Nadia Ibrahim-Taney, Assistant Professor, University of Cincinnati
Liz Pawley, Assistant Professor, University of Cincinnati
In this article, the authors introduce the industry business case for intentionally building neurodiverse workforces, best practices for executing robust inclusive hiring tactics and techniques and industry-driven case studies of successful employers who have built environments where neurodiverse employees thrive.
The Current State of Neurodiversity
Definitions and The Business Case
The business case for diversity in organizations is becoming mainstream conversation and practice through increased investments in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion hiring and training efforts. Numerous organizations have reported a notable increase in participation and investment in training for diversity, equity and inclusion, according to data shared with HR Dive by LinkedIn, Udemy, Skillsoft and ExecOnline (HR Drive, 2020). Creating and implementing intentional strategies to support diversity of identities is hugely important, as is the ability for managers and leaders to recognize and comprehend the value of neurodiversity–the range of differences in brain function and behavioral traits–within organizations.
In this article, you’ll see varying terms used in relation to neurodiversity. Let’s take a moment to define them.
- Neurodiverse– Adjective: Describes the diversity and variation of cognitive functioning in people. Neurodiverse is typically used to describe neurodivergent people.
- Neurodivergence– Noun: Cognitive functioning which is not considered “typical”. For example, autistic, or people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Neurodivergent– Adjective: Describes people who have a neurodivergence.
For example, a person with a neurodivergence would say they are neurodivergent or identify with the neurodiverse community. A personal who does not have a neurodivergence would say they are neurotypical.
As discussed in a 2019 Forbes article, neurodiversity is not uncommon. The CDC reports about 1 in 6 children are diagnosed with neurodevelopmental differences in the US, and a 2015 Cambridge University study found that “people working in science and engineering jobs are more likely to have autistic-like traits than less technical professions”. A Harvard Business Review article explores this higher population in STEM fields, explaining that “research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.” (HBR, 2017).
Market Potential, Risk and Economy of People With Disabilities
While neurodiversity is not uncommon or new, businesses are recognizing an increased market potential and economy related to disabilities and diversity. The global business collective, The Valuable500, has reached its milestone of securing commitments from 500 global CEOs and their companies worldwide (Valuable500, 2021) towards diversity, helping raise awareness and commitment. Combined revenue of members of Valuable500 including BBC, Deloitte, EY, Google, P&G, Salesforce, Sony, Sky and Verizon equal $8 trillion in revenue (Abilitynet, 2022) showing how financially relevant disability and diversity initiatives are to business organizations. Lastly, in the United States and Canada, spending shifted to technology vendors and services companies that commit to accessibility by nearly $16 billion (Forbes, 2021) demonstrating to consumers and other businesses how companies are being rewarded for committing and taking action towards diversity.
Another reason companies are developing strategic approaches towards disabilities and diversity beyond the business case is risk. 22 countries and the European Union have disability laws such as United States (ADA), Canada (ACA), United Kingdom (Equality Act), India (RPD), China (LPPD), Australia (DDA), European Union (EN 301 549) (W3C, 2022). In the United States, expenses for United States companies to tackle lawsuits related to accessibility of websites have topped $6.5 billion and the United States DOJ has taken action and litigation against United States companies in over 2300 lawsuits (BOIA, 2021).
Lastly, we examine the economy of people with disabilities. Forbes estimates a nearly $8 trillion annual disposable income of the extended global disability market (including families and friends) (Forbes, 2021). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, there are 61 million adults in the United States living with a disability with 1 in 4 American adults having some type of disability (CDC, 2022).
When considering the market potential and financial opportunities of the people with disability economy (i.e., spending power), the business case is sound for why organizations are eager to make commitments and build more robust hiring strategies whilst also creating products and services that inclusively consider the disability market. In this article, we explore and examine the student employment aspect of the organizational hiring pipeline to better explore how students face barriers in the classroom, barriers to getting hired and barriers on the job and what solutions could be put in place to help neurodivergent student success.
Neurodivergent Student Barriers and Opportunities
Challenges in the Hiring Process
We launched a survey in Fall 2022 and analyzed data from over 100 University of Cincinnati STEM students who identified as neurodiverse. These results shed further insight into the barriers encountered in the recruiting process and on the job. The top two barriers indicated by participants were lack of self-confidence and lack of previous experience. While these two criteria are not necessarily specific to only neurodivergent college students and neurotypical students may experience the same barriers, elements of neurodiversity can exacerbate these two obstacles.
