Supporting Neurodiversity in Your Hiring Process
- August 1, 2023
The term “Neurodiversity” is not exactly new – although there is still arguably some uncertainty about what it means, and how specifically it is relevant to the world of work.. The topic has become a much-discussed aspect of DEI in recent years and the impact of its cultural recognition and widespread advocacy – having made many aware of the potential that lies untapped in this group of individuals – has seen the term not only find its way into everyday vernacular, but also spark a change in company hiring practices, with a genuine attempt now seen from businesses to understand and embrace the value such talent can offer, and strive to support them by adapting their hiring practices.
But despite the focus on the latest update of today’s DEI initiatives, the question remains: has all the buzz translated into a real change in the fate of cognitively diverse professionals when it comes to employability?
As widely acknowledged, diversity plays a pivotal role in recognising and embracing the inherent differences in human brain functionality. It should, therefore, be clearly reflected in a company’s recruitment process if they genuinely aim to empower neurodivergent candidates and support their success at every step of hiring. The significance of accommodating neurodiversity cannot be underestimated, as it profoundly influences the potential success of these individuals in any position they occupy. However, the question remains, do most recruitment processes today truly embody these principles?
Are Businesses Just Paying Lip Service?
The latest ONS research revealed that the employment rate for people with autism in the UK sits at just 29%, a figure lower than the rate for those with other kinds of impairment, with unemployment rates for the neurodivergent community overall at 30-40%, according to a study from O2. A later report written by Auction, an IT consultancy, as part of a survey to investigate neurodiversity in work, found that a third of people with autism admitted that going through traditional recruitment processes was the most difficult part of their career.
The aforementioned study, conducted by O2, cited an institutional lack of awareness, training, and support as the reason behind the disproportionately high unemployment rates for neurodivergent individuals. It was also found in a recent EqualTech report by SpartaGlobal that just 21% of survey respondents actually work for businesses that tailor their recruitment practices to neurodivergent candidates, despite 87% of them stating that neurodiversity will be an absolute priority for their companies in 2023.
So, are employers simply paying lip service? While a lack of commitment to changing engrained recruitment processes to support neurodivergent individuals is a plausible (and apparent) reason for the disparity in expectations and reality, another probable one is the failure of employers to make this aspect of their DEI initiative part of a structured, wider recruitment strategy. Efforts to adapt hiring practices for the benefit of neurodivergent candidates are more often seen in only some stages of the recruitment process, rather than at every point possible, ultimately leading to a disjointed and ineffective approach.
Eliminating Unconscious Bias In Hiring
Take blind hiring for example. It is a DEI strategy employed to eliminate unconscious biases that can arise from relevant but unnecessary information (such as names, age, years of experience, or level of education) that employers pick up at certain stages of the hiring process. It makes the employer unable to discriminate against candidates because of the lack of information that triggers unconscious biases.
While its value is clear, with successful implementation increasing the likelihood of candidates from minority or disadvantaged groups making it to the interview stage, its potential cannot be maximised unless it is supported by complementary strategies at other stages of the hiring pipeline. One such strategy is the targeted recruitment of neurodivergent candidates through the use of a talent pipeline, which addresses the fact that the strategy of blind hiring cannot increase the diversity of interview pools if not many candidates from the neurodiversity community apply in the first place.
Building the Foundation for Holistic & Bias-Free Hiring
When talking about implementing complementary strategies, certain things must be set in stone. To begin with, a business must be clear on its objectives for its recruitment process. As the starting point and the thread that will be running through your entire recruitment process, how well your objectives are clearly defined and communicated throughout your team will determine the quality of the changes you make in your hiring practices and how effective they will be in facilitating the achievement of said objectives. Whatever that objective may be, whether it’s to improve efforts to adhere to corporate social commitments through an inclusivity-centric process, or to simply improve workforce productivity across the business, it must be well-conveyed and well-supported by the leadership team in the business at all levels.
Creating Your Target Persona
Once clear, your objectives should inform the creation of your target persona. The profile you create to represent your key target will not only give you a concrete idea of the skillset you are looking for in your ideal candidate but will also give you the opportunity to test and falsify pre-existing notions and ideas about what you believe is needed to be successful in the role. Are there any assumptions about the importance of social skills or personality traits in the performance of the role? What impact would it have on performance if these skills were absent? Critically assess your selection criteria to eliminate possible biases that can creep in, and ensure it is fully justifiable.
It is your target persona that will then determine how you rework and adapt your hiring practices, at every point of the entire recruitment journey. This aspect is where organisations tend to err in meeting the needs of neurodivergent candidates. The true purpose of the hiring process, which is to assess the necessary competencies and traits required for the role, as well as the candidate’s willingness and aptitude for growth, is only partly acknowledged, and at certain stages of recruitment.
This leads to the many flaws still seen in hiring practices, such as the emphasis on social interactions in interviews, which can be particularly difficult for some neurodivergent individuals who struggle with social cues and communication (verbal and non-verbal).
Stage One: Effective Job Descriptions
Any recruitment process built to facilitate the success of neurodivergent candidates must be reworked and adapted from the starting point to the endpoint; in other words, it must begin supporting candidates before they get to the interview stage.
Its success starts right from when candidates read the job descriptions that advertise these roles, and get both the information and the accessibility they need to proceed with the application, not simply one or the other. This involves things such as the kind of language used, as well as the choice of terminology to describe the skills required for the role. With job descriptions that are designed to cater to neurodivergent candidates, the watchword to follow is clarity; your choice of words should clearly and plainly describe the role and the requirements necessary to be considered for progression. Outline which ones are must-haves in a simple and presentable format (a simple bullet point of skills required works best here) but avoid unnecessarily broad and generic phrases like “must be a good communicator or “must have strong teamwork skills’’, especially if they are not traits required to be effective in the role. They attach an unneeded sense of exclusivity to the required competencies that can mislead candidates into thinking they are not adequately qualified to apply.
