How tech companies can hire for neurodiversity in the workplace

James Milligan, Global Head of Hays Technology

  • Research shows low employment rate for Autistic people in US, UK and Australia.
  • Meanwhile, some employers focus on hiring Autistic people as opposed to a fully neurodiverse workforce.
  • Adapting interview techniques and job descriptions can make process more inclusive for neurodiverse applicants.

The lack of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry is a widely acknowledged problem, with advocates voicing their concerns at various high-profile conferences. Companies listened, and were soon hiring with an increasingly inclusive mindset, becoming aware of the issues such as unconscious bias and the benefits of a varied workforce. A 2020 McKinsey study, for example, found companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity significantly outperform their competitors.

But neurodivergent individuals are still often overlooked when compared to other minority groups, and this issue exists across multiple conditions and on a global scale. In the US, 85 per cent of Autistic college graduates are unemployed. In Australia, just 40 per cent of Autistic people are employed, compared to 83 per cent of people without a disability. And in the UK, only 32 per cent of Autistic adults have ‘some form’ of paid work, with 16 per cent holding full-time roles. And that’s just looking at one neurodiverse condition. In the UK, 29 per cent of people with Tourette Syndrome are unemployed, and in the US, adults with ADHD are 18 times more likely to be disciplined at work and 60 per cent more likely to lose their jobs compared to their neurotypical peers.

Steps toward neurodiversity in the workplace

Individuals labelled as neurodivergent can end up in a silo where they are not appreciated for the attributes that make them unique and valuable. But many neurominorities and experts are pushing for change. Speaking to the Guardian, Cambridge Professor and Director of the University’s Autism Research Centre, Simon Baron-Cohen said: “What we want is that one day every workplace will be diverse – we already encourage that with gender and ethnicity, but the next frontier is neurodiversity and it will become ordinary. People won’t think twice about it.”

In our previous blog we explained the benefits that neurodiverse employees can bring to the workforce, particularly in filling technical skills gaps. In this blog, we examine how tech companies are adjusting their hiring processes to encourage neurodiversity.

There are many examples of Autism at Work programs within the tech industry, and whilst these are a step in the right direction, by focusing on a single subset of the community, employers could be missing out on the range of strengths available from a fully neurodiverse workforce.

How to adapt your recruitment processes for a neurodiverse tech workforce

The benefits of hiring a neurodivergent workforce are clear. However, many such individuals are often unintentionally disadvantaged by traditional recruitment methods, where processes favour neurotypical candidates and neurominorities are automatically screened out.

Let’s now examine some of the issues neurodivergent individuals face during the recruitment process, and potential solutions for you to implement.

#1 The issues with job interviews

A traditional job interview can be problematic. If you have a neurodivergent condition like Autism or Dyspraxia, you could struggle to understand social norms and non-verbal communication. Autistic people are also prone to sensory processing issues, making a panel interview difficult to navigate as the candidate has to focus on several people’s verbal and non-verbal communication at one time.

However, there are many ways to adapt your interviewing techniques to help neurodivergent individuals. For example, instead of using a panel of interviewers, you could conduct a series of sequential interviews with one interviewer at a time.

Dyllan Rafail was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in the first grade. He now works at IBM and explains how the traditional interviewing process put him at a disadvantage: “My difficulties make it very hard to present myself effectively in the setting of a standard job interview. The fault of this standard is that it’s more effective in gauging an applicant’s ability to polish a resume and speak smoothly rather than their eligibility/skills for a position of employment. While good for some, this system filters out people like me.”

This Harvard Business Review article explains things further: “The behaviour of many neurodivergent people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee—solid communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, salesperson-type personalities, the ability to network, the ability to conform to standard practices without special accommodations, and so on. These criteria systematically screen out neurodiverse people.”

One way in which to compensate for this is to send candidates the questions in advance of the interview. Obviously, if the ability to think on your feet is a key requirement of the role, then this may not be suitable. However, where that is not the case, it can allow candidates to give more detailed, quality examples, which can help interviewers to better understand their suitability for a role. As working memory can be an issue for many neurominorities, this simple adjustment can be particularly beneficial. 

In support of neurodiversity, IBM launched the IBM Ignite Autism Spectrum Disorder programme in 2017. “People who are Autistic struggle to get through the standard hiring process,” Andy Williams explained, who’s spearheaded the IBM scheme. In a recent report, he notes that engaging in small talk or making eye contact can be an overwhelming challenge for these individuals and create an uncomfortable situation for the interviewer. “By adapting the process to meet the needs of a neurodiverse candidate, employees … can find their way to opportunities that might otherwise be out of reach — to their benefit and IBM’s,” the report added. 

#2 Adapt your job interviews

When referring to its Autism at Work programme, SAP recently stated: “Many companies are looking to problem-based interviews that ask a candidate to perform a task, which can make it easier for neurodiverse candidates to demonstrate their talents to the company.” 

This is particularly common in technical interviews, where candidates are often asked to solve a problem and explain their thinking using the white board. This can be an overwhelming experience for neurodivergent candidates, particularly where there are interruptions from the interviewer, or where instructions and boundaries for the task are unclear.

Nahia Orduna, a solutions architecture consultant at Amazon, agrees that the interviewing process needs modification. Writing for the World Economic Forum, Orduna said: “Ambiguous and too broad questions are a disadvantage for neurodiverse talent and can discard great employees. It is much more appropriate to give them a task to perform. Not all the roles may be optimal for people on the neurodiverse spectrum, but in our digital age, with new careers in data and in IT, there are more and more opportunities where their skills are needed.”

