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How to support neurodivergent employees in the workplace

Practical ways to nurture neurodiversity in your interview process (and beyond)

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What does neurodiversity mean?Why neurodiversity is good for businessHow to get better at recruiting and interviewing neurodivergent candidatesHow to support neurodiversity in the workplace

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  • Neurodiversity describes the difference in the way people's brains think, interpret information, and interact with the world around them.
  • Neurodivergence is thought to describe 15% of the UK population and includes dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, and ADHD.
  • Being neurodivergent doesn't mean someone has a mental health condition but it does mean they're more like to experience a mental health condition.
  • Neurodivergent employees have some of the most sought-after skills in the modern workplace but to unlock those skills, often need to be in a supportive, open, and inclusive environment.
  • Simple actions, gestures, and adjustments starting at the interview stage and extending into everyday company life can help you recruit and support talented neurodivergent hires.

Before we get stuck into the best ways to hire and support a happy, neurodiverse team, we should probably spend a bit of time in dictionary corner. As always, challenging the stigma around a subject means getting our terminology right in the first place.

What does neurodiversity mean?

‘Neurodiversity’ describes the variation in the way people’s brains think, interpret information and interact with the world around them. Just like one person can’t be ethnically diverse, a single person can’t be neurodiverse, either. Only a group of people, like a workforce, a government or a classroom, can be neurodiverse.

When someone’s brain works differently to the way society expects, then they’re ‘neurodivergent’, and it’s estimated that this describes roughly 15% of the UK population. The opposite of neurodivergent is ‘neurotypical’, which describes the remaining 85% or so, whose brains all function in broadly the same way.

Neurodivergence can be genetic, or more rarely, acquired through a life experience which affects somebody’s cognitive functioning, like illness or trauma. Some examples of neurodivergence include:

- Dyslexia (which affects language processing)

- Dyspraxia (which affects physical coordination)

- Dyscalculia (which affects numerical processing)

- Dysgraphia (which affects written expression)

- Autism spectrum disorder

- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

- Tourette’s syndrome

Is there a link between neurodivergence and mental health?

Being neurodivergent doesn’t mean that someone has a mental health condition. But people with neurodivergent conditions are actually more likely to experience a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety. Though there’s some evidence that genetic factors have a role to play in this correlation, it also makes sense that living in a world that’s designed for people who think differently to you can profoundly affect your mental wellbeing.

A lack of understanding and support – as well as the stress of ‘masking’ your neurodivergence to avoid stigma or bias – can make navigating everyday experiences more challenging and stressful, leading to low self-esteem. But there’s no excuse for a lack of support or understanding in the workplace in 2022.

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Why neurodiversity is good for business

Inviting different perspectives and talents into your team is a reliable way to boost creative problem solving. And it’s been proven time and again that diverse teams give companies a competitive edge. Recognising the neurodivergence that exists in your workplace means more than supporting 15% of your staff (though that’s also pretty motivational); it means showing a commitment to inclusivity and wellbeing that’ll help you hire from the widest pool of talent available.

Awareness of the strengths that neurodivergent employees bring to the workplace, and the challenges they may face, has been growing ever since the term neurodiversity was coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the 90s. But it’s important to remember that neurodivergence doesn’t describe any single condition, and the needs, talents and experiences of neurodivergent employees vary massively from person to person.

Training your managers to create an open culture around neurodiversity and to listen to the individual needs of neurodivergent candidates and employees is a low-cost way to lower stress, boost performance and retain skilled staff. So, where can you start?

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How to get better at recruiting and interviewing neurodivergent candidates

There are plenty of ways to make your hiring process more accessible. And it’s worth remembering that the most forward-thinking workplaces do this by default – not just on request.  

👉 At the application stage

- Make sure there are different ways to complete a job application (by online form, by email, by phone, by post)
Audit your job descriptions and resist copy/pasting a generic wish list of abilities. If you ask for ‘excellent communication skills’, you might dissuade someone with dyslexia from applying – even if the role doesn’t involve any writing.

- Write about the job that’s available using unambiguous language, and set out key details like salary and working hours in a format that’s clear and easy to digest. Avoid specialist jargon and idioms like ‘hit the ground running’ or ‘hold down the fort’.

- Make your careers website more accessible, if you can. Something that’s visually flashy might look great, but rich media can distract or negatively impact neurodivergent candidates. Disable autoplay on videos and allow users to turn off moving images.

