It was a nippy morning in Mumbai as I walked purposefully into the office of a client for a discussion on a project for their sales team. I was greeted by a pleasant receptionist who escorted me into the conference room. As I began plugging in my computer, it wouldn’t start. After a few failed attempts, I realised it had crashed. I reached out to the receptionist to seek some help from their tech expert. The tech in charge, Prem walked in and I waved a cheery hello.
He ignored me. He spent barely a minute examining the machine and proclaimed it had crashed. He took the laptop and said he’d work on it. I rolled my eyes and said I’ll get my repair guy to do it back home but the receptionist insisted that Prem could handle it. I was extremely sceptical. I pulled out my USB with the presentation and borrowed a laptop and continued my work. Mid-way through the meeting, Prem walks in and hands over my laptop. All was miraculously well!
My client smiled and I was perplexed. How was it possible? My repair guy needs at least a day to fix things and this barely took 15 mins!
Prem was one among the 5 employees in the company who are differently abled. He is autistic.
My client explained that Prem has extraordinary focus and the skill to solve problems, creatively and he’s an incredible asset to the organisation.
It was heartening to see in an organisation with such neurodiversity. Honestly, in my work, I have never interacted professionally with anyone having a neurodiverse condition.
And, it got me thinking.
It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences - Audre Lorde
What exactly is neurodiversity?
Broadly speaking we all have diverse and different brains. However, some conditions make people more different or impaired. Neurodiversity refers to variations in the human brain and cognition, for instance in sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions. It is seen as an intellectual impairment or disability. Some of the neurodivergent conditions include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyscalculia, developmental language disorder, dyslexia, and dyspraxia among others.
Why is it important to have a neurodiverse workforce?
Organisations have seen merit in hiring neurodiverse employees. What we commonly term as ‘disabilities’ are in fact the special and invisible abilities. Most people with these conditions have above-average abilities like Perm when it comes to things like analysis, information processing, pattern recognition, greater innovation and effective decision-making. Research states that they make fewer errors and increase productive efficiency. It enables sharper clarity in communication across ranks with more specific instructions. This diversity brings new things to the table for an organisation to grow onward and forward in the space of mental health, increased brand value and profitability. It allows for greater inclusion in the true sense.
How can you create a neurodiverse program and embrace it in your workforce?
First of all, you do not have to be a large company for a neurodiverse program. For no organisation is too small. All it needs is for leaders to begin by leading inclusion conversations as a culture rather than an initiative or a charity act, and importantly walk the talk. The leaders need to educate the general workforce on the importance and benefits of a neurodiverse environment to break the bias and be mindful and empathetic. It is imperative for a balanced society with fair opportunities and economic growth.
Once leaders communicate the ‘why’, the next step is to chart out the ‘how’.
What’s equally imperative to understand is how do you hire and retain neurodiverse talent?
- Start with the Job description. The standard skills one expects from the general workforce may need to be flipped. Instead of seeking competence in areas such as communication skills, emotional intelligence and persuasiveness, they may need to factor skills like problem-solving, information-processing, ideation, efficiency in decision-making, analysis, etc.
- Engage with a local community for recruiting candidates. There are many local and national level organisations and foundations for the differently abled who groom candidates for employability.
- The interviewer or/and the hiring manager ought to be trained in interviewing and dealing with a neurodiverse candidate.
- Expect that each candidate may be required to be interviewed differently. Go beyond the general modus operandi of a zoom meet or a conference room interview and tailor your interview settings to the needs of these special candidates. E.g. those with dyslexia are often unable to work with a white background, using pale coloured paper or a computer screen with a pale background can be helpful to put the candidate at ease during the interview.
- Give the candidate questions in advance. Many people have difficulty retaining verbal information, especially when experiencing anxiety, which will likely occur at a job interview.
- Be ready to repeat questions or parts of questions.
- Interviews rely heavily on social and communication skills. Get used to not expecting eye contact or a firm handshake during the hiring process. Someone with ADHD may feel challenged sitting still in a formal setting for long periods of time.
- Ask questions related to the job and focus on the candidate’s technical and professional knowledge, skills, abilities, experiences related to the functions of the job for which they are applying.
- Be patient. Allow processing time when awaiting an answer to a question, avoid repeating the question or attempting to fill the silence. In some cases, the interview process itself may take longer than expected.
- Aim for on-site team engagement or simulation to better understand the candidate’s capabilities. For someone with dyspraxia, you may need to support them with memory aids such as white boards detailing the format of the interview. Perhaps break down questions in chunks.
- Most of the neurodiverse candidates are self-taught and have a challenging time, be empathetic and if the candidate does not pass, respect them with the courtesy of a response.
- All employees must be trained in neurodiversity not just the line managers who are likely to be working with neurodiverse co-workers. The need for soft skills are needed by both. What a general co-worker may seem normal may trigger a neurodiverse employee – harsh lights, closed cubicles, partitions, strong fragrances and even noise may heighten their anxiety and affect their performance.
- Create pods of 10-15 employees alongwith a neurodiverse co-worker to help them work with ease and build their social skills, gradually.
- Be willing to accommodate their behaviour. An autistic employee may be uncomfortable with noises and may require noise-cancelling headsets or a quitter room to work in. Use of voice assist for the dyslexic. An employee having ADHD may not be able to sit still for more than 30-45mins, allow them to move around.
- Arrange for regular check-ins and in-person conversations to nip any negative experiences in the bud.
- Appreciate their work and be generous in praise, they are humans too and gone through too many rejections. A word of praise will go a long way.
- Invest in regular feedforwards (ask for ideas on what can be improved in the future).
In the words of Jacqueline Woodson, “Diversity is about all of us and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all even with a neurodiverse team so reset the expectation bar, continuously. The differences can support organisations to build and grow provided you understand their value and leverage them. They have the ability to add that special sparkle and change the way the world sees teamwork.