You can add in a section clearly listing skills that are desirable, but take care not to bloat your job advert with a skill wish list, as this can equally be as off-putting to neurodivergent individuals.
Consider An Accommodation Statement
Another good way to demonstrate your willingness to support applicants is to explicitly let them know you intend to do so through an accommodation statement. This is a crucial but often overlooked aspect of job adverts (if they’re even included at all), as it can help to eliminate the source of their worries when considering applying. Letting them know that they will receive the necessary support and accommodation should they need it, helps to break down the initial mental barrier that can prove problematic during this first stage of the hiring process.
Stage Two: Review & Interview
Whist an adapted ‘traditional’ application process is still the best method of assessing candidates for some businesses, unconscious bias does remain an issue at this stage, and the adoption of alternative evaluation methods can help to mitigate this. In addition to the practice of blind hiring suggested previously, you can consider using a scoring system against a set of questions. This approach puts the focus on experiences and skills that can be overlooked in favour of good CV writing skills or a first-class honours degree. Other methods like video submissions, workshops, and telephone applications are approaches you can and should be open to – the onus is on you to experiment and get creative with your recruitment practices!
The interview stage has always presented the biggest challenge to overcome for neurodivergent candidates. And, whilst it’s not realistic to discount this stage in its entirety, they should not be the sole evaluation method, but balanced with other assessment techniques in order to provide a fairer and more accurate appraisal of candidates. For example, consider assigning less weight to interviews in the overall evaluation process and couple them with a work trial instead, to allow for a more skills-focused assessment of suitability for the role.
Equally as important, is your level of proactivity in offering reasonable accommodations during this stage. Not only does this create the optimal conditions needed for the interviewing candidate to perform at their best, but it also helps to quell any anxiety that may arise because of the occasion. It also communicates a willingness as an employer to do everything you can to see that individual succeed. Whether this involves arranging for flexible interview locations, permitting the use of screen readers during online assessments, or even providing interview questions via chat during virtual interviews or before an interview to enhance accessibility, you should ensure you’re well-prepared to facilitate their success.
Stage Three: Post-Interview Process
Following the interview or review stage, the focus should be on providing constructive and prompt feedback to candidates. Avoid the common mistake of ‘ghosting’, and instead communicate your reasons for your decision on the outcome of their application process, openly and transparently. Let decisions made on their suitability be made primarily based on the competency demonstrated for the role, and avoid making hasty judgments based on what might be perceived as ‘awkward’ moments, unconventional body language, or a perceived lack of social skills, as these may not have any impact at all on the candidate’s ability to perform the job effectively. By building this two-way line of communication you are not only fostering transparency across the recruitment team but are also improving your hiring process.
The recruitment process for any individual can be overwhelming – and the same applies for the business owners or hiring managers themselves, particularly when market conditions are challenging. Recruiting under pressure can mean that processes aren’t followed in the same manner, including ethical recruitment practices and standards, albeit temporarily. In short, practices designed to ensure the highest standards of professionalism, fairness, and transparency is key.
Stage Four: Onboarding
Although it is one of the less obvious aspects of the recruitment journey when the contracts are signed and the start date has been agreed, onboarding is a process that requires just as much attention and preparation as any other stage when welcoming a neurodivergent employee into your team.
Onboarding neurodivergent employees is not a one-size fits all approach. Employers need to be acutely aware of how their new recruit works, in order to understand how best to engage and optimise the potential their talent brings.
Educating the existing team with diversity awareness training in advance of a neurodivergent colleague starting is crucial, as it will ensure that colleagues know how to communicate with the individual, learn about and understand particular characteristics and preferences while respecting their privacy & dignity. It also helps them avoid making presumptions about what the best way to carry out the onboarding process is. For example, common icebreaker activities that are used to help introduce new employees to the team can be quite stressful and anxiety-inducing for neurodivergent individuals and often end up becoming counter-productive. A better way to approach it would be to speak with your new starter beforehand to find out how best they would like to meet their new team members and ideally have a conversation with the management or other senior figures about their new colleague so that the team better understands what to expect in the short, medium, and long term.
As such, a line manager or management team that is willing to be supportive and patient enough to train up their new employee is key to the success of their onboarding. They need to know that no matter the need, their manager is always approachable and available to help. This is also where the help and input of colleagues to help the new employee ease into their new environment can be instrumental. Quick but regular check-ins via email or inviting them out for a bite at lunchtime can go a long way in helping the individual to settle in and quickly feel part of the team.
Much is written about the importance of organisations reviewing (and amending) their recruitment process to enable cognitively diverse candidates to showcase their strengths. However, recognising the value of neurodiversity in the workplace and facilitating their success, is just the beginning of a larger journey towards fostering an inclusive and thriving workplace culture. Efforts to support neurodivergent candidates should extend beyond the recruitment process, as neurodiversity should be embraced as an asset that brings out the unique perspectives and talents of all employees. This is how you as an employer can build an inclusive culture in the workplace and maintain a supportive environment, to ensure your workforce is fully optimised.
In a much-documented skills-short market, ensuring that the proverbial net is cast far and wide is critical for businesses to remain competitive, and their hiring objectives on track. Revaluating your recruitment process is an easy way to tap into the wide range of neurodiverse talent who may have been overlooked for employment, or put off reaching out proactively by that critical first experience and interaction with your company and brand.
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