Selling Neurodiversity Within the Office
Autism can present itself in wonderful ways for children and adults when we are willing to open our eyes to possibilities before us. However, for most of us, our preconceived notions of patterns of speech and communication get in the way of our ability to see these possibilities. These possibilities take the form of more productivity in our workforce, an increased sense of belonging for all employees, and a society and organization system built on respect rather than neglect.
When neurologically diverse workers feel welcome and safe, they contribute in effective ways.
Studies show that a feeling of neglect will reduce employee productivity by a factor of 3-4 times. And, most companies want to grow. So why the disconnect? Because most companies don’t take the time to develop systems and practices for increasing awareness around inclusivity and creating a culture of psychological safety. So, where should you start? Start by changing leadership perceptions, specifically perceptions of others who present different thinking and communication patterns than what we are used to, known as neurodiverse or austisic children and adults. Why neurodiverse adults? Because there are incredible gifts that are beneath the surface, once you have the courage to see beyond your assumptions. And, because autism is on the rise, and soon, our population will be largely neurodiverse. And, neurodiversity will become more the norm than an outlier.
According to the newest estimate from Autism Speaks, autism in children represents a 15% increase in prevalence nationally: to 1 in 59 children, from 1 in 68 two years previous. The prevalence of autism in 4-year-old children in the United States has increased—from about 1 in 75 children in 2010 to 1 in 59 in 2014—to match a previously reported rise in 8-year-old children, according to data released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number of individuals being diagnosed with ASD in the United States (US) has been increasing annually at 10–17%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children is identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the USA (CDC 2014). There has been a dramatic increase in the prevalence of ASD in the last decade, with CDC reporting 1 in 150 in 2000 (CDC 2000).
This particular article outlines the advantages of promoting neurodiversity on a macro-economic, governmental, and societal level—as well as profit.
Rick, a well-educated and knowledgeable accountant, applied for a job as a comptroller at a mid-sized company. He was more than competent, even holding a certificate the previous comptroller didn’t have. His interview did not go well.
Rick has difficulty making eye contact, and that made the interviewer uncomfortable. Sensing things were not going well, Rick’s anxiety stiffened his body language and produced some involuntary muscle movements. He did not get the job because of the interviewer’s difficulties.
Despite Encounters Like This Happening, Change Is Beginning
Constructive and collaborative workplace diversity has been shaped by a legacy calculation of racial, ethnic, religious, and other demographics. Affirmative Action remains a well-intended process for numerically balancing employment opportunities for placement and advancement.
However, the labor pool has changed dramatically. A new wave, a sea change, a fourth turning—the new metaphors, research, and understanding describe the neurological diversity of a workforce that’s already very much with us. This burgeoning labor pool shares abilities once dismissed as disqualifying. Major corporations are leveraging the neurologically diverse population to fill their talent gap. But emotional connectedness may be the best accommodation!
Quite a few small and family-run businesses, including restaurants, hardware stores, and movie theaters have successfully employed workers with neurological conditions. The employees work in positions more demanding and responsible than greeting customers on arrival. They act as hostesses, make tables ready for guests, wash dishes, or prep food in the kitchen. They shelve hardware goods, price products, and run cash registers. They take tickets at the local cineplex or pour sodas and bag popcorn.
Many affected employees are comfortable in these close and structured environments, and their employers have pioneered this new workplace frontier. The unspoken strength behind their success is the emotional connectedness felt there. However, as the nature of work changes, it may be crossing paths with a workforce wanting higher-paying, more challenging, and significantly accountable work. John Murawski, writing for The Wall Street Journal notes, “Businesses scrambling for artificial-intelligence talent are tapping an unusual resource: people with autism.”
Rayna is a neurodiverse adult who works in the mailroom of a Fortune 500 company in center city. She walks the same path twice a day to and from the subway. She walks everywhere with her head down, and one day she did not respond when a police officer asked, “How are you today?” When she continued on her way without answering, the officer challenged her, “What’s wrong with you?” Rayna found this confrontational, becoming distracted, anxious, and physical. And, before she knew it, the officer had tackled her to the ground and cuffed her for non-compliance and resisting arrest.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has required employers to make reasonable accommodation in hiring and employing disabled workers. For a generation, businesses have approached accommodation somewhat reluctantly because of the expense. They have also had a myopic view of disability as some condition apparent to all, such as blindness, deafness, paralysis, or similarly visible condition.
Without gainsaying these efforts and the generally positive results, that same corporate mindset has been slow to address current and future needs. Neurological conditions require less physical accommodation, but acceptance requires a sea change in culture and psychological accommodation.
At EY (Ernst & Young), they see reasonable accommodation as a cultural adjustment. “Diversity is a source of insight and adaptability, generating better business ideas and high-quality service for our clients. Differing abilities are part of that healthy diversity.”
Danielle Pavliv, senior manager of Diversity and Inclusion at SAS, already much-heralded for its diversity initiatives, says, “It’s not about fitting into the culture, it’s about adding to it.” And, that’s where the need for talented employees meets the underemployment of neurologically diverse labor.
There are hundreds of named neurological disorders not including those related to stroke or dementia. Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Epilepsy, Narcolepsy, Neurofibromatosis, and many more and less known affect you or your immediate circle of family and friends. Moreover, because those who are non-visibly disabled must self-identify, every workplace currently has some level of neurological diversity in place.
