Companies are increasingly recognizing the value neurodiverse employees bring to the workforce. To enable employees with cognitive differences to succeed and fully realize the benefit of their talents, businesses need to do more than accommodate; they may need to adjust their recruitment, selection, and career development practices to reflect a broader definition of talent.
Educate everyone broadly and continuously
Educate your entire workforce and offer specialized tools, resources, and support. Understanding how to interact more effectively with people who are neurodivergent can help make everyone more comfortable and productive.
Ernst & Young, for example, provides inclusive leadership training for all managers, which includes disabilities-specific examples and case studies. It also offers many in-person education sessions on neurodiversity, mental health at work, and other disability-related topics, plus tips and articles, tools, and links on our intranet, counseling with Ernst & Young clinicians, referrals, and telephone counseling through a 24-hour helpline.
Though neurodivergent individuals work throughout the business, Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence (NCoEs) are set up to specifically recruit, train, and support neurodivergent professionals working on process automation, artificial intelligence, block chain, cybersecurity data analytics and other emerging technologies. The NCoE leadership team, abilities strategy leader, and talent consultants are also available to field questions from and offer guidance to employees.
Set up space for success
Shared office environments can be difficult for people with attentional issues, anxiety, or sensitivity to lights, movement, or noise. Ernst & Young’s neurodiversity centers are designed to reduce those issues by locating them in relatively quiet, low-traffic sections of the office. Team members have permanent assigned seats and a consistent supervisor, who learns their individual work styles, needs, and preferences and can quickly help implement reasonable adjustments.
Including individuals with neurodiversity in the discussion goes a long way to creating an inclusive work culture. After consulting with an employee, a job coach at TransCen suggested putting up window blinds to temper sunlight and distractions from visual stimuli. This small change made the employee much more comfortable and productive.
Provide an ecosystem of support
Neurodivergent individuals often struggle with anxiety, depression, attentional issues, dyslexia, etc. They may be unsure about how to best collaborate, build relationships, and manage day-to-day disappointments, conflicts, and stresses. For that reason, a supervisor with experience in vocational rehabilitation, special education or a similar background manages neurodivergent employees. Like all Ernst & Young professionals, neurodivergent employees are required to meet with a career counselor quarterly to review performance and set long-term goals. They can also access in-person and virtual support from Ernst & Young’s full-time job coach, clinicians, a volunteer buddy, and local service providers.
Create a culture of clear communication and expectations
Navigating social interactions can be challenging for people who are neurodivergent. It’s helpful to explain unspoken social rules and cultural norms for the organization. For example, if everyone brings doughnuts on their birthdays, let your employees know, as they might not understand by observation alone.
Many neurodivergent individuals interpret information literally. Saying “This project is going to give you a run for your money” may be confusing. Be explicit instead: “This project is challenging and will take two or three days to complete.”
Provide detailed instructions. Instead of “please make a copy for everyone,” say, “Please make 10 copies and put a copy in everyone’s mailbox.” When possible, put information in writing. Neurodivergent employees can become overwhelmed when too much information is given verbally.
Review performance regularly
Continuous feedback is especially important. Supplement scheduled formal reviews with brief, specific, and timely performance input. Be direct, yet respectful. Cite examples, state concerns directly, and check to ensure you’re understood.
In sum, neurodivergent employees can add tremendous talent, creativity, and skills to the workforce. By implementing a few basic principles, businesses can help workers who are neurodivergent build successful careers, enrich the culture and drive growth and profitability.
Lori Golden is Ernst & Young’s Abilities Strategy leader, driving efforts to build an inclusive environment for people of all abilities. She originated Ernst & Young’s Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence, now in five U.S. cities, and launching soon in Canada and South America. She advises Ernst & Young’s AccessAbilities professional resource network, works to enhance accessibility, educates Ernst & Young employees on disabilities and creates new recruiting and employment models. She serves on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Circle of Champions, the Disability: IN Global Roundtable, the Autism at Work Employer Roundtable, and is vice chair of the Board of TransCen.
Laura Owens has over 30 years of experience as a national leader in the disability employment field. She is currently a professor at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and the president of TransCen, Inc., an organization based in Rockville, Maryland, that provides employment services to individuals with disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder; develops and evaluates new service models through research of evidence-based practices leading to improved employment outcomes; and provides training to businesses, organizations, and school districts focusing on the improvement of educational and employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities.