How do your line managers treat your (potential) neurodivergent staff?

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7 Dec 2022

Alison Carter, Principal Research Fellow

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Alison Carter

Last week I spent a day helping a young person with dyslexia and autism look for seasonal or weekend work. He had not had any luck responding to job vacancy posts on social media. He was invited to turn up for a chat but never hired. With 1.2 million unfilled vacancies in the UK and everywhere I go locally showing ‘We are hiring: enquire within’ signs, surely there can’t be a better time to be looking for that all-important first casual job?

We live in a tourist area, so most were catering or retail establishments but some large employers too. The young person is fit, presentable and even has food hygiene and first aid certificates. Ideally, he wanted a washer-upper role or in a warehouse, something without too much customer interaction. We brushed up his CV, practised some chat/interview Q&A and headed off. Well, things did not go well. After his fifth knock-back we paused to reflect over a coffee. Four of the employers had told him he would not fit in whilst the fifth said they did not have the time to worry about if he was ok. It sounded to me like none of the bosses felt comfortable employing someone with a neuro-difference.

Am I naïve in being disappointed by these reasons? According to research from Institute for Leadership and Management, half of managers would feel uncomfortable managing someone with a neuro-difference. Do you expect your line managers would respond any differently? Not wishing to be too challenging about this, but how do you know?

I have been reflecting on my experience and what this means for individuals, line managers and organisational cultures. I am not a job coach, but I genuinely believed I knew a thing or two about stigma and the recruitment and progression barriers associated with being different. That is because in my day job as a researcher, I have engaged with HR specialists from companies in the US and UK who have won awards for their neurodiversity at work initiatives.

I recently attended an international summit on neurodiversity organised by the prestigious Stanford University in the US, where I was fortunate enough to take part in virtual listening workshops with employees with lived experience of dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and other types of neurodiversity. I feel as up to date as anyone on what employers can do to deliver a more positive work experience for their neurodivergent employees. And I know some things applicants can do to better advocate for themselves.

What can employers do that makes a difference to neurodivergent staff? The big picture is about building a more considerate working environment. Good inclusive line management is not only relevant for neurodivergent employees, it will also help all employees to feel more included. That’s a major transformational journey for many employers. So, in the meantime, lets focus on what the award-winning companies do to accelerate their pro-neurodiversity journeys.

I noticed several activities that came up repeatedly covering the way people enter the workforce, develop, progress, get rewarded and, importantly, the way the employer collects data to measure results. Here’s a couple of examples. Firstly, a talent-based approach to recruitment puts the emphasis on differences instead of deficits. Award-winning companies offer to send their standard interview questions or tasks ahead of time; make it clear they will make interview adjustments and give examples of what these might include; they train their recruiters not to put applicants on the spot and they give applicants time to formulate their answers. Secondly, workplace language need to evolve if organisations want to ensure they aren’t inadvertently screening out neurodivergent people. Award-winning companies re-think whether a role really requires “social skills” and “networking skills” and they remain open to outcomes being achieved through deploying different skills.

At IES we also advocate for an individual centred approach to job design (job crafting) as it encourages people to articulate what they need, supports wellbeing, and puts the management effort into removing barriers to performance, instead of defending adjustment requests from job holders. You can read about wellbeing through job design here.

Let’s also remember that 15 per cent of the UK population have a neuro-difference (10 per cent dyslexia and 2 per cent autism). Most organisations already have a lot more neurodiverse people than they realise within their organisations or your supplier organisations and/or among their customers/service users. And with a major US bank claiming a 48 per cent increase in productivity within six months of starting their Autism at Work Initiative, it would seem there are business benefits too from making the effort.

Returning to my young person, I thought it important to stress the value of the learning we can take from failure, being resilient and asking for help. We practised how he could get across to potential local employers how reliable he was – as evidenced by a near perfect attendance record from sixth form college – or how loyal he was to a commitment once made – as evidenced from five continuous years of volunteering for the same charity. I would like to be able to tell you that his next two interview ‘chats’ got a different result, sadly not. He showed no signs of the outrage I felt on his behalf, he just accepted the situation. He has decided to take up an offer to work for a family friend instead. Someone who told him they appreciated the value of what they will get from him.

I did not sleep well. Perhaps I was not the best helper, but I just couldn’t leave it there. Yesterday I went back to some of these workplaces uninvited to offer my feedback on their recruitment practice. Most of the managers were polite and listened. One manager recognised me as a customer and said if I would vouch for the young man, he would happily give him a trial. Really, are we back to ‘it’s not what you can do but who you know?’ And what about all the neurodivergent people who do not have anyone to advocate for them?

It will never end if we must tackle inclusivity one manager at a time. Let’s scale up better practice in this area. Come on employers, we can all do better.

IES will be producing more on this topic very soon.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.