The great majority of affected people are willing and able to earn their living in personally satisfying roles and their increasing numbers will change the nature of the workplace. Organizations must “make way” for this burgeoning workforce. No one asks them to make way by creating space or openings, but the numbers are looming. For example, the Smithsonian Education Science Center reports, “STEM-related jobs grew at three times the rate of non-STEM jobs between 2000 and 2010. By 2018, it is projected that 2.4 million STEM jobs will go unfilled.”
SHRM quoted Nasdaq Vice Chairman Bruce E. Aust as saying, there were “500,000 well-paying computing jobs currently unfilled in the U.S. By 2020, there will be one million more computing jobs nationally than there will be graduates to fill them, resulting in a $500 billion opportunity gap.”
For most recruiting employers, STEM education is the “obvious” solution for this gap. But neurologically diverse candidates offer a ready solution to the talent shortage. One study assessed shifting human resources policies and practices at major employers including Caterpillar, Dell Technologies, Deloitte, Ford, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, SAP, and UBS among others.
These employers have recruited and placed high-functioning non-visibly disabled talent in jobs where they demonstrate extraordinary focus. Moreover, they tend to be reliable in terms of attendance, policy compliance, and cooperation.
Robert Austin and Gary Pisano analyzed neurodiversity as a competitive advantage for Harvard Business Review saying, “Perhaps the most surprising benefit [of employing neurologically diverse workers] is that managers have begun thinking more deeply about leveraging the talents of all employees through greater sensitivity to individual needs.”
But the use of “leveraging” concerns us.
Making The Connection
Erin had two problems. Studies in comorbidity find as many as 80% of neurodiverse people have more than one condition. For example, Erin is on the Autism Spectrum, but she has also been diagnosed with ADHD. As she grew up and with the help of medication, Erin has managed to control the ADHD behaviors. However, at her job in data entry, she experiences the same bullying she endured in school.
A handful of corporations have reported success in employing neurologically diverse adults. Microsoft and SAP, for example, intentionally recruit candidates who have self-identified as neurologically diverse. They hire and place them in cohorts including supportive colleagues directed to focus on “appropriate” targets.
Fortune reports, “EY now has five Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence to facilitate these staffers’ integration into the firm: Together they serve 80 employees.” Their Neurological Centers of Excellence have recruited, relocated, and assimilated many affected candidates they support and assign to particularly challenging and innovative projects.
But there is something paternalistic about these approaches. They are less focused on the social impact of their efforts and more interested in “leveraging” the talent. That is, they are offering strategic frameworks to fill gaps and retain employees with talents specific to their business interests. They are recruiting and placing functionaries.
These efforts consciously recruit the disabled intending to optimize their difference. They are not recruiting the whole person. Despite their avowed goodwill, these businesses are recruiting for utility. KeyBank of Cleveland may have a better model. Bob Darrow, a data analyst for the bank, has a non-visible disability who loves his job and workplace. Cleveland.com quotes him as saying, “It’s really cool. I’m in the game. This was such a godsend.”
The bank contracts its atypical employees from an agency committed to recruiting, matching, and preparing their clients for KeyBank’s specific needs and corporate culture. Each of the stakeholders feels an emotional connection, respect, and security comfort the neurologically affected workers.
Functional HR typically interviews candidates seeking that “gut” feeling, the “personal chemistry” that says the applicant is “just the right fit” for the job description, the work unit’s camaraderie, and the manager’s style. So, they test for communication, networking, and people-pleasing personalities. This is HR management by checklist.
It will take a lot to turn this HR ship around. But organizations working on the strategic recruiting, placing, and management of neurologically diverse have experienced improved productivity, innovation, and employee engagement. To catch this workplace wave, businesses must:
Any successful move requires inspiration and drive from the top. If a business means to benefit from diverse abilities, it takes top-down commitment, passion, and support.
Reasonable accommodation for neurodiverse needs rarely involves architectural changes. But it may mean being ready with quiet spaces and sound-reducing headphones. Employees may prefer to stand while they work, play with a fidget wheel, or work under special lighting.
To create and sustain a welcoming and supportive culture, a business must train and retrain managers and frontline leads. And, they will share and communicate experiences with employees and other stakeholders.
Businesses have not been proactively at this very long. But there is support out there. You can share problems and successes with resources like National Autism Organization, Line Connect, Headstrong Nation (for adults), CHADD (Children & Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder), and more.
Neurologically diverse employees prefer a structured routine. Organizations must structure work with clear tasks and goals. But they must remain flexible enough to respond to individual needs with customized performance metrics.
Still, success comes down to giving employees the comfort and respect of a psychologically safe work environment characterized by emotional and empathic intelligence. Research at Best Practice Institute produced the data supporting our claim that respect in the workplace is directly related to a feeling of emotional connectedness. People feel respected if there is an environment of mutual support, a bond of acceptance, values alignment, two-way dialog, and reciprocal trust. While writing In Great Company, “I found that respect enables emotional connection, and emotional connection cultivates respect.”
According to Laura Delizonna, publishing in Harvard Business Review, with a culture of psychological safety in place, “you can expect to see higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more Learning and Development opportunities, and better performance.” She also quotes Paul Santagata, head of industry at Google, “There’s no team without trust.”
Employees, neurologically disabled or not, perform better in a climate where mutual respect is enabled and empowered. When respect becomes the norm, people connect emotionally, collaborate better, and inspire innovation.
When neurologically diverse workers feel welcome and safe, they contribute in effective ways. They might bring extraordinary focus to tasks like data, entry, accounting, IT help, assembly, shipping/receiving, and more. They bring new perspectives to routine tasks and collaborative teamwork. They ask questions without verbal nuance or personal agenda. They ignore office gossip and politics. And, this makes for better work and a better workplace.