Applying to Jobs Online
Neurodivergent students may not apply to job postings that ask for any requirements they do not feel they meet (i.e., “outstanding communication skills” or a “work hard/play hard mentality”) even if they are partially qualified and have transferable skill sets (Robert Walters Group, 2022). To employers, we advocate a focus on what abilities are truly necessary for success and ensure this is reflected in the job description. Neurodiverse students in our survey also were deterred by ambiguity in a job advertisement, so it is important employers are clear on salary range, intended hiring timelines (especially for internships and co-ops), expectation for hours worked, remote/hybrid policies, and what students will spend the bulk of their days accomplishing on the job. For a more detailed dive into writing neuro-inclusive job descriptions, visit How to Write Neuro-Inclusive Job Descriptions (Ibrahim-Taney, 2022). Online hiring assessments are also important to evaluate as a functioning recruitment tool. Do your hiring assessments measure the true ability for the job-related skills, or are they more focused on giving preference to those who rate higher socially or “match” well with existing employees? It is important to avoid affinity bias, which refers to having a preference towards those who are similar to us (Tulshyan, 2019). This bias can manifest in hiring individuals who share our same gender, race, educational institution, or in this case, neurodiverse status.
When students can personally relate to a program specifically identifying neurodiversty such as Microsoft’s Neurodiversity Hiring Program, it can increase their self-confidence in the application process, knowing the company is prioritizing and welcoming of neurodiversity. While a company may not be at a level to scale a full-blown hiring program quite yet, government and non-profit partners can help assess hiring processes and offer suggestions to make it more inclusive. For instance, the University of Cincinnati partners with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities to offer increased support to students through the Ohio College2Careers program and offers resources and trainings on accessibility to organizations. Resources like Disability:In and Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion also provide great insights on how to best recruit, hire, and retain employees with disabilities.
Mentra is a multifaceted online tool that streamlines the recruitment of neurodivergent candidates. Employers can utilize Mentra’s software which analyzes 76+ data points to match neurodivergents with jobs that optimize for career success without relying on traditional job fit measures. Candidates can access hundreds of jobs with just one standardized application, and feedback is required if a candidate lands an interview but is not offered the position.
Interpersonal Recruiting Strategies
A third top barrier to hiring cited by University of Cincinnati neurodivergent STEM students was the social nature of recruiting events. While detailed preparation instructions such as how to master your elevator speech (University of Cincinnati, 2022) can be helpful in bolstering students’ expectations for a large recruiting event, the environment itself can be overwhelming enough to prevent students from attending. One survey participant noted, “[There are] too many people at events. I have a hard time processing what is being said due to background noise. I’ve never heard back from any companies I’ve visited at recruiting events so I figure they are just not for me.” Consider other options that allow students to connect with employers more organically in an environment that doesn’t prompt such sensory overload. Jobs for Humanity features an inclusive hiring board as well as a “reverse recruiting” method where employers can volunteer to coach job seekers on gaining employment that is a great fit. While this can certainly benefit employers who in turn decide to hire their mentee, it is not an expectation, but rather a low-stakes way to build connections with diverse candidates and help them in their job search.
Providing structured opportunities for students to communicate one on one with employees who work in roles of interest to them is a great way to promote inclusive connections in a non-threatening environment. While company tours are a great way to help students gain familiarity with your organization, they may leave still feeling disconnected from knowing specific job functions and personal connections. Providing transportation as well as partnered, casual conversation at the end of a tour are small ways to boost inclusion for a common recruitment strategy. Utilizing student employees or alumni in the recruitment process is a powerful tool that builds upon organizational affinity and existing social networks. Gather feedback from neurodivergent employees on ideal ways they would like to be recruited, and brainstorm how to implement these strategies by partnering with universities and colleges.
Once a neurodiverse student is past the application phase, more barriers tend to present themselves within the interviewing stage, which UC neurodiverse STEM students also indicated as a top barrier to hiring success. The traditional Western interview process relies heavily on neurotypical social norms such as eye contact, small talk, smiling, masterful storytelling, and the ability to maintain focus for sometimes an hour or longer. These measures of success hinder people amongst a variety of neurodiverse identities. Non-traditional interviewing avenues such as “hangouts” (low-stakes, informal conversations) and job-related projects used by Specialisterne allow neurodiverse candidates to showcase their technical skills in an informal way (Austin & Pisano, 2017). These practices provide a truer measure of job fit than requiring the perfect STAR-formatted response to “Tell me about a time you were a leader in a group?”.
