Imaginative or different thinking is something that many businesses proclaim they are thirsty for. It’s these different ways of thinking that drive innovation and new business opportunities, bringing fresh viewpoints and solutions to old problems.
Yet the people who by definition do think differently - individuals with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia and other conditions sitting under the umbrella term of neurodiversity - can often struggle to shine in the workplace. Or even get a job at all. According to the UK National Autistic Society, for example, just 16% of adults on the autistic spectrum are in work, while 77% would like employment, while global data from Autism Speaks suggests that as many as 85% of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed.
This is a massive missed opportunity. Roughly one in 10 of the population are neurodivergent, with brains that learn and process information differently from the neurotypical majority. While there’s been an increasing recognition in the business world that they need to improve diversity, neurodiversity does not as yet get the same attention as gender, age or race, partly because it is less easy to spot.
And HR has to take some blame here. In the UK, a 2018 CIPD poll of HR professionals found that just one in 10 organizations considered neurodiversity in their people practices. This is simply bad for business, points out Diversity and Inclusion Architect Toby Mildon, as these alternative thinking styles have many benefits:
Great decision making, great creativity, innovation, staff retention and engagement goes up, better engagement with customers because your customer base is usually a lot more diverse than your employee base - those are the kinds of benefits an organization can benefit from.
Mildon also points out that diversity builds in organizational resilience - a quality that the coronavirus has brought into high relief:
Next time an organization faces a crisis, it will be better prepared to deal with that situation if it’s got that diversity in the office to make decisions. Different experiences, different perspectives make for better decision making.
Companies such as SAP, Microsoft, JP Morgan and many others have put a lot of effort into encouraging more neurodiversity in the workplace, but there is still much to do and for many companies the changes are only superficial, warns Mildon:
There are organizations that take this really seriously and do it really well and in such a way that it becomes part of the fabric of the organization: it’s business as usual for them and how they conduct themselves. But there are organizations who are treating this as a bit of a tick-box exercise or even as a good PR activity. They’ll win awards, it looks good on websites, it looks good in newspaper articles, but the reality is that the organization is still not that inclusive for employees the next day. If you look at The Times Top 50 employers awards, some of those employers in the Top 50 have the worst gender pay gaps.
Often diversity and inclusion is a very siloed and hierarchical approach. They tend to look at people in groups and categories and say, ‘This year we’re going to look at women and leadership’, then next year they start looking at ethnicity, the year after that it’s LGBTQ and eventually they’ll get round to disability one day. There is a lot of organizations that treat it that way.
While recognition and understanding of neurodivergence is slowly growing, there’s plenty of scope for improvement. Diversity has to be embedded into the culture, argues Mildon:
[Management guru] Peter Drucker says that culture eats strategy for breakfast, so it’s really important that companies prioritise culture over all of the short-lived diversity interventions. There’s loads of organizations that will get really excited about sponsoring the latest Pride event and not spending enough attention on the culture of the organization and also the system and the processes and infrastructure that actually prevents people from getting or getting ahead in the business.
For example, taking the example of autistic people, the bog standard recruitment process isn’t good. It uses language and job description that isn’t fair, they insist on face-to-face interviews that might not be appropriate to some people, so a lot of autistic people can’t get through the normal recruitment process.”
That last point is why IT consultancy Auticon, which exclusively hires individuals on the autistic spectrum, does not recruit people based on interviews. An interview is a platform for someone to show their social and communication skills - not their ability to do a particular job.
Auticon was the brainchild of German entrepreneur Dirk Müller-Remus. When his son was diagnosed with a form of high-functioning autism, Müller-Remus was dismayed by the lack of career prospects he saw for people like his son - roughly 80% of autistic people are out of work, according to the National Autistic Society. In response, he set up Auticon in Berlin in 2011, to hire people exclusively on the autistic spectrum as IT consultants.
The idea was to capitalize on the fact that many on the autistic spectrum, have superior cognitive abilities that lend themselves to IT roles such as software testing, data analytics or compliance - all areas that are highly sought after by businesses. What these candidates often lack are the social skills needed both to shine in a job interview and to retain that job. As Emma Walker, Country Manager of Auticon Scotland explains:
A lot of them have had a really rocky road. We’ve got a few people in our London office who’ve got PhDs and they’ve got a really chequered work history. Some have been unemployed for years and years; some have never worked. Up in Edinburgh, one of my consultants who is doing amazingly well has never worked before.
While candidates do not need to go through a traditional recruitment interview, there’s still a rigorous selection process to become a consultant. As Walker points out:
We don’t interview at all because social skills are not something that autistic people excel at. The consultants we employ all have excellent cognitive abilities often over and above neurotypical people.
Before they apply, candidates must either have studied a STEM subject at university level (they don’t need to have completed their degree, as Auticon understands that autism can sometimes get in the way of that), have at least one year’s relevant work experience or are able to code at least one programming language.
If they fulfil one of those criteria, then candidates attend an informal day event where they are tested for their cognitive abilities - things like pattern recognition and logical analysis. If they do well in those tasks, then they are asked about their technical ability, and tested in that.
The final stage of the recruitment process is a two-day workshop where there are further cognitive skills assessments and a session with a job coach where they try to understand the person a little bit more. The coach will find out about their experiences, the jobs they’ve liked or haven‘t liked, future aspirations and the type or role they would ideally like as well as training they’d like to do. They’ll also find out about any issues about the workplace - for example if they have any sensory issues with lighting and there will also be some training on communication and stress in the workplace. The final hurdle is a very informal group presentation.
It’s an in-depth process, but at the end of it the Auticon team has a very good idea of each individual’s strengths, challenges and how best they can support them in the workplace. Armed with that knowledge they are able to match an individual to the right customer or contract.
Before they start, Auticon representatives will brief the people who will be working with the consultant, talking about specific issues that consultant may have, for example, perhaps they don’t like shaking hands. Those on the spectrum also prefer very clear, unambiguous forms of communication. This benefits everyone, not just the Auticon consultant, says Walker:
It’s not just the autistic person that benefits, it’s the whole team because the management has to think about the way they communicate and quite often it’s a little bit fuzzy and not very clear. So they have to sharpen that up.
Difference and diversity
There are other differences. Unlike typical IT consultancies, once a contract comes to an end, that individual remains employed by Auticon and is paid a monthly salary until a new position is secured for them. All the consultants have a job coach who supports them with job and life issues throughout their time at Auticon.
Alongside being an IT consultancy, Auticon is a social enterprise, says Walker:
Over and above placing consultants, we have a social mission, which is firstly, we give autistic people highly skilled careers. They are permanently employed by us and we believe by placing the consultants in existing teams within organizations that it changes people’s perceptions about autism….actually they are just another member of the team. We believe this acts as a catalyst for organizations, when they see how successful one or two consultants have been for them, to bring more neurodiversity into their wider organization. That’s our aim.
By raising awareness in the company it may also encourage existing employees to recognize or disclose their own autism and equally encourage companies to think about their recruitment process.
The key question is, is all this effort worth it? Very much so, according to Walker:
The feedback we’ve had is that our consultants outperform a neurotypical person doing the same role. We’re very careful that we have matched the right role to the right consultant, so I think that as long as we make that match correctly we can be confident they will outperform the neurotypical person because they can work a lot quicker and a lot more accurately.
Companies need to be more proactive in searching for talent, forging relationships with local organizations to find potential candidates who are on the autistic spectrum rather than posting a job ad and waiting for people to approach them. In part 2 of this look at neurodiversity, tech exemplars from SAP and Cloud9 show the way ahead.