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Organizations reaping the benefits of neurodiverse employees

January 18, 2017

This article was written by Karen Higginbottom from Forbes and is licensed by Bloomberg.

Neurodiversity. It’s not a term that rolls off the tongue easily but it’s a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include those labeled with Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum, Tourette Syndrome, and others. Now organizations such as Microsoft and EY are piloting programs to recruit individuals who have neurological conditions such as Asperger’s which comes under the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a range of conditions that affect the way a person sees the world, processes information and interacts with other people.

Neurodiversity is an area that organizations are beginning to take seriously, mainly in the US but increasingly in the UK, says Charlotte Sweeney, founder of Charlotte Sweeney Associates. “It’s really important for organizations to understand the characteristics of neurodiverse conditions and how they will benefit their organization.”

A starting point for many employers is to personalize your recruitment and training, comments George Selvanera, director of strategy and external affairs for Business Disability Forum. “For Asperger’s, the importance of routine and clarity in terms of instruction shouldn’t be under-estimated. Employers can also produce welcome packs so it can give these prospective employees familiarization with the workplace. For example, the pre-induction phase is very important. An employer might want to do away with the traditional interview and give people work trials so they get experience of a workplace. Another good practice is doing work with the recruiter so they are skilled and confident in interviewing neurodiverse candidates. We recommend that recruiters avoid asking abstract questions.”

Selvanera believes that neurodiverse individuals can flourish in process-orientated roles in the workplace but managers need to be aware that they might have different preferences in the workplace. “It’s about building the skills and confidence of the line manager in working with these individuals. For example, if you’re going to call someone at an appointed time then do so. It can create an anxiety if a person doesn’t call when they say they will. It can be hard for a line manager who has a variety of different pressures to make sure they prioritize needs but it’s important that punctuality is observed if you’ve employees with Asperger’s.”

One of the challenges for organizations in hiring neurodiverse individuals is making sure other employees are aware of the characteristics of Asperger’s, comments Sweeney. “It’s important for them to understand how they communicate and socialize with their work colleagues. It’s important to do this up-front to remove any possibility of misunderstanding or conflict.” Another challenge is that people with Asperger’s generally don’t respond well to changes in routine and fluidity, adds Sweeney. “Therefore, it’s important to ensure their daily routine is as consistent as possible with their work, for example, start and finish times, where they sit, and the ability to have a quiet space to be able to work effectively.”

The benefit of hiring neurodiverse individuals for firms are manifold, remarks Selvanera. “Diverse teams are more profitable and deliver higher levels of customer satisfaction. It’s important not to over-generalize but there are particular roles where there are unquestionable strengths that people who have a different way of processing information will bring to bear in the workplace.”

Sweeney advises organizations to identify roles that really play to the strengths of individuals with ASD such as attention to detail and great with facts and figures. “The Danish software company Specialsterne specializes in creating software code -three-quarters of their workers have autistic spectrum disorder. The work is routine and detailed and plays to their strengths.”

Case Study -EY:
Nearly a year ago, EY embarked on a pilot to hire individuals with Asperger’s. People with Asperger’s syndrome often have average or above-average levels of intelligence and are often highly educated but may experience significant social difficulties. From identifying discrepancies in documents to operating robotic auditing devices, EY’s newest employees have been working in the firm’s Accounting Support Associate function to help analyze the effectiveness of account operations and determine specific client needs. The four individuals hired through EY’s neurodiversity program are incredibly detail-orientated and have a talent for process-driven work, remarks Lori Golden, an abilities strategy leader within the firm’s Americas talent team. “It’s a focus on bringing in neurodiverse individuals but it’s also about driving innovation in our business model through delivering our services in a more efficient way.” The firm began working on the pilot program in Spring 2014 and began recruiting in Fall 2015, explains Golden. “We sourced differently and went to sourcing venues where you might find high-functioning autism and the screening methods we used were different. We knew that people with Autism communicate and interact differently and we wanted to identify their strengths and not disadvantage them.” Golden added the firm was looking for candidates with a certain facility with technology and numbers and educational attainments. EY worked with Specialiststerne, a specialist in the training of high-functioning autistics for professional level jobs in technology and other areas. EY in conjunction with Specialiststerne held an initial one-day assessment and asked selected candidates to build a robot from lego minestream. “The teams worked together to solve that test and in the process, we observed how each individual worked with each other and then asked them to present what they had built.” The ASA function where the pilot began is a highly compensated professional function, said Golden. “We’re viewing it as way for neurodiverse individuals to come into the firm and get to know us and be successful. There are 300 people in this function around the US. We’re planning to expand it to other cities in early 2017.”

The neurodiverse employees had four weeks of tailored training before they starting their employment. The first three weeks of training was done in conjunction with Specialisterne and was framed as an ‘introduction to corporate life’. “They learned all about soft skills, work ethnic and expectations and how you communicate,” explains Golden. “The last week of training was specific to EY and the ASA function. After they were hired, they had six months of training for the ASA program which all employees in that function go through. The process was adapted so it was clear and straightforward.”

This article was written by Karen Higginbottom from Forbes and is licensed by Bloomberg.