Jonathan Passmore is senior vice president of coaching at CoachHub, a professor at Henley Business School, and a global thought leader in behavioral change, listed in the Thinkers 50 and Global Gurus lists.
15-20% of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence, but companies are missing the opportunity to leverage this talent. Of course, making accommodations is the law, but inclusivity goes much further than compliance or simply doing the right thing.
Companies and leaders can tap into these individuals’ unique strengths, problem-solving skills, and out-of-the-box solutions by engaging employees that learn and process information differently than neurotypical employees. For example, dyslexic individuals often find remarkably creative approaches to routine problems, while people with autism typically excel at analytical thinking.
This diversity of thought translates into positive business outcomes. Companies with diverse teams are 70% more likely to enter new markets than their less diverse counterparts, and those with diverse management teams enjoy more innovation and 19% higher revenue.
Still, neurodiversity is generally overlooked in DEIB efforts and even stigmatized in some workplaces. As a result, three-quarters of neurodivergent employees choose not to discuss their status with managers and HR departments. Even worse, half of those who share their status later regret it.
Neurotypical managers have two distinct challenges when it comes to accommodating neurodivergent employees. Even if employees volunteer information about their cognitive differences, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to making employees feel physically comfortable and psychologically supported.
Here are five ways to create a workplace where each employee—neurodiverse individuals included—feel respected, included, and comfortable at work.
1. Increase awareness of neurodiverse conditions.
- Learn about wide-ranging neurodiverse conditions like autism, attention hyperactivity deficit disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and bipolar disorder and understand appropriate accommodations for each. Comb through comprehensive employer resources that discuss everything from definitions of cognitive differences to specifics on how to handle corporate expos or best practices for managing autistic employees.
- Educate your neurotypical team members about neurodiversity. Regularly send employees blogs (like Harvard Health’s What is Neurodiversity?) and resources (like Understanding Autism one-pagers). If neurodivergent employees are interested and comfortable, ask them to be a thought-leader by speaking about their workplace reality or writing about their life experiences.
- Study neurodivergent employees’ ADA-protected workplace rights and, if relevant, familiarize yourself with other countries’ disability laws.
- Emphasize harassment prevention. The first step is continuing an open and respectful conversation about neurodiverse conditions. The next step is tasking your HR department to present mandatory, annual training seminars explaining exactly what workplace discrimination, harassment, and victimization look like and explaining your company’s established disciplinary policies.
2. Audit your recruitment process.
- Look for bias toward neurotypical individuals in your job descriptions and remove idioms, jargon, and non-essential character traits and responsibilities. For example, job descriptions often list soft skills, like “superb organizational skills,” that aren’t entirely necessary for the job. Because some neurodivergent individuals communicate literally, these candidates might opt out of the application process if they don’t meet every requirement. Consider interviewing methods like discussing a candidate’s qualifications while turning Zoom cameras off, deliberately choosing in-person interviews without audible and visible distractions, and avoiding vague, nuanced questions.
- Ensure your candidate evaluation is equitable. Develop a standard list of interview questions that interviewers stick to instead of pursuing side conversations and engaging in small talk. Collect anonymized work samples for unbiased evaluation, and include several colleagues in each interview for varying perspectives on each candidate.
3. Ask and communicate.
- Ask questions about employees’ challenges and barriers. For example, if you notice employees look agitated or stressed, ask them if they have a specific seating preference or if an alternative schedule works better for them. If you know about an upcoming emergency drill, ask how employees respond to loud, unexpected noises and their preferred accommodations.
- Establish yourself as an approachable resource by regularly communicating with employees about how you can help alleviate their challenges—and then following through on their requests.
4. Avoid overstimulation and distractions.
- Plan workspaces thoughtfully with designated quiet zones protected from high-foot traffic thoroughfares and large groups of people.
- Use digital tools—like Microsoft Team or Slack for communication and Monday or Asana for project management—that empower all team members to collaborate in an in-person or remote office environment.
- Allow employees to wear noise-canceling headphones and earplugs when they work individually.
- Normalize breaks where employees participate in a relaxing activity like walking outside.
5. Embrace communication differences.
- Investigate employees’ preferred communication styles. Ask neurodivergent employees how they best process information. Maybe workplace banter is a source of anxiety, and they prefer more direct succinct conversations. Or, perhaps, they’re uncomfortable with eye contact and prefer emails over in-person discussions.
- As a general rule, avoid sarcasm, idioms, and metaphors and opt for more straightforward communication. Don’t talk about “the elephant in the room,” “putting a new option on the table,” or “getting up to speed.” More neuro-inclusive language can sound like “the uncomfortable subject,” “presenting something new,” or “operating at the desired level.”
These steps model acceptance, where each employee is treated as a unique and valued member of the team. This environment allows all employees—neurodivergent individuals included—to do their best work and make valuable contributions to your team and company.