Why neurodiversity presents job opportunities
by Robert D. Austin, a professor of information systems and the faculty director of the Learning Innovation Initiative at Ivey Business School.
"Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome,” John Elder Robison, a scholar in residence and a co-chair of the Neurodiversity Working Group at the College of William and; Mary, writes in a blog on Psychology Today’s website. Robison, who himself has Asperger’s syndrome, adds, “Indeed, 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.” We couldn’t agree more.
Everyone is to some extent differently abled (an expression favoured by many neurodiverse people), because we are all born different and raised differently. Our ways of thinking result from both our inherent “machinery” and the experiences that have “programmed” us.
Most managers are familiar with the advantages organizations can gain from diversity in the backgrounds, disciplinary training, gender, culture, and other individual qualities of employees. Benefits from neurodiversity are similar but more direct. Because neurodiverse people are wired differently from “neurotypical” people, they may bring new perspectives to a company’s efforts to create or recognize value.
Nevertheless, the neurodiverse population remains a largely untapped talent pool. When they are working, even highly capable neurodiverse people are often under-employed. Program participants told us story after story of how, despite having solid credentials, they had previously had to settle for the kinds of jobs many people leave behind in high school.
The Australian Defence Department is now working to develop a neurodiversity program in cybersecurity; participants will apply their superior pattern-detection abilities to tasks such as examining logs and other sources of messy data for signs of intrusion or attack. Using assessment methods borrowed from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), it has found candidates whose relevant abilities are “off the charts.” (The IDF’s Special Intelligence Unit 9900, which is responsible for analysing aerial and satellite imagery, has a group staffed primarily with people on the autism spectrum. It has proved that they can spot patterns others do not see.)
The case for neurodiverse hiring is especially compelling given the skills shortages that increasingly afflict technology and other industries. For example, the European Union faces a shortage of 800,000 IT workers by 2020, according to a European Commission study. The biggest deficits are expected to be in strategically important and rapidly expanding areas such as data analytics and IT services implementation, whose tasks are a good match with the abilities of some neurodiverse people.
Why Companies Don’t Tap Neurodiverse Talent
What has kept so many companies from taking on people with the skills they badly need? It comes down to the way they find and recruit talent and decide whom to hire (and promote).
Especially in large companies, HR processes are developed with an eye toward wide application across the organization. But there is a conflict between scalability and the goal of acquiring neurodiverse talent. “ If we were to use the same processes for everyone, we would miss people with autism.”
In addition, the behaviours of many neurodiverse people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee—solid communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, salesperson-type personalities, the ability to network, the ability to conform to standard practices without special accommodations, and so on. These criteria systematically screen out neurodiverse people.
But they are not the only way to provide value. In fact, in recent decades the ability to compete on the basis of innovation has become more crucial for many companies. Innovation calls on firms to add variety to the mix—to include people and ideas from “the edges”. You might think that organizations could simply seek more variety in prospective employees while retaining their traditional recruiting, hiring, and development practices. Many have taken that approach: Their managers still work top down from strategies to capabilities needed, translating those into organizational roles, job descriptions, and recruiting checklists. But two big problems cause them to miss neurodiverse talent.
The first involves a practice that is almost universal under the traditional approach: interviewing. Although neurodiverse people may excel in important areas, many don’t interview well. For example, autistic people often don’t make good eye contact, are prone to conversational tangents, and can be overly honest about their weaknesses. Some have confidence problems arising from difficulties they experienced in previous interview situations. Neurodiverse people more broadly are unlikely to earn higher scores in interviews than less-talented neurotypical candidates. Fortunately, as we’ll see, interviews are not the only way to assess a candidate’s suitability.
The second problem, especially common in large companies, derives from the assumption that scalable processes require absolute conformity to standardized approaches. As mentioned, employees in neurodiversity programs typically need to be allowed to deviate from established practices. This shifts a manager’s orientation from assuring compliance through standardization to adjusting individual work contexts. Most accommodations, such as installing different lighting and providing noise-cancelling headphones, are not very expensive. But they do require managers to tailor individual work settings more than they otherwise might.
How Pioneers Are Changing The Talent Management Game
The tech industry has a history of hiring oddballs. The talented nerd who lacks social graces has become a cultural icon, as much a part of the industry mythos as the company that starts in a garage. In his book NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman points out that the incidence of autism is particularly high in places like Silicon Valley (for reasons not completely understood). He and others have hypothesized that many of the industry’s “oddballs” and “nerds” might well have been “on the spectrum,” although undiagnosed. Hiring for neurodiversity, then, could be seen as an extension of the tendencies of a culture that recognizes the value of nerds.
In recent years a few pioneering companies have formalized and professionalized those tendencies. Although their programs vary, they have elements in common, not least because they draw on the body of knowledge developed at Specialisterne. Thorkil Sonne founded the firm in 2004, motivated by the autism diagnosis of his third child. Over the next several years it developed and refined non interview methods for assessing, trialing, and managing neurodiverse talent and demonstrated the viability of its model by running a successful for-profit company focused on software testing.
Dissatisfied with the rate at which his own company could create jobs, Sonne established the Specialist People Foundation (recently renamed the Specialisterne Foundation in 2008 to spread his company’s know-how to others and persuade multinationals to start nerodiversity programs. Most companies that have done so have worked with the foundation to deploy some version of the Specialisterne approach.
A growing number of companies, including SAP, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, and Microsoft, have reformed their HR processes in order to access neurodiverse talent—and are seeing productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and increased employee engagement as a result. The programs vary but have seven major elements in common. Companies should:
The work for managers will be harder, but the payoff to companies will be considerable: access to more of their employees’ talents, along with diverse perspectives that will help them compete.
Challenges of a Neurodiverse Workforce
To be sure, companies implementing neurodiversity programs have encountered challenges. Although there are plenty of potential candidates, many are hard to identify, because universities—sensitive to issues of discrimination—do not classify students in neurodiversity terms, and potential candidates do not necessarily self-identify. In response, HPE is helping colleges and high schools set up nontraditional “work experience” programs for neurodiverse populations. These involve video gaming, robotic programming, and other activities. Microsoft, too, is working with universities to improve methods of identifying and accessing neurodiverse talent.
A Major Shift in Managing People
Neurodiversity programs induce companies and their leaders to adopt a style of management that emphasizes placing each person in a context that maximizes her or his contributions.
One corporation uses a metaphor to communicate this idea across the organization: People are like puzzle pieces, irregularly shaped. Historically, companies have asked employees to trim away their irregularities, because it’s easier to fit people together if they are all perfect rectangles. But that requires employees to leave their differences at home—differences firms need in order to innovate.
“The corporate world has mostly missed out on this [benefit],”.
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Photo by Geralt