How and Why to Hire Neurodiverse Candidates

Employer, Employers, Employment, Guides, Hiring / 13 November 2020

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is a term first coined by Australian autistic sociologist Judy Singer in 1998. While initially used to exclusively describe people with some level of autism, neurodiversity was quickly adopted to include people with wider forms of neurocognitive functions, such as bipolar, ADHD, and dyslexia. 

Since then, the definition has been adopted by the mainstream, as well as the realms of science and academia. It wasn’t long before business started to take note as well. 

As a result, we have a much more rational and compassionate view about neurodiverse people. The idea that there is a ‘normal’ type of mind or brain function is just as incorrect as the idea there is a ‘normal’ race, gender, or culture, after all. Human beings are diverse by our very nature, and neurodiversity is just one more piece in a bright and colourful tapestry. 

Given the better understanding of neurodiversity, medical and psychological attitudes have also shifted from one of treatment to support. Helping to accommodate neurodiverse people’s needs, and better enable them to navigate the world has taken precedence.

This understanding approach has made its way into the business world too. Many companies have now realised there are very real benefits to hiring neurodiverse people, and cultivating a supportive culture around them. It’s certainly something every recruiter or HR manager should consider in relation to an overall hiring strategy, such as the hiring process framework we recommend in our Ultimate Hiring Guide.

A neurodiverse mind having a thought.


The Benefits of a Neurodiverse Workplace

Neurodiverse people can have a hard time of it when it comes to employment. It’s estimated that around 15% of the UK population are neurodiverse in some way. That translates into roughly 10million people. One of the unique things about neurodiverse people is that they process information in different ways to those of us that are neurotypical. It’s now common knowledge that diverse teams produce better results when it comes to business, and that there is often a danger of ‘groupthink’ in teams that align to similar thought processes. Harnessing the power of neurodiverse thinkers, then, is of incredible potential value to any organisation.

We can look at some of the traits often associated with autism as an example. Those on the autistic spectrum tend to be able to reach very high levels of expertise in their chosen topic or areas of interest. They also tend to be very rule focused, punctual, and have high levels of productivity and concentration. 

On the other hand, they tend to struggle with social interaction as interpreting social cues is difficult. Change, especially if sudden, can be stressful and hard to cope with for autistic people too.

Businesses have a lot to gain from autistic employees then – high productivity, motivation and attention to detail from dedicated specialists. Many companies have already seen these benefits in action, finding that neurodiverse team members, and teams including them, have found highly efficient solutions to problems no one could previously solve, or delivered higher productivity than traditional teams. 

There are challenges of course. Managing the social needs of neurodiverse people often requires careful planning and sensitive execution. It also requires taking the time to know what particular stress triggers a neurodiverse employee might have.

SAP, one of the most proactive companies when it comes to onboarding neurodiverse employees, has met this challenge by implementing a two-tier support system – one inside of work, and one at home. In the workplace, the support system consists of a ‘buddy’ who helps the neurodiverse employee with social interactions, reminds them to take breaks, and so on. The rest of the network is made up of a life skills coach, work mentor, and team manager.

Why Neurodiverse People Are Often Overlooked

There are robust arguments that suggest standard hiring procedures are already far too generalised, and make it tricky to get a true picture of a candidate’s abilities. We covered this topic in our interview with Athina Dova on hiring introverts – one such example of how standard practice can fail to highlight an applicant’s real strengths. In the case of neurodiverse people, this is even more of a concern.

Simply attending an interview could be an extremely stressful event for a neurodiverse candidate, and perhaps in ways that could be seen as unreasonable by employers. Some neurodiverse people, especially those with autism, may request that a third party (usually a family member) sit in on an interview to help them with social cues, for example. For employers that don’t understand the reasoning behind this, it can seem strange and instantly brand a neurodiverse candidate negatively. This aspect alone is often enough to put neurodiverse candidates off making an application, even though many are actively interested in, and looking for, long term employment.

Ultimately, the fact is that more neurodiverse organisations benefit from increased productivity, innovation, and creativity. These aspects directly translate into a business advantage in most cases. Innovation, after all, is one of the most sought after and pursued qualities in any organisation. 

While more and more companies are now actively taking steps towards a more inclusive and individualised recruitment and HR strategy, there is still a long way to go until neurodiverse hiring becomes second nature. 

Implementing A Neurodiverse Inclusive Recruitment Plan

Given the massive potential benefits of having neurodiverse staff, the question for recruiters and HR professionals becomes this: What practical measures can be taken to make sure a hiring strategy takes the needs of neurodiverse candidates to heart?

SAP’s strategy once again provides a good example of what can work. Traditional interview processes are replaced with gamified tests that measure problem-solving, and how a candidate can support and work with others. The company also runs special summer camps for potential neurodiverse employees.

While refocusing their HR and hiring strategy was a major undertaking for SAP, the company has found it paid off in ways they didn’t expect. The benefits of these changes weren’t limited to neurodiverse people alone – they had a positive impact on all candidates and employees, in fact. A more individualised and supportive system ended up bringing out the best in everyone, not just neurodiverse people.

There are some key areas to consider when it comes to hiring neurodiverse people. A great place to start is the Specialisterne Foundation seven key elements approach. While not all of these are applicable to the recruitment process directly, considering the whole system on a wider scale, and the impacts each of these has, is certainly worth keeping in mind when approaching a new hiring or recruiting strategy:

  1. Use ‘Social Partners’ for any expertise you lack
  2. Use nontraditional, noninterview-based assessment and training processes
  3. Train other workers and managers
  4. Set up a Support Ecosystem
  5. Tailor Methods for Managing Careers
  6. Scale the Program
  7. Mainstream the Program

Whether you’re recruiting for a role as an agency, or aiming to improve an organisation’s HR and hiring process in general, these steps make for excellent building blocks. It’s also important to keep in mind that constant flexibility and agility is required – generalised approaches won’t be effective. 

As Margaret Malpas, joint chair of the British Dyslexia Association puts it, ‘Often it’s simple things such as installing an extra monitor for someone who has to reconcile a lot of figures, or allowing employees whose concentration is disturbed by an open-plan office to wear earphones or face a wall. Not communicating everything over email, or not expecting neurodiverse employees to be able to prepare for a meeting in five minutes – these are things that can benefit everyone.’

These principles are true for the recruitment and hiring process. We’re not all the same, neurodiverse or neurotypical. Ensuring we have the tools in place to cater for candidates and employees as individuals create outcomes that benefit everyone. 

Employers win because they get the best and most suitable candidates. Neurodiverse people win because they can put their exceptional talents to use, without feeling unjustly stigmatised, and neurotypical people benefit from more personalised recruitment processes, and a more interesting, diverse, and dynamic workplace. 

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