- Ask candidates to tell you about any particular interview adjustments that will help them to perform their best as part of the initial application.

👉 Before the interview

- Help people to feel more prepared by giving every candidate a detailed outline of the hiring process, including the format of each interview, how long you expect each part of the process to take, and names of the people who’ll be present at each stage.

- It might sound obvious, but if the candidate told you about any specific interview needs as part of their application, make sure to pass this information onto the people actually holding the interview. The candidate may prefer to attend the interview with an advocate, and may benefit from seeing any questions in advance.

- Avoid group or panel interviews as standard. Having several candidates or stakeholders present might be overwhelming for neurodivergent applicants, especially if they have autism or ADHD. You can avoid this by planning sequential interviews, instead.

👉 At the interview

- Whether you’re conducting the interview online or in person, it’s a good idea to make sure the room is quiet and free from sensory distractions. This might mean booking a room away from a main thoroughfare, or turning off any noisy Slack notifications for the duration of your call.

- Make sure that hiring managers know that neurodivergent candidates may struggle to interpret social cues or fail to display behavioural norms. Fidgeting or avoiding eye contact in an interview isn’t a good reflection of someone’s suitability for the role, and shouldn’t be reflected in their score.

- It can be challenging for neurodivergent candidates to pick up on implicit communication. An applicant might interpret things quite literally, and hypothetical questions may be tricky to answer. Instead, think about direct questions which focus on the candidate’s actual experiences and skills. Rather than asking, “How do you feel about working with data,” you could ask “did you work with data in your last job?” The more specific, the better. If you ask a candidate “Why do you want this job?”, expecting them to talk about the role in your company, then ask, “Why do you want this job at Spill?”

👉 After the interview

- Give every candidate clear feedback about why they were successful or unsuccessful in reaching the next stage.
- Make sure that you tell the line manager of a successful applicant about any disclosed neurodivergence, so they can offer the right support from the get-go.

How to support neurodiversity in the workplace

Once you’ve hired a skilled and diverse team, you’ll want to keep them happy. Encourage managers to have open conversations with their team about neurodiversity and any adjustments which would help team members feel more comfortable or productive at work.

There are some other low-cost things you can do to make your workplace better for neurodivergent employees (and improve the experience for everyone else along the way).

In shared workspaces:

- Coping with change can be challenging for neurodivergent employees, and that means hot-desking can be stressful. Prioritise fixed desks and corner offices for those who would benefit most (rather than divvying them out by seniority).  

- Make sure instructions for shared office appliances like printers and coffee machines are clear and visible.

- Adapt your workplace to accommodate quiet, low-traffic areas, and make sure there are bookable rooms or drop-in booths for phone calls.

- Avoid sensory distractions by replacing noisy fluorescent bulbs with LEDs, and allow noise-cancelling headphones during working hours.

- Tell everybody about the changes you’ve made to your workspaces, and why. It might just help to fight any stigma surrounding neurodivergence in your company.

In general:

- Make sure roles and responsibilities on every project are clear and communicated (avoid the ‘unspoken’ brief). Performance criteria should also be explicitly outlined.  

- Get your team to write ‘user manuals’ to improve understanding and respectful communication. A user manual has several prompts like ‘I do my best work when…’ or ‘It’s best to get hold of me by…’ Store these manuals somewhere that’s easy to access online.  

- Appoint (and train) a mental health first aider to be a first point of contact for anyone who might be struggling. Even better, consider implementing an external mental health support system, like an Employee Assistance Programme, or Spill.

- Update any guidance or policies on diversity and disabilities in your workplace to include neurodivergence.

- Celebrate neurodivergent role models and encourage team leaders and managers to share their own experiences.

- Avoid mystery meetings. Rather than sending someone in your team an ominous message saying “Can we talk?” try “I’m dropping some time in to catch up about the Blancmange project deadline.”

- Get your managers to identify opportunities for progression within the business for neurodivergent team members and offer support with applications, if appropriate.

Remember, whether you’re a team leader, Head of HR or the Big Boss, you don’t need to have all the answers yourself. Reach out to your network to see how other businesses are successfully nurturing neurodiversity – and most importantly, listen to feedback from any neurodivergent employees you already have.

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Use this checklist to make sure your hiring, onboarding and work processes are inclusive to neurodivergent individuals

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