Neurodiversity At Work: Leading With Empathy
“IMAGINE BEING A LEADER TO SOMEONE WHO REQUIRES EMPATHY.”
That phrase stopped us in our tracks during a recent Digital Meetup, where the Now of Work community welcomed key influencers leading efforts around neurodiversity in the workplace. The panel was comprised of Michael Hofer, Global HR Transformation Executive at SAP and Neurodiversity Advocate, José Velasco, Autism at Work Program Director at SAP and Board Member for The Autism Society; Silvia Velasquez Casado, MBA/MPA Candidate at MIT Sloan/Harvard Kennedy School, and Ed Thompson, Founder & CEO of Uptimize. Along with Jess Von Bank and Jason Averbook, they discussed the current state and necessary evolution of inclusive workplaces to welcome and support all talent, including those who think differently and those with hidden disabilities.
Committing to making your company more neurodiverse isn’t only a requirement for total inclusivity in the workplace, it’s a benefit to all involved. And we mean ALL people. Not just during Autism Acceptance Month but as part of ongoing talent strategies, our panel of experts reinforced the need to make neurodiversity a priority within your workplace and approach it with an inclusive growth mindset.
IT STARTS WITH UNDERSTANDING
Parents of neurodivergent children will tell you they spend a lot of time worrying. It starts with worrying about their child’s independence in small everyday tasks like teeth brushing or their ability to make friends at school. That worry eventually morphs into wondering if they’ll be able to live on their own or have a career they desire and that pays a decent, if not desirable, wage. More than anything, they worry about their kids being happy. And neurodivergent people should be happy. They deserve to be happy. They can be happy. Corporations have a role to play in that.
Happiness is the most important goal, but how do we achieve that? One way is doing work that fulfills and fuels us. “Work gives us connections, and without connections, 100% fulfillment in life is hard to achieve.” – José Velasco, Autism at Work Program Director, SAP
So how are executives in corporate America looking at, adjusting to, building programs for, encouraging, and supporting neurodiversity at their organizations? Many organizations are behind the eight ball and need to open their eyes and change their approach. Other organizations are on the right track. How are they doing it?
RECRUIT WITH PURPOSE
Before we can start supporting neurodivergent employees, we have to get them in the door. That’s assuming they want to walk in your door – or know how to, or where the door is. Corporations must adjust their recruiting process to not only find neurodivergent candidates but meet them where they are and make them comfortable enough to apply.
Silvia Velasquez Casado, MBA and MPA Candidate at MIT Sloan and Harvard Kennedy School, confirms that rethinking the way we interview is an important step in creating a more inclusive work environment. Support programs with high success host events that match the needs of the neurodivergent. Think about job fairs: these can be nightmares for neurodivergent job seekers, who will typically prefer to learn about job opportunities in a closed session where they can speak directly with an employee and get their questions answered one-on-one.
Then comes interviewing, which can be uncomfortable and awful for anyone, most especially for the neurodivergent. “Many of us would rather go to the dentist than interview [for a job]. It’s frightening and intimidating, and it doesn’t reflect how we work in a company. There’s a panel of people who you don’t know asking you rapid fire questions. It’s not a really great experience.” – José Velasco, Autism at Work Program Director, SAP
Let’s change our approach! What if corporations tried something unheard of and revealed – ahead of time! – the questions they plan to ask in an interview. What would happen if we were to prepare the candidate and make the interview more inclusive for everyone? Typically, you’re interviewing for a skill, but at the end of the day, you need someone to do tasks or fulfill a need. You have to open up your mind and start thinking outside the box, because a lot of people can perform those tasks.
ADJUST THE TOOLS
Making this adjustment will require dedication, commitment, and changes to process. All of our processes. The technology and tools used to recruit are meant to handle volume; they’re designed to whittle down, screen out, auto-identify, and suggest the best talent matches. Screening hidden talent in, not screening them out, is how we’re going to identify and open opportunities for neurodivergent candidates.
