Building an inclusive workplace that supports neurodiverse team members

scan of a brain, science museum

Article by Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder, JourneyHR

Diversity and inclusion are rising up the business agenda within many organisations, as leaders increasingly recognise the benefits of a diverse workforce on culture, innovation and growth.

But while much of the focus has centred around gender, race and sexuality, it’s important that as businesses continue to ramp up their diversity and inclusion efforts, they don’t overlook the value of neurodiversity.

First coined in the 1990s, the term ‘neurodiversity’ is broadly defined as covering variations in the way we think, with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, and Tourette’s among others, all falling under the ‘neurodiverse’ umbrella. It’s estimated that neurodiverse individuals make up more than 10% of the population – meaning they account for a large number of job applicants, employees and customers.  

As our understanding and awareness around the strengths and skills of neurodiversity grows – from problem solving to creative insight and visual spatial thinking – we’re seeing progressive organisations such as Amazon and Microsoft tap into this talent pool with dedicated hiring programmes.

Yet, despite this, many people continue to encounter difficulties in finding work, gaining the right support from employers and progressing their career. Figures from the Institute of Leadership & Management revealed that half of UK employers would not employ someone who had one or more neurodivergent condition, while just 22% of autistic adults are in employment.

It’s clear that much more needs to be done to improve the support on offer to neurodiverse employees. We need to build workplaces that are welcoming and safe for all individuals, creating cultures that embrace and celebrate our differences.

Hire neurodiverse

There are lots of different ways businesses can foster a neurodiverse culture and a great place to start is by reviewing the organisation’s hiring and onboarding processes to ensure a commitment to diversity and inclusion is signalled throughout.

The wording of job adverts should be clear and precise, listing the technical skills required for the role rather than generic and often open-to-interpretation traits. A statement on diversity and inclusion, either on the advert or on the company website, will help prospective applicants to feel more comfortable applying and disclosing their neurodiversity without fear of judgement.

Often, interviews are a chance for candidates to demonstrate their social skills but it’s important that the interview structure is free of unconscious bias and gives candidates varied opportunities to show their skillset. For example, autistic candidates may benefit from having the interview process explained ahead of meeting in person and being interviewed in a room which isn’t too overwhelming in terms of people and visual stimuli.

Create support structures

Creating a culture of inclusivity is critical to ensuring neurodiverse employees not only feel welcomed but supported and encouraged to fulfil their potential. As diversity advocate Verna Myers famously said – “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Social support can be essential in making neurodiverse employees feel a valued part of the team. A great way of doing this is through an Employee Resource Group which are formed around a common interest or characteristic and offer support and a compassionate community in which people can voice their concerns and feel a sense of belonging.

Similarly, buddy systems can be very helpful, providing employees with support, advice and guidance in a ‘safe space.’

Train staff

Unfortunately, bias and stigma around neurodiversity still exists, with research showing that more than half of autistic, dyspraxic and dyscalculic employees felt people in their workplace behaved in a way that excluded them.

Greater education and understanding around our cognitive differences will not only help to break down some of the misconceptions but will also encourage neurodiverse employees to feel safer opening up to their employer and make it easier for managers and colleagues to understand the type of support they need.

A large number of organisations already have some form of diversity and inclusion training, so working neurodiversity into an existing programme can be a simple way to achieve this.  

Change the work environment

We’ve grown accustomated to creating styles and patterns of working that are suited to neurotypical employees, but understanding individual preferences for social interaction, communication and working environment is invaluable when it comes to creating a happier and more productive workforce.  

Research has shown that anxiety rates for autistic adults are more than twice that of neurotypical people so employers should consider offering full or part-time remote working for those who feel uncomfortable or anxious in an office.

Leaders should also look at the equipment used in the office and how it can be changed accordingly. Making small adjustments can be simple and inexpensive to implement and can have a hugely beneficial impact on neurodiverse individuals. For example, businesses could supply talking calculators for those who struggle with numeracy or ergonomic keyboards for employees with dyspraxia.

However, true inclusion is about more than just blanket actions. The experience of each employee will be different, meaning they will require individual and tailored support and communication.

Leaders should start by consulting their teams directly to see what affects each individual most acutely and work closely with their employees to co-design a working environment that suits their individual needs, gaining feedback along the way to adapt and overcome changing concerns.

Inclusivity isn’t something that can simply be ‘done’ and then forgotten about – it is an ongoing task that requires constant commitment, focus, self-awareness and learning. Not only do businesses have a moral duty to promote equitable values but failing to build true diversity and inclusion risks excluding talent and harming the bottom line in the long run.

Aliya Vigor-Robertson, Co-founder, JourneyHRAbout the author

Aliya has over 20 years of HR experience working with founder-run businesses across the creative and marketing industries, helping them shape their people practices and organisational culture to make great places to work.

She enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience in the industry as a Design Business Association Expert and a role model with Media for All. Aliya regularly shares insights and guidance in publications such as The Times Raconteur and Creativepool.


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