Last month saw employers up and down the country observe the annual National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) – a celebration of the positive contribution that America’s workers with disabilities make, both past, present and (hopefully), future.
Showcasing supportive, inclusive employment policies and practices, the theme for this year’s month was ‘Disability: Part of the Equity Equation’ – a clear statement of intent that wants to frame disability as squarely part of the equality and inclusion debate.
And it’s for very good reasons that this sentiment about inclusivity for neurodivergent employees should shine through.
It’s estimated that around 15% to 20% of the worldwide population is actually considered to be neurodiverse, but up to 80% of some neurodiverse communities are reportedly unemployed.
The neurodiverse talent pool remains largely untapped and yet we only have to look at what tech companies are doing to see that those who hire workers with disabilities typically outperform their competitors, averaging 28% higher revenue, according to studies.
So, how can organizations not only hire and include neurodivergent talent but also manage them equitably?
I would say that’s it’s by looking at the processes implemented by tech companies who are doing it successfully that is key.
In addition, by using time-tested best practices and results-backed initiatives, organizations can also begin building inclusive workplaces that foster a sense of belonging for neurodivergent individuals and differently-abled staff. Here are tips that employers can follow to become more friendly to autistic and neurodiverse employees:
Work collaboratively and take an honest culture inventory
The first step in reassessing your inclusivity and equity practices will be to initiate conversations and feedback from your existing neurodiverse and differently-abled staff.
Rather than implementing what can feel like ‘top-down’ policies and initiatives, it is highly important to listen to your own staff to understand where they see room for improvement. They can tell you what’s already working, but also what needs to be implemented as soon as possible.
Additionally, go beyond your internal staff to reach out to neurodiversity advocates and experts in your communities to get their recommendations for best practices. By doing this, your organization is more likely to implement new policies or alter existing practices in ways that have a tangible positive impact your neurodiverse and differently-abled employees.
Consider using surveys with direct questions or anonymous surveys to solicit greater freedom of expression from respondents. This way your DE&I team knows where your organization stands and the work that needs to be done to foster a greater sense of inclusivity and belonging for all employees.
Communicate openly and directly
Both autistic employees and their supervisors describe clear, open, and direct feedback and expectation setting as essential to positive employment experiences.
Spontaneous, face-to-face dialogue can be challenging and inefficient for autistic people. Putting precise expectations and feedback in writing provides a document that employees can use to double-check their understanding of workplace expectations whenever needed.
Flexibility also applies to communication. Allowing employees to communicate in their preferred format (face-to-face vs. email, Zoom video vs. Zoom chat), maximizes the chances that all ideas will be heard, regardless of communication style.
Normalize and educate
Inclusivity and equity for neurodiverse and differently-abled individuals should be part of the conversation for everyone at an organization – not just HR, leadership, or those individuals experiencing it. Normalizing the fact that some employees are neurodivergent can go a long way toward creating an inclusive environment.
This involves education about what autism is and can look like in the workplace. Ideally, this training should be conducted in collaboration with autistic people.
Critically, it is essential to recognize the heterogeneity inherent to autism, and not rely on stereotypes.
Autistic people have workplace strengths that go well beyond the stereotypical software engineer.
Include everyone in the conversation
Organizations should aim for all staff to become stakeholders in the success of inclusiveness for neurodiverse/differently-abled staff members. The goal is for all employees to feel that they have a vested interest in inclusion, equity, and diversity. This work is not just for “underrepresented” groups. There’s something for everyone.
Organizations can implement distinct ERGs (Employee Resource Groups), to help foster community for different groups of people, including groups for the enablement of people with different abilities, LGBTQ+, African Americans, women, military veterans, Asian Pacific Islanders, and LatinX and Hispanic communities, to name a few. These encourage employees from all groups, perspectives and walks of life to be involved in an organization’s DE&I initiatives, and these ERGs can (and should), openly share in the cross pollination of ideas between one another.
