May 8 2022

What is neurodiversity and how can HR teams embrace it?

An inclusive workforce brings new perspectives, ideas, and insights to a business. So much so that companies that embrace neurodiversity can gain a significant competitive advantage. In this article we’ll share the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce and how HR teams can harness eclectic talent by promoting a more inclusive culture.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity refers to how people’s brains can function differently from what is considered normal or typical. In fact, there’s no ‘right’ way of thinking. It’s about recognising that differences are not only natural in the human population, but beneficial once we understand more about them.

Some examples of neurodiverse conditions include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia. 

Why are neurodiverse employees suddenly becoming recognised? 

The term ‘neurodiversity’ was first used in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer. Since then, our understanding of neurodiversity has grown immensely. 

It’s become a movement championed by those with neurodiverse conditions and others, such as science writer Steve Silberman. Steve wrote a book titled Neuro-Tribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.

Being neurodiverse is more common than most of us think. An estimated 15% – 20% of the UK population has neurological differences. That’s around 1 in 5 of us. 

As our knowledge of neurodiversity has grown, so too has the movement to celebrate the neurodiverse population. In March 2022, Neurodiversity Celebration Week raised awareness of neurodiversity and addressed misconceptions. Importantly, it also educated employers on the benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce.

Are businesses inclusive of neurodiverse employees?

Only 21.7% of people with autism in the UK are employed. People with autism are the least likely to find employment than any other disabled group. 

Based on this statistic, there’s a long way to go before businesses are universally inclusive of neurodiversity. But that could be set to change. 

A new initiative called Neurodiversity in Business (NiB) has launched which reflects a growing awareness of the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce. Partners include multinational firms such as Natwest, TalkTalk, Lloyds Banking Group, and Rolls Royce.

Through NiB, not-for-profit organisations like the National Autistic Society and the British Dyslexia Association celebrate and empower neurodiversity. They also provide resources to educate businesses to support them in employing neurodiverse people. 

The industry forum also enables businesses to share best practices with each other. The channel also provides opportunities to develop inclusive recruitment strategies and demonstrate the positive business outcomes that neurodiverse employees can contribute to.

What skills do neurodiverse people bring to the workplace?

Because neurodivese people can think and process information differently, it can bring tremendous value to an organisation. According to Neurodiversity in the workplace by Dentons, neurodiverse people can bring the following strengths to a workplace:

  • High level information processing skills: Neurodiverse people tend to notice irregularities in data more easily and are quick to recognise patterns.
  • Greater productivity: J P Morgan’s study Autism at work found that employees with autism were 140% more productive than their counterparts. Hewlett-Packard similarly found that when they employed 30 neurodiverse people they were 30% more productive than other employees in the business.
  • More attention to detail: They can focus for longer periods of time than other employees on complicated and repetitive tasks.

When SAP introduced their program Autism at work, they began to employ people who wouldn’t have got through their usual recruitment process. As a result, they tapped into a pool of talented people, some with dual degrees in maths, computer science, and engineering. 

SAP continues to benefit from the skills these talented employees bring to their business. One employee for example saved the company $40 million by fixing a technical issue. 

What are the wider benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace?

Here are some more benefits to having a neurodiverse workforce:

Neurodiverse-friendly communication is better for everyone

Those with autism, for example, can take the spoken word literally and may not pick up on irony, sarcasm, or metaphors. 

By communicating with neurodiverse colleagues, other employees may find their own communication skills improving because they have to think more carefully about how they communicate. This can lead to better communication between employees, and between the business and its clients.

Neurodiverse people are likely to stay longer

Hewlett-Packard have found that neurodiverse employees tend to be more loyal and turnover rates are lower. This could be because employment opportunities are still limited, and Hewlett-Packard values their skills. 

Supporting neurodiversity brings flexibility for all

Embracing neurodiverse employees can mean a business begins to place more value on everyone’s individual talents and adopts a more flexible approach. This means that management styles, the physical environment, and working hours might adapt to maximise each person’s contributions. This brings benefits to all employees. 

Neurodiversity is key to innovation 

SAP values people’s differences because they believe difference is the key to innovation. Anka Wittenberg from SAP likens people to irregular puzzle pieces. Anka says; “The corporate world has mostly missed out on this benefit” believing that “Innovation is most likely to come from parts of us that we don’t all share.”

Companies like SAP are prioritising innovation. This new approach is opening employment opportunities to people who think differently and bring considerable value to the business.

How can HR teams embrace neurodiversity and promote inclusivity of neurodiverse employees? 

If you’re considering how your organisation can support neurodiversity at work, it can be overwhelming. Here are some ideas to help you get started:

  • Check out Neurodiversity in Business for resources. You can also become a member. 
  • Reach out to charities such as The National Autistic Society and MIND – they may be able to offer you resources and/or support. 
  • Talk to other businesses who employ neurodiverse people to understand their experiences, how they approached it, and what helped them. 
  • Reach out to any neurodiverse employees and understand how you can best support them, because everybody is a unique individual.

Think big about neurodiversity for big changes to your business 

Realising the benefits that companies like SAP and Hewlett-Packard have reported takes major changes and commitment. For HR teams, this can mean overhauling the way you approach recruitment and retention. 

To effect bigger changes to your approach to neurodiversity, consider these areas of your people strategy:

Rethink the traits that make a ‘good employee’

Highly sought after traits include the ability to work as a team, communication skills, and high emotional intelligence. However, when employers stand by criteria like these, it can exclude neurodiverse people from the outset.

For this reason, employers should consider a more broad set of criteria to include other qualities. For example observation skills, attention to detail, and the ability to absorb and retain information.

Find alternatives to interviews

Neurodiverse people may not perform as well in interviews as their neurotypical counterparts. That’s because they may be more honest or abrupt than others, find it hard to maintain eye contact, and have a different conversational manner.

Those who aren’t neurotypical may also struggle in interviews due to lower self-esteem as a result of their experiences in the world.

Some companies, such as the Specialisterne Foundation in Denmark, don’t use the formal interview process. Instead, they arrange informal gatherings where potential employees can show their skills through activities and casual interactions. 

Make adjustments in the workplace to be more inclusive

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so disabled employees can carry out their work. Autism and other neurodiverse conditions fall under this category.

Reasonable adjustments could include providing:

  • Noise-cancelling headphones to reduce workplace stimuli.
  • A space to work in a quieter place in the office.
  • The opportunity to work flexible working hours.
  • Access to a mentor who understands neurodiversity and how to support neurodiverse people at work.

Increasing employees’ awareness through open conversations and training

It’s important to have open conversations with all employees about neurodiversity so everybody feels comfortable. 

Providing training about neurodiversity in the workforce is key. Training can help all employees to understand neurodiverse colleagues and how best to support them. Extra training can be provided for managers and mentors who are providing more direct support.

Benefits of a neurodiverse workforce – key takeaways

  • A neurodiverse workforce can bring high level skills, fresh insights, and innovation to a business. These can add up to a clear competitive advantage.
  • To harness the talents of neurodiverse people, employers may need to adapt their recruitment processes, working environments, and standard practices. 
  • Working in partnership with not-for-profit organisations and neurodiverse employees as well as sharing experiences with other companies can help to ensure a successful, thriving workforce.