IT hiring targets the talent of the neurodiverse community
Pioneering companies are strengthening management and hiring strategies to recruit and retain neurodiverse talent — and are reaping unexpected benefits of ND inclusivity in the process.
By Melisa Bleasdale
Diversity and inclusion is fast becoming a board-level imperative across corporate America. But for all the strides they’ve made, D&I initiatives have left some organizations struggling to address the many definitions of what diversity and inclusion mean when put into practice. While gender, race, ethnicity, and orientation are top of mind when talking about inclusivity, only recently has neurodiversity (ND) become part of the conversation. The past 5 years have seen the term popping up on company blogs, becoming a hashtag, and finding a meaningful place in some companies’ D&I strategies.
Commonly defined as a variation in neurocognitive functioning, ND is a broad umbrella term encompassing varied neurocognitive differences such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, intellectual disability, schizophrenia, and PTSD, among other disabilities.
Statistics show that more than 1 billion people in the world have some form of disability and that, regardless of their education, expertise, or willingness to work, 80% are either unemployed or vastly underemployed due to work environments, processes, and programs not designed to support them. Yet with the disabled making up nearly 20% of the world’s population, it’s a talent pool too large to ignore.
Some pioneering companies are tapping into this pool, adjusting their recruitment, hiring, and onboarding processes — and their workplace practices and environments — to ensure ND candidates and employees have opportunities to thrive, while enabling their teams to benefit from their ND colleagues’ unique and varied talents.
Here is a look at how companies are approaching recruiting and retaining neurodiverse talent — and the unexpected benefits they’ve received from embracing ND inclusivity.
Breaking myths and making an impact
Among the first companies to expertly mine missed opportunities in the ND community was Microsoft, which launched its groundbreaking Autism Hiring Program in 2015. Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at Microsoft, has become a beacon of best practices for those wanting to emulate the tech giant’s person-first inclusivity framework.
Barnett based Microsoft’s neurodiversity hiring program on the belief that traditional interview processes don’t allow ND candidates to demonstrate their true strengths. Finding that well-qualified individuals are often overlooked because of their aversion to making eye contact or their anxiety about participating in multi person, all-day discussions, Barnett helped develop a candidate screening process that focused on demonstrated ability, task completion, and problem-solving rather than one reliant on soft skills such as social interaction.
The program has also had a positive impact on Microsoft’s culture, its employees and its partner organizations. “Weaving talent with disabilities into the fabric of the company creates better processes, products and services for everyone,” Barnett says. “Many of our engineers are writing code that’s used daily by millions of consumers. Diversity not only enriches Microsoft’s performance, it’s also essential to our long-term success and continued innovation.”
Often incorrectly associated with Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character Raymond from the movie Rainman, many ND individuals are typecast at work due to their natural technical aptitude, holding them back from growth and opportunities. Though many ND people have outsized and often hyper-specific intellectual abilities, it’s a myth that they’re unable to communicate or meaningfully contribute to areas other than IT, engineering or in Raymond’s case, card counting.
It’s stereotypes like these that Shawn Fry, CIO of Potentia Workforce, fights every day. Potentia is a Texas-based organization that trains companies how best to interview, onboard and support ND employees. Prior to his role at Potentia, Fry built (and sold) several multimillion-dollar data analytics companies. He has also served as CIO of multiple regional hospital networks throughout Texas. His depth of expertise continues to make him a sought-after strategist, but his impressive background and corporate ascension obscure an early life as a social outcast who turned to computers as a form of escape. In a plot twist familiar throughout the ND community, Fry did not discover that he was autistic until he was in his forties and had an autistic daughter of his own.
“Neurodiverse individuals represent at least 20% of the adult population cutting across race, gender, and orientation,” Fry explains. “This means that we cannot really talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion without neurodiversity taking its rightful place at the table.”
It’s no accident that Fry landed at Potentia. Founder and CEO Jeff Miller was inspired to create Potentia to provide meaningful employment opportunities to ND individuals because his son is on the spectrum. Miller believes that ND matters for businesses because, as he says, leveraging it fully benefits the bottom line. He also points out that companies already have ND employees in their midst but don’t know about it because many don’t self-disclose for fear of discrimination.
Chevron is among the neurodiverse hiring pioneers that have seen the positive impact ND employees can have through its participation in Potentia’s STARS (Spectrum Training Recruitment and Support) program. Shawn Morgan, HR data science manager at Chevron, says he learned unexpected lessons through STARS about strengthening his own communication skills to better suit his teams.
“I admit that I didn’t understand or recognize how incredibly talented these individuals are. Having them on our teams has allowed myself and others to reflect on our own unique traits and attributes and become better communicators, citizens, and empathy-driven individuals,” he says. “It has made all of us reflect on and modify how we communicate, not just with our ND colleagues, but with each other.”
Sharing best practices to benefit a community
“Businesses that aren’t able to recruit and support ND workers miss out on a large and exceptionally competent swath of the population,” Potentia’s Miller says. “It stands to reason that companies that are not ND-competent will have unnecessarily high turnover and less engagement among those workers. That’s just bad for business.”
So how does an organization build a program that attracts and helps retain qualified ND candidates? By following in the footsteps of those who have done the same. Though there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ND processes or programs, there is a wealth of information being freely shared by organizations who have paved the way. Companies are continually building on the best practices of proven, successful initiatives, adapting them to their evolving requirements.
Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, Lou Candiello, senior manager of diversity and talent acquisition at Dell, recognized he could leverage the successes of D&I initiatives across various industries to craft an expansive inclusivity program tailored to Dell’s specific needs. He began the process by reaching out to Microsoft.
“When we started the conversation around ND folks about four, maybe five years ago, Neil [Barnett] shared with me what he was doing at Microsoft and from there I was connected to JPMorgan Chase, SAP, and Ernst & Young,” says Candiello. “It’s a community open to sharing what we’ve learned with whomever wants to know. You don’t have to be a partner of ours or close to us in any way to learn how to build a program of your own. It’s not something we want to keep secret.”
Candiello says he took pieces from various successful programs that exemplified the company’s ethos and developed one that embodied Dell’s distinctive culture. In a further show of commitment to the ND community, Dell also joined the Autism @ Work employer roundtable — a forum for organizations to share their experiences, lessons learned and successes — in hopes of inspiring similar programs across industries.
According to Microsoft, viewing accessibility as a business has been key to its success. In 2016 the company rebuilt its programs to include more systematic ways of measuring progress and to set targets, leading to the development of its lauded Accessibility Evolution Model (AEM), which the company has been using and improving for more than four years. Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, speaks to the company’s ongoing efforts to share its best practices for hiring and retaining ND candidates while breaking down the AEM and providing links to additional research and strategies in her July 2020 blog post titled “Accessibility Evolution Model: Creating Clarity in Your Accessibility Journey.”
It’s important to understand, though, that merely emulating successful programs isn’t enough. Many organizations partner with outside consultants to help design, implement and fine tune their efforts. But how do you know which approach is right for your team? You can start with the Autism @ Work Playbook, an analysis of the successful approach taken by trailblazing companies that has become a seminal guide for anyone looking to draft their own unique ND outreach and support initiatives.
Dr. Hala Annabi, an associate professor at the University of Washington Information School, led the collaborative research project Autism-Ready Workplace: Creating and Sustaining Autism Hiring Initiatives in an effort to provide companies with a roadmap to successful ND hiring.
Studying the Autism @ Work programs in place at Microsoft, SAP, JPMorgan Chase, and Ernst & Young, the ACCESS-IT Research Group at the Information School systematically examined how the firms established their programs and how they sustain them. The researchers analyzed key organizational strategies, employment and resourcing models, and hiring and onboarding practices to develop the guide.
Additionally, you may want to add a section to your corporate website specifically for ND talent. In looking at organizations with dedicated D&I programs, one constant is that they have specific sections of their websites devoted to attracting ND candidates. Prominently featuring their outside consultant partners in ND hiring, companies such as Dell provide an overview of their unique hiring process, showcase videos of candidate success stories, and have created a simple, intuitive user experience. By making their ND hiring process easy to find on their websites, they provide a ready example for other organizations to do the same.
Don’t call them accommodations
Creating opportunities for ND employees should be a priority for organizations of all sizes, believes Liz Feld, CEO of the RADical Hope Foundation. She knows that companies are hesitant to adopt their own programs because of misconceptions around the sorts of accommodations ND candidates may require but says we shouldn’t even be thinking of them as “accommodations” in the first place.
“First of all, I don’t see the things we are doing for and with our ND employees as ‘accommodations,’” she says. “I see them as best practices that, frankly, all organizations should be following, but aren’t. In order for ND employees to be as effective as they can be, they require structure, process, and specificity — and they ask for these things.”
Feld says that her ND hires don’t like to operate under assumptions and will work to clarify things that feel ambiguous, whereas many neurotypical employees are hesitant to ask questions as they don’t want to seem uniformed.
“Why shouldn’t we expect specificity from people we’re working with?” she asks. “It’s a regular reminder to me to slow down, be more organized in how I communicate, and be much more specific. Why should that be unique to the ND community? I feel like it’s the way we should all be operating. It’s a much more candid, explicit dynamic.”
On top of adopting a more direct and transparent communication style, managers should understand that the physical environment is critical to ND employees. The common pre-pandemic tech environment — open plan with cavernous echoes and ambient chaos — is considered kryptonite to someone with sensory processing disorders, which many ND people have. Sold as a means of agile collaboration and positive team building, rooms devoid of cubicles, walls, or any sense of separation are torturous for ND staff who are sensitive to noise, disruption, and visual stimulus.
Morgan says that when Chevron started the program in early 2020, before the pandemic forced a WFH mandate, he worked to identify physical environments and offices that provided a sense of safety — read: more quiet, less disruptive — for his ND team members. When the company went virtual, he ensured that all his team members received the tools they needed to be productive at home, scheduling regular check-in calls with his ND staff to offer support and guidance.
The more direct and carefully worded conversation style he adopted as a best practice for his ND hires created a positive climate of transparency and understanding across all of his teams, Morgan says. “Working alongside ND people has helped us reconsider how we communicate with each other and how we form relationships. Their presence and contributions made all of us more open and less scared to share our thoughts. It has helped us embrace how important it is to have individuals that can challenge the status quo and, in some ways, draw attention to our own unintentional biases so that we can work to be better. ”