Sunny Cash has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When she found herself working at her dream job in sales for a professional sports team, she was conflicted — she enjoyed her work but knew she wasn’t in an “inclusive space” that would allow her to thrive as a neurodiverse employee. It required many monotonous tasks, such as cold calling around 60 people each day.
“I’d find ways to kind of accommodate myself,” she said, turning to in-person prospecting rather than cold calling. But things only got more complicated. After surviving a major medical event and a surgery that almost killed her, she found herself reevaluating her trajectory.
“I need to make sure I do something that makes a measurable impact,” she thought. She leaned into her passion for people with disabilities and desire for an inclusive work experience. Like others, her pandemic upheaval and career shift led her exactly where she needed to be. She is now Bened Life’s community director, where her days are filled with consulting with leaders on how to encourage a more neurodiverse-friendly environment at work.
According to 2020 research published in the British Medical Bulletin, “a reasonable estimate of all neurominorities within the population is around 15–20%.” Yet for neurodiverse individuals—particularly those on the autism spectrum—finding employment can be a challenge.
Companies like Microsoft have recently declared their intentions to work toward lowering unemployment rates and hire neurodiverse talent. Some employers have already built a work culture inclusive to employees who identify as neurodivergent, while others are just learning the term; “neurodiversity” points to conditions as differences, not deficits. Neurodivergent employees commonly have one of the following conditions, according to Cleveland Clinic:
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Down syndrome
- Dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyslexia or dyspraxia
- Intellectual disabilities
- Mental health conditions such as bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorders
- Sensory processing disorders
- Social anxiety
- Tourette’s Syndrome, Williams syndrome or Prader-Willi syndrome
Workplace leaders and managers have a unique opportunity to intentionally make workplace environments accommodating to all employees, including those who are neurodivergent. Here’s how they can start doing that today.
Evaluate your hiring practices
Consider your own biases. Are you actively seeking out neurodiverse candidates, not paying much attention to their specific needs or actively skipping over candidates who share they’re neurodiverse? Kyle Elliott, Ed.D., founder and career coach at CaffeinatedKyle.com, advises companies on their inclusion strategies.
“One step leaders can take to support their employees who identify as neurodiverse is assess their recruitment and hiring processes and practices, as this is the first point of contact potential talent has with the company. Take time to review how potential candidates learn about your organization and mental health values, as well as the benefits and resources you offer,” he says.
It can be helpful for hiring managers just getting familiar with best practices in hiring a diverse staff to partner with a resource. Brad Anderson, founder of digital marketing and web development agency Fruition, partnered with the University of Colorado Boulder’s “Leeds + TechStars Elevate” program, where he connected with the first neurodiverse employee he hired, who had exceptional math and statistics abilities but was struggling to hold down a job.
Cash recommends connecting with resources that help place neurodivergent job candidates in positions as part of your regular hiring processes.
“Those stereotypical job sites are not as accessible to [some], so these nonprofits have sponsors and job advocates to help guide them to the proper job that fits their needs,” Cash says.
Colin Willis, Ph.D., IO psychology program manager at HireVue, which specializes in “video interviewing, assessments and text-enabled recruiting tools,” according to a company press release, conducted research that determined using games leads to less unfair “screening out” that regularly happens with traditional hiring methods.
“Game-based assessments not only possess features that make them more engaging and accessible, but they can also be taken at any place and at any time, as they are delivered by either computer or smartphone, making them highly accommodating relative to traditional screening methods, such as interviews,” Willis says. Taking time to learn about and consider these alternative interview methods can lead to more inclusive results.
Open discussion of accommodations
Not all employees are open to revealing their conditions, nor do they legally have to. But having an open discussion about what accommodations might make the person more successful in their job is a conversation leaders should be having with all employees, not targeting anyone they “suspect” to be neurodivergent. Cash explains this prevents leaders from falling into stereotyping, as there are no “one-size-fits-all” accommodations.
She gives an example: If one neurodivergent staffer needs blue light blockers for a light sensitivity, it can be easy to think others would too, but the wide variety of accommodations can feel overwhelming to employers. “There’s a misunderstanding and a fear, like ‘Oh my gosh, everyone’s different. I have to accommodate everyone differently, that sounds like a lot of work,’” she explains. But really, it comes back to simply having an open conversation allowing each employee to self-advocate, rather than guessing their needs as an employer.
Cash worked with an autistic team member who vocalized, in one such meeting, that finance management is an area in which she needs an accommodation. “She’s like, ‘my autism won’t allow me to do that,’” when the company suggested charging expenses to a credit card to then be paid back for travel. “She has a real issue with numbers and being organized with her money, and she’s also very scared to get a credit card,” she said. Cash found herself checking her own hesitation, thinking originally “it’s not that big of a deal.” It was quite simple to just have her arrange her travel purchases ahead of time.
Not only should direct managers have conversations with new employees about what accommodations would make them most successful, but they should do so periodically, such as at quarterly meetings, as their own needs might become more apparent as they get settled or “role fatigue” sets in, Cash explains.
Here’s what that conversation might look like, she says:
- Tell me a bit about yourself.
- How do you work best?
- What are some things that challenge you when you are working?
- Are there any accommodations that need to be made?
Commit to education, not just accommodation
Cash’s team made it possible for her employee with credit card concerns to pivot and use another route. But she adds they’d be doing a disservice if they only accommodate the challenge, calling it a “bandaid.”
“If they want to get better, for example, with money management, there are a couple of people who are happy to provide tools that have worked for them,” Cash says. “It’s cool that we have leadership that’s wanting to donate their time to provide those resources.”
The idea that the employer has the opportunity to build the whole person—and their skills—isn’t isolated to neurodivergent employees; it’s a trend that has increased in popularity in recent years. The idea is that a company investing in an employee’s growth will continue investing right back in the company.
Be proactive in inclusive and accommodating work spaces and schedules
Tara Furiani, a C-level executive with ADHD, dyslexia and panic disorder, and CEO at Not the HR Lady, can be found working where the fewest people are around, or wearing headphones if she’s working remotely. She has some advice for employers.
“Be proactive. Create an inclusive and accommodating workplace by providing accommodations such as flexible working hours, clear communication and providing training on neurodiversity to managers and colleagues. Additionally, foster a culture of acceptance, where individuals with neurodiverse conditions feel comfortable disclosing their condition and requesting accommodations,” she says.
As a parent and neurodiverse people leader, she says flexible working hours have been a “lifesaver.”
“I often have bursts of creative energy at odd hours, especially in the very early mornings, and being able to work during those times has been crucial in my productivity. Additionally, the ability to work from home (or a travel destination) has been a huge help in managing my panic disorder. It allows me to create a calm and safe environment for myself and avoid triggers that may cause anxiety.”
Jessica Tuman is an executive at Voya Financial and head of the company’s Voya Cares program, which specializes in the financial planning needs and advocacy of those with special needs and disabilities. She says clear communication, from the first interview through the duration of employment, is a must.
“Managers should be trained to provide detailed instructions and avoid ambiguity in task assignments. Things that may seem obvious, such as how to prioritize assignments or performance criteria should be clearly outlined,” she says. “Just as with the interview, workers who are neurodiverse benefit when they are provided questions in advance and when their intent is not judged by eye contact or having the ‘right’ facial expression.”
Furiani adds that the bottom line is simple: “Let’s not forget—a little bit of empathy and understanding can go a long way.”
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