By creating groups that meet the diversity of staff that make up the workforce – including the differently-abled and neurodiverse – HR can create a sense of belonging. It can also strengthen ties and facilitate dialogue between various groups to create a strong sense of workplace community.
Create an environment of empowerment
Go beyond accommodating staff to empowering your neurodivergent and differently-abled employees. More specifically, take notice of the unique and different ways that such employees process information and how they interact with the world of work around them to play to their strengths.
For example, autistic and other neurodivergent people can have special abilities in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics. They often thrive on repetition and routine, and have an eye for detail. Additionally, many neurodiverse individuals have higher-than-average abilities and varied talents that complement a variety of roles, including but not limited to: software engineering, data science, accounting, and content creation.
Having employees with such unique information-processing abilities undoubtedly provides a competitive edge to companies that embrace them. With this in mind, DEI leaders should work with HR teams as well as neurodivergent and differently-abled staff to create learning and development plans that take into account these unique learning patterns and skill sets.
These individualized learning and training programs can also be woven into their career progression plans to tailor their development around such distinctive talents. By doing this, organizations can set up their staff for success by tailoring learning plans to work in favor of (rather than against), their unique abilities and strengths. Remember, great minds don’t always think alike – and that’s a good thing!
Make yourself hybrid ready
With the future of work being predominantly hybrid, it’s important to remain inclusive in work practices to neurodivergent and differently-abled employees, so those who choose not to come into the office do not feel excluded.
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We already know neurodiverse staff can, unfortunately, be overlooked or misunderstood during on-site work models. So this makes them exponentially vulnerable in the context of hybrid or remote work.
Implementing extensive manager training programs and creating resources to address things like remote inclusion and diversity, remote-worker engagement, and effective team collaboration is crucial. It is important that companies recognize that the shift to hybrid or remote work requires training for direct managers on how to interact with and manage their neurodiverse reports in this new environment.
In terms of fostering inclusivity and belonging for disabled employees, organizations must account for things like technology to support hybrid work – including how best to maintain team collaboration and communication, and address change management challenges. This not only enables neurodiverse and differently-abled staff to work effectively in the hybrid work era, but it also continues to foster the dialogue, belonging, and community that organizations strive to create in on-site environments.
Model inclusivity from the C-Suite
To authentically and impactfully disseminate a culture of inclusivity and belonging for differently-abled and neurodiverse team members, it’s crucial that ideal behaviors are modeled by leadership. This communicates clearly to all staff that inclusion and diversity efforts are being taken seriously at all levels.
For organizations to communicate that DE&I efforts for neurodivergents are integral to company culture and ongoing performance and success it’s important that leadership be actively involved in all such efforts – and to champion them.
As our workforce evolves and changes, so will the HR and wider programs and initiatives at organizations. That’s because the heart of any organization is their people – all of them.
Not only does creating a sense of belonging for neurodiverse and differently-abled staff promote engagement and positive culture, it also brings the perspectives and experiences of typically underrepresented groups to the forefront.
This powers organizational performance and enriches and diversifies the worldviews at the organization, which is key to staying in touch with the audiences that are being served.
The bottom line
Inclusivity should not just be a concern for National Disability Employer Awareness Month. Each and every month of the year, I&D leaders should ensure they are focusing on the enablement of people with different abilities.
Diversity is not just race, ethnicity and gender. There is diversity of thought. There is neurodiversity. There is also diversity in abilities. Its drawing from this rich mosaic of perspectives that make up a company’s workforce.
Remember, it’s important to emphasize abilities and not disabilities, because a person may have a disability, but this does not define who they are or what they are capable of.
Also, disabilities come in many forms – physical, neurological and behavioral – and that is why we have to work collaboratively to address the issues most important to employees who are dealing with disabilities themselves and/or are supporting loved ones and the community.
Every company’s mission should be to focus on education, collaboration, process, technology adoption, and support to ensure there is a place where people with disabilities feel welcome, safe, and appreciated.
By: Dr. Shirley Knowles, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, Progress