“If you’ve met a person with autism, then you’ve met a person with autism.” – Dr Stephen Shore.
Dr. Shore is absolutely right. No two people with autism are exactly alike. When it comes to employing people with autism, herein lies the greatest (perceived) challenge and the greatest opportunity. As I mentioned in my article about Social Darwinism in the Workplace, organisations are waking up to the value of recruiting for neurodiversity, but as I pointed out in my #TakeTheMaskOff at Work article all too often the workplace presents barriers that are insurmountable for people on the spectrum, and people with mental health challenges.
Having worked in management consultancy, various ‘Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion’ initiatives, and being on the spectrum myself, I’ve experienced practices that help when attracting and keeping neurodiverse talent, and practices that don’t. Here I wanted to explore some of the thoughts I began to articulate in the #TakeTheMaskOff at Work article with aim of helping both organisations and neurodiverse employees.
We know that attracting diverse talent leads to better team problem solving, increased staff retention, higher levels of creativity, more innovation and greater employee satisfaction – however, all of these benefits can only occur when barriers are removed, and given that no two people are the same, the barriers will vary case-to-case. This is why one of the most important things an organisation can be is:
Organisations need to move away from the ‘one size fits all’ model of employment. This means moving towards a ‘person-centred’ approach to employment. For example, when designing a job, organisations decide what particular tasks need to be accomplished within a role, what skills will be required to complete those tasks, how many hours it is anticipated will be required per week to manage this workload, and where this work needs to be carried out.
During this process a lot of assumptions are made, and therefore, when the job advert lands in front of potential talent, a lot of potential candidates find themselves excluded – maybe the hours stipulated are challenging (i.e. do they need to be 9 to 5, Monday to Friday?); maybe the potential candidate would excel in some tasks, but (due to lack of experience, or disability) other tasks wouldn’t be manageable, but perfectly manageable for a second candidate who may struggle with tasks the first candidate excels in; maybe the location is a challenge (i.e. does the work have to be done in an office, or is remote working an option?). If the aim is to recruit for diversity, the process of bundling together an ideal wish-list in to a single job advert is unlikely the yield much in the way of diversity. Instead, how about investigating options for alternative arrangements (and being explicit about your willingness to do so in the job advert)? What other configurations could this ‘job’ exist in? Are we providing options for potential employees to specify preferred options for how the job is configured when they make the application, effectively allowing them some autonomy in designing the job around their lifestyle or needs?
Once we’ve employed a person, how are we going about ‘acclimatising’ them to the workplace and role? From an autistic perspective, the initial few weeks and months of a job can be particularly challenging, creating high levels of anxiety, increased overwhelm and increased likelihood of meltdown, so how do we go about inducting individuals in a way that can help mitigate some of these challenges? Could we provide new starters with options for a ‘phased induction’ in terms of how many hours or days are worked in the initial weeks before moving to the ‘full’ contract? Could the constituent parts of the induction be split into ‘modules’, with options provided for the candidate to decide how much induction information they can absorb across a variety of timeframe options, to best accommodate their ability.
Where flexible options such as these (and indeed standard ‘flexible working’ practices already present in many organisations) are available, are we being explicit that the organisation encourages people to make use of them? Many autistic people will have developed a highly-attuned judgement detector, and may be reluctant to engage in practices such as these if they perceive that doing so has the potential to reflect negatively on them, and so persevere in modes of working that are detrimental in the long run. That is why being explicit about encouraging employees to find ways of working that work for them is essential, and that the importance of doing this is a key component of the organisational culture. Speaking of which:
Linked to, but separate from, and equally important as flexibility, is organisational culture. By ‘culture’ I mean the attitudinal and behavioural components of the workforce. This is where the water can become murky, as so much about organisational culture is contingent on individuals’ interpretation of what is meant by the specific components that constitute organisational culture, for example one person’s ‘feedback’ is another person’s ‘criticism’, and there is no single correct way of defining these things. So much is subjective, and highly dependent on perception. The socially accepted consensus as to what does or doesn’t constitute acceptable attitudes and behaviour may not be helpful when recruiting for diversity. When recruiting for diversity it’s crucial to keep in mind that neurodiverse individuals will be bringing with them a breadth of life experiences, perspectives, and therefore tolerances, that may differ from the ‘norm’ in the organisation. This can present a particular challenge to existing staff and managers whose life experience may have prompted an entirely different set of beliefs, perspectives, and tolerances when it comes to their interpretation of appropriate attitudes and behaviours. Sometimes the gap between these diverse viewpoints can lead to a complete breakdown of relations within teams, or between manager and employee. Of course this can happen in any workplace between any individuals, neurotypical or otherwise, however it’s important to be aware that when trying to build a work culture that is inclusive of those with diverse traits, particularly in terms of neurodiversity, the discrepancy between societal ‘norms’ (in terms of social and professional expectations) and the abilities of those with autism, mental health challenges, and other forms of neurodiversity, may lead to friction.
