Does Your DEI Program Include Neurodiversity?
If your diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program leaves out neurodiverse employees, it’s falling short.
Roughly 1% of the world’s population is on the autism spectrum, 3%-4% have a form of dyslexia and it is estimated that 3.5% of Americans have ADHD. That translates into millions of talented candidates who aren’t getting hired or retained because corporate culture is ill-equipped to make them feel welcomed and valued.
That’s not just a loss for candidates — it’s a loss for companies.
"Making neurodiversity part of DEI efforts is not a charity mindset," said Judy Reilly, director at UConn's Werth Institute Center for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation. "We all know that having a diverse workforce improves the bottom line, and neurodiversity is one more version of the benefits that diversity brings to the workforce."
The Not-so-Hidden Talents of Neurodiverse People
Neurodiverse candidates don’t just bring a unique perspective to the job. They often have a powerful subset of strengths that are hard to find in neurotypical populations, said Tom Lakin. Lakin is the practice director for Robert Walters Specialist Professional Recruitment in the UK, where he heads Recruitment Inclusivity Audits. He is also what he terms significantly dyslexic.
Lakin points to several studies that show neurodiverse candidates perform better at many work tasks, including a report by JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work initiative, which found autistic employees made fewer errors and were 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees. And the Dyslexic Dynamic report found dyslexic talent are more likely to produce innovative and creative ideas through hyper-focus in areas of interest.
Creating a culture that values these employees can also have a positive impact across the company, causing overall engagement to rise. "Everyone today is touched by someone who is neurodiverse," Reilly said. “To see your organization working to become more inclusive, raises everybody's morale.”
Executives should view hiring neurodiverse candidates as an opportunity and work to create channels that attract them to the company. "There's a battle for a new breed of talent who bring skills like curiosity, data analysis and pattern recognition to the business," said Lakin. But finding, recruiting and supporting these candidates can be a struggle.
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An Intentional Effort That Starts With Training
Often the decision to actively recruit and hire neurodiverse candidates starts at the top, with C-suiters setting directives to expand recruiting to these candidate pools. But managers will struggle to translate that directive into actual new hires. Managers need training on how to engage these candidates, how to restructure interview techniques, and how to rethink job settings and roles. Otherwise, these great candidates will never make it through the door — or will never feel accepted by their teams.
To start, Reilly suggests creating a head of neurodiverse talent as at least a half-time role. "This takes intentional effort, so you need a program director no matter how small you're starting."
That person should be in charge of setting expectations, implementing training and raising awareness across the organization about what neurodiversity is, how it is relevant to team performance, and what managers and workers can do to make the workplace experience more supportive for neurodiverse people.
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Once companies move to recruiting, she suggests starting with a specific department or role and asking a manager to champion the hiring and onboarding effort. It sets the tone and provides a baseline for success that other teams can model. These managers should receive training on how to focus on skills-based hiring and how to adapt communication expectations for someone who may not be comfortable with eye contact or casual conversation. The manager should also help candidates prepare for the interview by providing questions ahead of time and establishing a comfortable place to talk.
"There are loads of jobs that don't require ‘outstanding communication skills’ and arguably they're the ones that are increasing," Lakin noted. So, stop making it a criterion for every hiring decision.
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Partner With Those Who Know
The final challenge is finding these candidates and bringing them in. You can’t just include a line in job postings ‘encouraging neurodivergent candidates to apply!’ Reilly warned. “It’s like putting a rainbow sticker on your front door.”
Instead, start by making sure you're confident that managers are ready to embrace these candidates. Then seek out organizations that can connect your company with relevant talent pools. Reilly’s Center offers employer bootcamps to help companies build neurodiverse-inclusive employment initiatives. It also helps them connect with groups that promote neurodiverse hiring, such as the Department of Labor’s Neurodiversity in the Workplace program, part of the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN).
She also suggested companies just start Googling. "'Neurodiversity employment,' and 'neurodiversity at work,' are two phrases that bring up great materials from some of the leading coalitions working on this every day."
It may feel like an overwhelming effort to take on, but the impact can be significant. Reilly held up Wells Fargo neurodiverse talent program as an example. This year alone, the company has hired more than 150 neurodivergent individuals into roles in operations, risk, investment banking and finance. "They revamped their interview process, trained managers and mentors, and they're having great success," she said. Many of these hires are now helping train other managers to spread the wealth of knowledge about the myths and realities of working with neurodiverse talent.
"This isn't a political conversation or an ideological conversation, it is a business conversation," Larkin said. "Diverse workforces make you more profitable, more future-focused, and more innovation ready."