A closer look at workplaces where neurodivergent workers can thrive
Apr 27, 2023
Approximately 15-20 percent of the world’s population exhibits a form of “neurodivergence,” meaning they don’t always think, act, or process information in ways considered to be “neurotypical.” The concept of neurodiversity encompasses a wide range of individuals who may have autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or other similar cognitive typologies. Common neurodivergent traits — like difficulty with organization, short attention spans, or sensory issues — often present challenges in traditional workplaces. But in recent years, a light has been shone on the way these employees can excel with the right management.
More companies are now making efforts to be more inclusive of neurodivergent people, and the term “neurodiversity” has been gaining serious traction in the HR world. “There is this growing awareness of how important it is to have these different skill sets, like problem-solving abilities or non-linear ways of thinking,” says Dr. Maureen Dunne, an experienced neurodiversity consultant, inclusion trainer, keynote speaker, executive, and social entrepreneur who helps companies make their workplaces more accessible for neurodivergent employees.“It’s important to have someone who thinks differently, as a hedge against groupthink. And I am optimistic about the state of things in this space.”
While increased efforts around neurodiversity is great news for neurodivergent jobseekers, Dunne still still finds “a lot of really well-intentioned people who are in leadership don’t always know what to do.” So how can neurodivergent candidates make sure a potential employer is really ready to accommodate their needs? Detailed below are some telltale signs of an inclusive employer according to Dunne, co-founder of the first neurodiversity social impact investment association, Senior Advisor and Special Education Needs and Disability Expert at the LEGO Foundation, and author of an upcoming book on neurodiversity in education and the workplace.
Neurodivergent job hunters can ask whether company leaders have created inclusive physical environments. For example, clutter and tight quarters can overwhelm certain individuals, so a space with a more minimalist design could help them focus. Dunne also gives the example of making a quiet sensory room available for all employees: “If a neurodiverse worker is feeling overwhelmed, they can access the room to properly settle their thoughts. Having access to a quiet space to take breaks in is hugely helpful to people who are sensitive to the sound and bustle of a busy office.” Even if the addition of a quiet room is geared towards one neurodivergent employee, it will most likely end up being beneficial to many other workers.
On a related note, Dunne suggests that managers allow employees to maintain a policy of allowing anyone to use headphones when they feel stressed out by background noise (or, more generally, to allow for better focus). If a workplace offers these accommodations, it helps job candidates and new employees who are neurodivergent feel welcome and included.
A flexible remote work policy is another sign of an inclusive employer. Many neurodivergent employees find it less stressful to conduct work from home, at least a few days a week, to avoid potential overstimulation triggers at the office or to work in their own space designed according to their needs.“Having the ability to work remotely, or at least having a hybrid option, is really significant,” Dunne says. “A lot more companies are open to remote work since the pandemic, which has allowed a lot more people who might have not been able to have certain jobs open themselves up to new opportunities.” Even if a neurodivergent individual does not necessarily require flexible work, the fact that an employer offers it is a good indicator of a neurodivergent-friendly philosophy.
Neurodivergent job candidates might want to inquire into what sort of web services are offered by their potential future place of work. More progressive companies, for instance, might provide subscriptions for reading or writing assistive services (such as Read&Write), or speech-to-text programs, which can be critical tools for those who struggle with concentration or listening. They might also want to ask if the company uses software with web design components that are friendly to neurodivergent users. This might mean using readable fonts and accessible language, making display adjustment controls easy to locate, and avoiding overstimulating colors or images. If these options are available, it’s a good indicator that the organization has its inclusion values in check.
It’s always good to check if companies have worked with accessibility and inclusion experts like Dunne, who believes organizations that want to be more neurodiversity-friendly should maintain a solid HR team and hire consultants. “Real inclusion can’t just be a ‘tick the box’ situation, like, ‘We hired X number of this population of people, and we’re done,’” she explains. “Consultants can show organizations how to understand the benefits of having a diverse array of minds in a workplace, and can improve the heart of an organizational culture.”
A neurodivergent job candidate should try to take notice of companies that go this route (perhaps by asking the HR department or simply reviewing a company’s credentials online) because it suggests they have participated in an organizational audit to see how neurodiversity-friendly the workplace is and what steps need to be taken to improve in terms of the nuances and details that would better serve the needs of neurodivergent employees.
An inclusive hiring process
Job candidates should also assess companies based on their interview process. Does a company have updated hiring strategies to avoid built-in biases that often exclude neurodivergent talent?
“The standard interview process today still includes a lot of questions and steps that have nothing to do with the job itself or even the duties of the job, which is really unfortunate and can sway talented individuals from pursuing a role,” Dunne says. Traditional hiring methods often rely on sociability or other factors that neurodivergent people might struggle with (e.g. interviewing with multiple managers in one day, dressing to impress, ensuring a strong handshake…). It’s not that neurodivergent people are necessarily bad at these dynamics, as Dunne explains, but “an emphasis on superficial considerations without greater emphasis on the potential for tangible performance in the role” may lead employers to overlook or misunderstand unique talent acquisition opportunities. More progressive companies tend to avoid the traditional interview process, instead focusing on testing a candidate’s problem-solving abilities, or offering a portfolio review to see what the prospective employee has done in the past.
“If you are a neurodivergent person trying to figure out which job is right for you, you should check how job postings are tagged,” Dunne adds. “Usually, you will be able to see which jobs offer remote or hybrid policies, and choosing to apply to those jobs that best fit one’s strengths and support maximum productivity could be a good starting point.” Neurodivergent job seekers can also assess a company’s inclusion values by taking a look at the application and interviewing process and making sure they don’t include the aforementioned outdated processes, or tedious online forms and required cover letters. If a job posting says a cover letter is a necessity, for instance, that may be a sign that the company is not understanding best inclusion practices, as their application may not be accessible to everyone.
It’s always a good sign when a company already boasts neurodivergent employees — especially in leadership. Seeing neurodivergent participation at the leadership level is “a clear signal that this is an inclusive place,” Dunne argues. Higher-level professionals who disclose their neurodivergence can encourage younger professionals or job seekers to set higher goals. Just the knowledge that a supervisor is neurodivergent helps new neurodivergent hires to excel and believe in themselves.
Advice for neurodivergent job candidates
It’s not just companies who need help from experts: Dunne suggests neurodivergent job hunters seek out consultants or coaches like herself if they have the means. Dunne, for example, runs a division that focuses on matching neurodivergent talent with leadership who might want to hire them. “What I do is try to open up opportunity pathways for these people, and make sure there is support in place.” She particularly encourages neurodivergent high school and college students to seek out counsel when transitioning to higher education or the professional world.
Overall, Dunne concedes it can often be “tricky” to figure out which organizations are good fits for neurodivergent job seekers: “It’s really hard, sometimes, to know what the company culture is like unless you’ve worked somewhere for a while.” This can feel frustrating, but candidates can cut through some of the uncertainty by asking the right questions and surrounding themselves with as much support as possible. Above all, neurodivergent job seekers should remember they’re not alone. “The community is pretty tight-knit,” notes Dunne, “and people in it generally share their experiences about these sorts of things.”
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