Training interviewers on neuroinclusion is crucial. While not every candidate will self-disclose their neurodivergence, it is important to trust that interviewers are truly assessing a candidate’s fit based on their skill set rather than solely if they appear socially comfortable and confident. Deducting theoretical points for fidgeting, difficulty with small talk, needing a question repeated, or lack of eye contact is a quick way to rule out some neurodiverse individuals who struggle with any or all these criteria. When asked about barriers in the interviewing process, one survey participant said, “I really struggle with eye contact and being charismatic. I am a super fun person but have trouble navigating the professional versus social aspect so much…navigating all the social ‘rules’ is so overwhelming.”
Proper preparation is needed on both ends. Clear up ambiguity for your candidates by telling them who they will be interviewing with, dress code, and what will be discussed. Let them know it is acceptable for them to reference any notes they would like to during the interview. For candidates with autism, avoid general questions like “Tell me about yourself” and avoid hypotheticals. Instead, ask them to think back to specific experiences in their past that can help illustrate their skill sets. (National Autistic Society, 2023). Give breaks during long interviews. Set up your interviewers for success by delivering training or resources on how neurodiversity may present in an interview setting, and how to navigate the discussion with human compassion and understanding. Give honest feedback to candidates after rejection, making sure that your feedback doesn’t revolve around instructing the candidate to mask their neurodivergence. Word of mouth is a strong referral tool as well as an accountability system for your company. If a neurodiverse candidate has a positive experience with your inclusive interview process, they are likely to tell their friends or even post online. The same is likely to happen if they have a negative experience.
Challenges at Work
Results from the same survey indicated that neurodivergent participants’ top five barriers to success on the job are: disclosure of neurodivergence, maintaining focus, sensory aspects of the work environment, adhering to a daily structure or routine, and building relationships with colleagues. While employer-centric accommodations and strategies will be discussed, it is also pertinent to empower candidates and employees to self-advocate, and professionally develop themselves in areas that are crucial for their own career success.
Personal Development and Upskilling
As an all-inclusive neurodevelopmental treatment and assessment center, The Morris Center works with individuals to help improve skills of both children and adults who have difficulty with school or job success. This includes poor reading or spelling associated with dyslexia, sensory processing attention or focus, and behavior or social skills. The Morris Center partners with organizations’ insurance or Employer Assistance Programs to make their services available (both in person and virtually) to employees at a very affordable cost. Not all primary education systems are equipped to empower neurodivergent individuals to improve specific weaknesses that may cause barriers in the workplace, and organizations like The Morris Center can help close these gaps. Professional development resources can be created and used internally, as well. For candidates who have not yet worked in a professional environment, SAP Software Solutions uses a “soft skills” module to boost their familiarity with these respective norms (Austin & Pisano, 2017). Local government or non-profit partners can often assist with identification or funding of these resources.
Self-Disclosure and Accommodations
While at college, students are typically able to register a disability with their Accessibility Resources center and generate accommodations for their professors to follow in the classroom. This is an optional process, and one that students do not always take advantage of due to fear of being stigmatized, lacking a formal diagnosis, or simply the effort it takes to go through the proper procedures. Students may feel the same in the application process or on the job, meaning they may unnecessarily suffer by not requesting the appropriate accommodations or having those that work closely to them understand how they process information and/or relate to others. A student survey participant recounted a negative instance of disclosing, stating, “I felt like my manager thought so much less of me when I told her [I was neurodiverse]. She treated me awfully.”
Self-disclosure is a personal choice that should not be forced. However, it is best practice to give multiple opportunities for employees to do so. One way to do this is to include a Job Accommodation Network reference in all candidates’ offer letter, so they can look at a comprehensive and specific workplace accommodation database for respective diagnoses. Candidates are more likely to painstakingly read an offer letter over a long HR handbook or onboarding manual, and accommodation discussions are encouraged to take place before the offer is accepted. In initial conversations with managers, employees should be reminded again of this resource and encouraged to let them or HR know if they need any tools or exceptions in order to succeed on the job.
Neurodivergent individuals are more likely to struggle with sensory aspects of the environment, such as fluorescent lighting, distractions associated with open office plans and shared workspace, or long meetings without any breaks. If the work cannot be done remotely, it is important to offer quiet spaces free from distractions so employees can accomplish their goals. Be conscious of how many meetings are taking place, the length of these meetings, and how many breaks are offered for employees to move around. Deliver detailed agendas ahead of time as well as time to brainstorm topics that will be discussed. This level of detail is also helpful when discussing deadlines, project details, and how to access resources essential to the job. As some aspects of neurodivergence make ambiguity particularly difficult, being clear and direct is important.
