By Jillian Godsil on Friday 10 June 2022
Employers should be adjusting both their hiring practices and working conditions to benefit from the broadest range of talent available, writes Jillian Godsil.
In July 2017, 1,200 CEOs of US companies including JPMorgan Chase, Ford, American Airlines and Netflix formed the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion (CEO Action), a coalition pledged to address the inclusion needs of their people and communities.
“This is not a charity, but a talent play,” according to James Mahoney, executive director and head of Autism at Work with JPMorgan Chase. The company undertook measurements of autistic peers compared with typical (non-autistic) employees. In just six months, the neurodiverse cohort was judged equal in quality to their neurotypical peers, many of whom had in excess of five years’ experience. Even more telling was that the autistic peers were 48 per cent more productive.
Often seen as a stigma, people on the spectrum may have tried to hide their neurodivergent condition when job hunting or indeed may not have been diagnosed until adulthood. High-functioning people on the autism spectrum often display extraordinary cognitive abilities associated with memory, concentration and analysis, and can outperform peers when working in rule-based environments such as mathematics or engineering.
Given this, it’s not surprising that many tech heroes are neurodiverse including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla. These significant measurements come to light as autism and associated spectrum conditions have traditionally been the poorer cousin to the overall diversity, equality and inclusion debate.
The high unemployment of people on the spectrum - some figures show only 16 per cent of adults with autism in full-time employment - would suggest that many neurodivergent individuals are not getting past the interview stage.
Typical face-to-face interviews can make people on the spectrum uncomfortable and an absence of non-verbal communication skills such as eye contact, body language and social cues can lead to unconscious bias on the employers’ part.
Experts suggest that adapting recruitment practices such as swapping out interview panels to on-the-job work trials would lead to much better talent acquisition outcomes. Even in job listings, awareness of the wording can make a difference. For example, if the job description says six years of Java coding is required, someone with neurodiversity and only five years’ experience might really suit the job but never apply.
And in addition, once in employment without the right support and resources, they may not achieve the significant results as reported by JPMorgan.
Neurodiversity in Business (NiB) was co-founded in the UK two years ago with a mandate to be a business-led forum functioning as an industry group for organisations to share industry good practices on ND recruitment, retention and empowerment.
David Pugh-Jones is a trustee and founding executive. He is also CMO of Cudos, a decentralised cloud computing network in Web3. He got involved for personal reasons as the father of an 11-year-old autistic son.
“There are so many individuals out there that are only now coming out and talking about their struggles with being neurodiverse. The premise for me is what happens to this generation of talent because that's what they are. They think differently, they act differently. They don't need to be in a nine-to-five working environment with blazing lights and loads of people shouting,” he says.
When Pugh-Jones announced he was founding NiB he was astonished when a number of his co-workers approached him to say they were autistic or had ADHD.
“Many of these people had hidden their diagnosis and were ashamed which made me very sad – and also confirmed my commitment to NiB.
“It’s not just people on the spectrum that need to be understood, neurotypical employers need to adjust both their hiring practices and working conditions to benefit from the talent available,” he says.
For example, neurodiverse people frequently need workplace accommodations, such as headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation, to activate or maximally leverage their abilities. The recent lockdown may actually provide greater options for neurodiverse people as remote working options may prove a better solution.
At the end of the day, neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome. Such individuals do not need to be cured but embraced.
“I hope that by the time my son enters the workplace, his autism will be seen as a badge of honour rather than a disability,” says Pugh Jones.
Finally, the secret to embracing this neglected and often talented proportion of the workforce may be to see everyone as differently-abled.