If you do include more ‘traditional’ interview questions in the process, you may want to change the nature of your questions to make them more manageable for neurominority candidates. This includes avoiding vague questions and instead focusing on those with a discernible connection to the tech job. For example, instead of “what are you most proud of?”, try to be more specific such as “name a technical problem at work you’ve solved in the last couple of months”. Instead of “tell me about your CV,” ask for specifics from their CV, and so on.

#3 Get inventive with your interview techniques

You don’t need to stick to traditional interview processes either. For example, work trials, short internships and practical assessments (in person or remote) all provide alternative ways for candidates to showcase their talent, focusing on an individual’s ability to perform the specific job role. You could also replace psychometric testing, which are often more favourable to the neurotypical cognitive profile, and instead ask candidates to provide examples of their previous work, to help you better understand their fit to the job in question.

Microsoft's neurodiversity recruitment initiative, for example, began in 2015, with more than 125 full-time employees now hired under the programme. COVID-19 meant that the company had to get creative with its interviewing processes for neurodiverse individuals. Prior to the pandemic, they would hold interviews with potential candidates over several days, including sessions where individuals would work in teams to solve an engineering challenge. Now, that's all virtual. Microsoft also uses Minecraft and other programs to keep that same team-style interview – but in an online setting.

Dell also has an Autism Hiring Programme, which focuses on the technical abilities of the candidate and observing them during team-building exercises. Candidates then take part in a two-week skills assessment, which includes project prototyping exercises.

Regardless of the approach that you adopt, it is important to consider what you are trying to get from the process. Following a standardised recruitment process for every role, may not ultimately lead to the best candidates. Think about what the role needs and how you can identify those skills in a candidate, without putting unnecessary barriers in the way.

#4 Help tech talent and interviewers prepare

It’s also important to prepare your candidates for the selection process. The Neurodiversity at Work report from the CIPD recommends providing the candidate with clear instructions on how to get to the interview venue, and what the process involves, as well as choosing a suitable, quiet space free from distractions. It is important to avoid any ambiguity in your instructions, to ensure that the candidate’s expectations are aligned with your own.

If you intend to ask the candidate to complete a coding test, for example, make them aware of this part of the interview and, if possible, provide them with a way to get to grips with your coding environment before the interview.

“The problem with many code tests is they expect way too much, and put the test in a completely, alien, unfamiliar coding environment on the web in the web browser that is very user unfriendly and overwhelming and over-stimming,” writes software development engineer, William Fletcher Gilreath.

You may also want to consult with neurodiversity experts to help your interviewers prepare for interviewing and hiring neurodivergent individuals. Otherwise, they could – consciously or unconsciously – make negative judgements on an applicant’s suitability for a role. Your candidate filtering tools may need to be adapted as well to remove unconscious bias, for example by enabling blind recruitment on a number of levels.

Importantly, companies must also remember there is no duty for an individual to disclose a neurodiverse condition. However, interviewers must be aware of a few key ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ if a candidate does decide to disclose this information. A report from Acas states: “If they do volunteer this information, interviewers must not respond by asking further questions about it. They should take particular care not to be influenced by the information in their selection decisions.”

#5 Consider the wording of your job adverts

It’s not only your interview processes that may need adapting, but your job adverts as well. As explained by Martynas Kavaliauskas, co-founder and CEO at GPS tracking company Tracking Fox, in this Tech Republic piece: “…companies should modify job postings to state explicitly that neurodiverse applicants are welcome.”

This is an important point. Include a diversity and inclusion statement in your job description – and state you are happy to discuss reasonable adjustments to help the candidate. Job adverts also need to be precise, clear and avoiding jargon.

For Direct Line's Yvonne Akinwande, the key to getting her dream job was that the advert didn't specify something like: "Must be exceptional at written communication".

Speaking in a statement, Yvonne explained: "I am not exceptional at written communication. But it did ask for someone who's creative in their mindset and likes to engage and work with other people. Skills that I possess."

When writing job adverts, it is important to consider the skills attributes that are really necessary for the role, rather than listing generic skills. As demonstrated above, by including unnecessary requirements, you could end up losing out on the strongest candidates.

To kick off your neurodiverse hiring journey, start talking to the experts

Hiring neurodivergent tech professionals has a positive effect on the entire workforce, bringing a whole pool of untapped talent into the industry – and at a time when the digital skills gap is at an all-time high.

If you want to start hiring a neurodiverse workforce, the first step for many tech businesses is to engage with specialists in this field, make sure any supplier has both professional/ HR credentials and can also ‘walk their own talk’ by being a neuro-inclusive employer themselves. Genius Within is one such company whose expertise, experience and insight is market leading.  

Working for 10 years within the Neurodiversity sector, they have gathered thousands of points of data which shine a light on how to attract, and importantly, retain the considerable talents and strengths of the neurodivergent workforce.

They know that good quality inclusion practice means 95% of individuals continue to perform better within their role, with 25% of them going on to be promoted. The average improvement in performance in 67% (from Genius Within measurement surveys) three months after completing their intervention sessions.

The adjustments that make the biggest differences are not necessarily the most expensive.  Calendar flexibility, providing quiet environments and noise cancelling headphones, for example, can make a world of difference, for just the price of a stationary cupboard item.

Their approach to systemic change also means that they seek to design out the barriers that individuals face within an organisation, meaning that they are able to clear a path for those to come. This kind of approach not only improves individual performance goals, but also provide bottom line financial advantage to all sizes of business.

As Genius Within’s CEO Nancy Doyle says: “we all lose when human potential is squandered”.

You can get in touch with Genius Within by emailing clientservices@geniuswithin.org, or find out more by visiting their website or following them on all the usual social media channels.

Author

James Milligan
Global Head of Hays Technology

James Milligan is the Global Head of Hays Technology, having joined in 2000. In his role, he is responsible for the strategic development of Hays' technology businesses globally.

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