“These systems are designed for volume and for finding ‘the norm.’ We don’t look for or design for exceptions. We screen people out because it’s efficient. We’re not screening to let marginalized people in. If you seek to have an inclusive workplace, that [should be] the goal.” – Michael Hofer, Global HR Transformation Executive, SAP and Neurodiversity Advocate
It’s time to take a more human approach, look more broadly, and think about who we’re missing or who we’re disregarding. Employees can help with this, especially neurodivergent employees. Give them an opportunity to join the recruiting process, and invite them to help shape programs to support neurodivergent individuals at work.
MANAGE WITH MINDFULNESS
Neurodiversity is more common than you think. Between 30% and 40% of the population are thought to be neurodivergent. Some individuals keep their diagnosis (if they even have one) or their neurodiversity a secret, a form of self preservation.
“The whole way we approach and think about neurodiversity in the workplace can be a little misguided. Some of our early customers asked how we get people to put their hands up. Many people have less access to diagnosis; even more importantly, 1 in 10 neuro diverse people choose not to disclose.” – Ed Thompson, Founder & CEO, Uptimize
One way to approach disclosure is simply signaling that neurodiversity is genuinely important to the organization, then let people decide if they want to disclose their neurodiversity if and when they’re ready.
“There is a delta here in terms of how inclusive we think we are versus how we are in practice. 50% of all employees say they can’t be their true selves at work. There’s a major business case for greater inclusion that doesn’t have anything to do with hiring. It’s about giving people opportunities, and looking at their performance.” – Ed Thompson, Founder & CEO, Uptimize
José Velasco, Autism at Work Program Director, SAP, explains if we’re not intentional about establishing necessary protocols in companies to promote inclusivity in neurodiversity, these will be purely accidental efforts.
“We need to systemize things. In the program [SAP] launched, we have a sourcing, screening, pre-employment training, onboarding and separation level of training for neurodivergent training. We have an opportunity for you to say ‘I want to be part of the autistic intake program,’ or you can go on your own and disclose later if you need something to accommodate you in that process. When you are intentional about establishing and institutionalizing this set of services, that‘s when your company can truly be neurodivergent.” – José Velasco, Autism at Work Program Director, SAP
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR EMPATHY (AND GROWTH)
There’s a social case here, but there’s a business case, too. Organizations across the world are struggling with major talent challenges.
“1 in 4 people left their job last year in the US. That is a major crisis costing the US $45 billion a year. If you’re not being inclusive, you’re manifesting what’s happening to your bottom line.” – Ed Thompson, Founder & CEO, Uptimize
Neuro inclusion can be a solution to these challenges. “There is a 28% higher revenue increase for [corporations] who actually focus on disability inclusion and awareness.” – Silvia Velasquez Casado, MBA and MPA Candidate at MIT Sloan and Harvard Kennedy School
It all goes back to empathy.
“Having a neurodiverse person next to you makes you a better person. Empathy is the number one skill managers need. If we open up the workplace to those who have the skillset to contribute and debunk the myths around those who are neurodiverse, there’s so much more we can do as a society.” – Silvia Velasquez Casado, MBA and MPA Candidate at MIT Sloan and Harvard Kennedy School
And shouldn’t we be leading with empathy anyway, always? In all situations, for all people?
Dive more into this topic by listening to the full Digital Meetup.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jess Von Bank is an 18-year industry veteran and impassioned evangelist of the modern candidate and employee experience. As both a former recruiting practitioner and an expert in bringing TA Tech and HCM vendor solutions to market, Jess looks to broaden executive mindset to better design and deliver a workforce experience that exceeds the expectations of talent and the needs of the business.
Jess offers specialized expertise in talent acquisition, recruitment marketing, employer branding, DEI&B, brand-building, and storytelling. She iis the Head of Marketing for Leapgen, a digital transformation company shaping the Now of Work. She also runs the Now of Work, Leapgen’s global community for HR, Talent, and workforce experience professionals.
Jess is an active community emcee, ambassador for women’s and girls’ organizations, and President of Diverse Daisies, a nonprofit for girls’ enrichment and empowerment. She lives in Minneapolis, where she races for free swag and raises her 3 daughters.
Leapgen is a global digital transformation company shaping the NOW of work. Highly respected as a visionary partner to organizations looking to design and deliver a digital workforce experience that will produce valued outcomes to the business, Leapgen helps enterprise leaders rethink how to better design and deliver workforce services and architect HR technology solutions that meet the expectations of workers and the needs of the business.