Inclusive Training and Support
Neurodivergent student survey participants indicated building relationships with colleagues as a barrier to workplace success. While not all areas of neurodivergence struggle with social interactions or relationships, it is still valuable to train and coach all employees on neuroinclusion. Extending compassion and patience while also clearly communicating expectations for effective collaboration can boost neurodivergent self-efficacy and the incorporation of diverse perspectives into projects. Titus Jones, General Manager of Advance Systems Concepts at Kroger Technology & Digital, manages multiple self-identifying neurodivergent co-op students and young professionals.
By encouraging colleagues to remain open minded and supportive in the interview process, onboarding, and in project collaboration, he has witnessed previously underemployed neurodiverse employees thrive after working with Kroger Technology & Digital. “I’ve seen people accomplish things they never thought they could, partly because they were given a supportive environment that complimented their skill set,” Jones said. “Everyone is different, and you get the best out of your employees by understanding what they need on a case-by-case basis.” (T. Jones, personal communication, Nov 29, 2022).
Moving From Neurodiversity to Neuroinclusion
Organizations Leading The Way
Most diversity initiatives strive to move beyond counting people, to making people count; moving from neurodiversity to neuroinclusion is where most organizations strive to reach. Employers creating comprehensive and centralized company-wide community and associated deliverables (often led by Human Resources, Diversity officers and ERG’s- voluntary, employee-led groups whose aim is to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with the organizations they serve) have typically experienced lower employee turnover, higher retention rates and a cultural brand job seekers are actively attracted to (diversity and ability, 2021).
In our employer market review, we’ve noticed six common activities and approaches organizations take when successfully moving from neurodiversity to neuroinclusion. Firstly, the most successful organizations have a comprehensive diversity approach inclusive of neurodivergent and neurotypical employees. When all voices have a seat at the table, community and deliverables are more broadly endorsed and understood on a macro and micro level by all stakeholders.
Secondly, organizations create clear definitions of what individual employee success looks like through an employee engagement plan, including job specific professional development and diversity development. This plan is typically created between managers and employees and pairs employee professional needs with manager support. This is especially important for neurodivergent employees but has shown to be very effective and helpful for neurotypical employees too. Thirdly, the employee engagement plan serves as the foundation to a larger, integrated roadmap to help both employee and manager understand how to navigate the road to professional and diversity success.
The fourth approach successful organizations share in moving toward neuroinclusion is putting money where their mouths are, i.e., dedicated, and consistent investment and resources towards diversity trainings and individual employee success. Next, organizations are continuously self-assessing their approach and strategies by considering the support structure towards inclusion, what they are doing well and what are they missing/growth opportunities. Lastly, developing a risk and issue mitigation plan helps organizations clarify what barriers still exist that prevent employees (neurodivergent and neurotypical) from being successful at work.
Organizations leading the way in neuroinclusion typically have elements of some or all six approaches discussed including creating robust neurodivergent hiring pipelines from university to entry level roles. If you are looking for some program inspiration on how to create neuroinclusive hiring practices, check out these four employers:
- SAP: Autism at Work Program
- P&G: Ability Hiring
- Goldman Sachs: The Goldman Sachs Neurodiversity Hiring Initiative
- Dell: Neurodiversity@Dell Technologies
- EY: Neurodiverse Center of Excellence
5 Habits To Increase Neurodivergent Student Success At Work
- Get comfortable asking students how you can best support them in their work
- Self-disclose or share work challenges you experienced in your career showing students you’re human too!
- Create clear and honest guidelines on how students can be successful in your organization
- Offer opportunities for your student employees to show their uniqueness and talents beyond the requirements of their job
- Commit to developing your own education and understanding of neurodiversity and how you can ally with your neurodivergent students
5 Tips To Hiring Neurodivergent Students
- Create alternative hiring practices or programs that value and leverage neurodivergent uniqueness
- Develop partnerships with universities and non-profits in your community
- Showcase your diverse talent at hiring and networking events- representation matters!
- Invest resources in marketing and advertising neurodiverse opportunities beyond the HR website or job board
- Leverage your previous student employees and develop collegiate ambassador programs to help prospective students connect with past talent
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About the Authors
Nadia Ibrahim-Taney is an Assistant Professor of Career Education, teaching and coaching students majoring in STEM fields. She identifies as an LGBTQ+ woman with a neurodivergent (ADHD) diagnosis, which influences her research and interest in how personal and professional identity intertwine in the workplace. She is best reachable on LinkedIn.
Liz Pawley is an Assistant Professor and serves as a faculty co-op advisor for Computer Engineering students. With 10 years of career education experience, she enjoys helping students connect their unique strengths to meaningful careers while prioritizing mental health and well-being.