The best way to mitigate this is to ensure that managers and teams are as aware as possible as to how various neurological differences may result in behaviours that are ‘different’ from the social consensus – and that’s okay. Managers and staff need to be given the tools to understand, accommodate and (crucially) adapt their style in ways that enable the neurodiverse member of staff to perform. Of course this is a two-way street, and is not say that a neurodiverse member of staff can’t or shouldn’t also adapt, but it must be fundamental to the understanding of managers and team members that neurodiverse workers may have limitations as to how far they can adapt to conform to expected norms, and they are likely already working overtime in trying to assimilate or ‘mask’ – let’s not forget that autism and some mental health conditions are disabilities (or at least, people with these traits are rendered disabled by dominant societal expectations), and so managers and teams need to be willing to question assumptions about what ways of being are or aren’t acceptable.
Further to this, if possible, and requested, an ‘advocate’ or ‘buddy’ with extensive understanding of a worker’s particular neurodiversity should be invited to take part in conversations about how to negotiate this terrain. Frequently, when trying to engage with a workplace about finding ways of working that are ‘workable’ for the neurodiverse employee, their perspective and experience will be dismissed (even by well-meaning managers and teams). When a neurodiverse individual does not have access to an individual or network who can ‘advocate’ for them, i.e. lend weight or credibility to the employee’s experience, the employee’s claims or requests will likely go unheard and not acted upon, increasing the likelihood of tension, absence, or resignation.
A useful illustrative example of the necessity of adaptability when it comes to prevailing attitudes in the workplace is that of a case I’m aware of, which incredibly took place within an equality and diversity department of an educational organisation. A new-starter on the autistic spectrum was having difficulty acclimatising to the new job, and was experiencing levels of anxiety that they were finding difficult to manage, as is common for people on the spectrum during the early stages of new employment. They felt that one of the contributory factors to the heightened levels of anxiety was the way in which their new manager delivered feedback. The new starter perceived the manager’s feedback as being critical rather than constructive, and so made the suggestion that in order to help mitigate the anxiety, it would be helpful if the manager’s communication / management style could be adapted to more closely resemble a coach/mentee dynamic rather than a manager/employee dynamic. Of course in the neurotypical workplace, this kind of request rarely gets asked – it isn’t neurotypical workplace convention to question management / communication styles unless absolutely necessary – however, the worker felt in this instance that it was necessary if they were going to be able to cope in the first weeks of the role. The manager deemed that altering their communication style was not necessary, and during a performance review suggested that the employee should work on their resilience. The manager was not aware that the employee had already invested a significant amount of time and money on medications, therapies, self help materials, and digital apps in efforts to manage the anxiety associated with their autism. During this conversation the manager went on to express dissatisfaction about the behaviour of another colleague who had disclosed Borderline Personality Disorder. The employee came to the conclusion that their manager was unwilling to make allowances for neurological differences, found their anxiety at the situation to be more than they were able to tolerate and resigned shortly afterward.
This example is not shared here for the purpose of blaming either party, but it is to highlight the difference of perspective, experience and therefore attitudes and behaviours between the two individuals. Therefore if an organisation aims to recruit and retain individuals with neurological differences, raising awareness about how these differences may manifest is essential. On a related note, organisations should also be wary of placing the onus solely on the individual with the neurodiversity to adapt – as mentioned, there may be limitations as to how far they are able to adapt. Whilst resilience training is useful in some instances, alternative training such as empathy training, or emotional intelligence training are also options worth pursuing, and are becoming increasingly popular in the workplace. The goal is to find an appropriate cultural balance – if we’re creating an organisational culture predicated on resilience, it’s worth questioning what sort of dystopian culture we’re creating, and the impacts this will have on staff satisfaction and retention more widely.
There is plenty of great research and advice available about how to go about building inclusive cultures, but if anybody would like any points I’ve mentioned above to be clarified, don’t hesitate to ask!