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Neurodiversity: Re-thinking the Hiring Process

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In any conversation surrounding workplace culture, it seems that the topic of diversity is almost inescapable as of late. Indeed, it has become a buzzword of sorts, inspiring countless articles, info graphics, policies, and discussions. Though diversity of gender, race, education, etc. may be top of mind, the term is now beginning to change shape to embrace a new concept: neurodiversity.

The National Symposium on Neurodiversity at Syracuse University defines neurodiversity as a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation.  “Many individuals who embrace the concept of neurodiversity believe that people with differences do not need to be cured; they need help and accommodation instead,” explains John Elder Robison, a scholar in residence and a co-chair of the Neurodiversity Working Group at the College of William & Mary,  in a blog on Psychology Today’s website.

In the workplace, that translates to viewing neurological differences not as a hindrance, but as a competitive advantage that, when accommodated and supported, can help take your company to the next level. Neurodiversity programs are being implemented at pioneering companies across the country to tap into the potential of this previously untapped group.

Untapped Potential

Though these progressive HR programs typically focus on people with autism, they can be easily expanded to include those with dyslexia, ADHD, or social anxiety disorders, among other conditions. These individuals may not fit the standard employee profile that hiring managers look for due to non-typical social skills. However, they often have extraordinary abilities in fields such as math, memory, or pattern recognition that can be extremely useful in careers in data analytics, software engineering, or cyber security, among others. Despite this, as many as 80% of the neurodiverse population is unemployed. Even those with advanced degrees struggle to find companies that are able to look past their disorder.

Rigid processes and unchanging methodology are to blame. Companies want to use tried-and-true recruitment and hiring methods that can be easily scaled. While this is effective for hiring in large quantities, by design, it eliminates neurodiverse applicants. Those with neurological differences do best when set processes, such as interviewing or on-boarding, are adjusted to accommodate their unique needs. This may sound daunting but can frequently entail only small fixes with a large reward.

Reaping the Rewards

For example, Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) has extended their interview process to allow time for neurodiverse individuals’ skills to emerge naturally. Early results show that the neurodiverse teams at Australia’s Department of Human Services, placed by HPE, are 30% more productive than other “neurotypical” teams.

In addition to increased productivity, organizations with neurodiverse individuals report experiencing more successful recruiting and hiring efforts, even in tough-to-fill skills categories. This becomes particularly important in the face of the growing skills shortages that tend to hit technology fields the hardest. According to the Korn Ferry Institute, technology, media, and telecommunications fields will be 1.1 million workers short by 2020. That number grows to 4.3 million by 2030. A neurodiverse workforce can help mitigate that impact.

Other advantages include higher levels of employee engagement and morale, lower turnover rates, and of course, reputational benefits.

Prominent Pioneers

Some big names are already enjoying these benefits, thanks to their neurodiversity programs. SAP has the longest running program; its Autism at Work program lunched in 2013. They customize a month-long hiring process to each neurodiverse candidate and focus on skills-based assessments. Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program uses similar “interview” methods that focus on practical skills instead of social skills. JPMorgan Chase restructured its interview process and conducts specific training to help recruiters and hiring managers utilize alternative hiring and communication methods.

Put it into Practice

Given the successes of these programs, it’s only a matter of time before they become common practice in companies of all industries. Get ahead of the curve by analyzing your own recruiting and hiring processes. Consider the following adjustments to make it more accessible to all.

Trade Out Interviews for Skills-Based Assessments

Common interview “tests”, such as handshakes and eye contact, are not usually a strength of candidates with autism and similar disorders. Judging their job abilities on this type of interaction automatically puts them at a disadvantage, even if they may very well be the best candidate for the job. Instead, consider the hard skills they need for the position and test those in a casual setting. For example, SAP has candidates build a LEGO robot from a set of detailed instructions. Exercises like this are more comfortable for the candidate to complete and offer insights as to how well they will perform the job at hand.

Team with “Social Partners” to Add Expertise to your Efforts

While you are likely an expert in your business, you are probably not an expert in neurological disorders. A key part of the process is finding someone who is. Government or non-profit organizations devoted to helping those with unique needs can be a valuable resource in finding, screening, training, and mentoring talent. For example, HPE partners with Autism SA (South Australia) to fill the knowledge gaps in their program. Lean on your partners for help in everything from navigating employment legislation to supporting your employees’ lives outside of the office.

Train Recruiters and Managers to Communicate Effectively

As with any organizational shift, your leaders will need guidance. Work with your managers to teach them best practices for interacting with neurodiverse applicants. Help them, in turn, coach recruiters and others involved in hiring to communicate effectively. This means avoiding open-ended questions, implementing structure, and giving concise feedback.

At their core, neurodiversity programs instigate a shift in thinking from cookie cutter hiring to a hand-crafted approach that gives each employee a platform from which to best showcase their natural abilities. This allows companies to capitalize on the collection of diverse talents that only a group of unique individuals can provide. As SAP’s Chief Diversity Officer, Anka Wittenburg, explains, “Innovation is most likely to come from parts of us that we don’t all share.”

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