best way we have seen is a job trial or a work experience shift, where they can come in and experience the opportunity for half a day, and then the manager can see their strengths and see that the person might not interview particularly well but they have got these amazing strengths which suit the role.”

Supporting neurodivergent workers in the workplace

Once neurodivergent employees are hired, Mr Smith said there were a few things managers could do to make sure they were supported.

“Post hiring, it’s all about really good on-boarding,” he said.

“Making sure they read all the on-boarding information, and providing coaching to the manager and to the worker.

“We build what we call a ‘neurodiversity passport’ for our candidates. It is a document about the strengths of the person and what adjustments they might need at work – how they think, how they communicate, what the challenges are in a meeting or in different scenarios.

“Then we take that document and train the manager, so it is a bit like a manual on how to manage this worker.”

According to Mr Smith, some managers are worried neurodivergent workers need a lot of accommodations, but in most cases, this isn’t so.

Changing the workplace in small ways or running education and training courses to help managers understand how to lead a neurodiverse team can go far.

“The reality is, the reasonable adjustments you make are very minor,” Mr Smith said.

“It might be somebody needing a bit of flexibility with their start and end times, or a little bit more guidance for the first three months with a mentor or a buddy to explain things in more detail.

“However, once they’ve understood the role, you’re going to have a worker who follows the rules and stays there for many years.”

The neurodiversity advantage

Implementing these accommodations and hiring neurodivergent workers is well worth the time and effort, according to Mr Smith.

In the right role with the right support, people with neurodivergent conditions can make for amazing employees – the same as any neurotypical worker.

And when it comes to retention rates, it is possibly even better.

“Many organisations with neurodiversity hiring programs are seeing 90-95 per cent retention of workers at 12 months,” Mr Smith said.

“Neurodivergent talent will often stay when they’re looked after and their manager understands them because they have quite a good sense of loyalty and commitment to organisations, and they like getting into the routine of their job.

“They are very loyal and they are very hard-working.

“We have hired people from fast food through to public service and information technology roles, and we see retention rates in the 90 per cent range after 12 months, and then the same after two years.

“Most organisations need this retention, so it might take a little bit of extra work in the hiring phase and at the beginning, but if you can keep somebody for five years, it makes sense to put more effort into it.”

Mr Smith noted that having a different brain meant having a different mindset as well – allowing neurodiverse workers to solve problems in unexpected ways and to create a more diverse and dynamic workplace.

“The other benefit is, they see things other staff don’t see in terms of patterns and problem-solving,” he said.

“They have a lot of strengths, which make them amazing employees.

“Many organisations unfortunately see the negative – that it is harder and this person communicates differently – but the benefits are the individual strengths.

“Once you get them in the right role and doing the right work with good management, they are a long-term employee.”