How Hiring More Neurodiverse Employees Can Help Close the Employment Gap

From an employer’s point of view, the employment statistics are still pretty alarming. Covid-19 may be (roughly) settling into an endemic phase (for now anyway), but the stark truth remains: there are still a ton of unfilled jobs and employers are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the problem.

Or are they?

Deloitte, in partnership with Auticon Canada, recently put out a study that showed that there is a massive untapped employee market that is going ignored: neurodiverse employees. In the report, the focus was primarily on autistic employees, but we can extend many of their thoughts to a range of neurodiversity, up to and including things like schizophrenia, Down’s Syndrome, ADHD, FASD, Tourette’s Syndrome and more. Taken all together, this population is hugely underrepresented in the workforce and has the potential to help close the gap that is currently causing employers to sweat at night.

You can read the full study here. It’s not a difficult read and much of what they say would be equally beneficial to neurotypical employees as well – particularly around restructuring the interview process. We’ll look at that ourselves in a future blog post. For now, we will simply look at what employers can do to reach out to this segment of the population and the gains they stand to get if they do.

The Ignored Employee Pool

According to a Canadian Survey on Disability, only 33% of neurodivergent Canadians are employed, compared to 79% of neurotypical employees. That means a stagger 67% of neurodivergent adults are either unemployed or underemployed. Now, some of this can be due to the fact that some neurodivergent people are simply unfit for most employment due to the nature of their disability (particularly if they cannot afford the correct medications, but that’s another topic), but for the most part, it’s not ability that stops them from working, it’s perception. In particular, many employers have the perception that people with autism or FASD, for example, are going to be less productive, cost a lot of money and resources to support, and can even be a liability or danger to the company.

So, the vast majority of neurodiverse people are underemployed, unemployed, or only sporadically employed:

  • Only 22% of people with audism are employed (out of total population)
  • 41% of people with autism who were working were only working part time, or temporary
  • People with autism or other neurodiversity have an average span of only about 1-2 years on a job compared with the 5-9 lifespan that people without disabilities have

What this means is that the majority of people who are neurodiverse are more likely to be on some form of social assistance for at least part of their adult life, have a patchy job history and resume, and have a harder time getting a job where they are able to settle in and thrive over the long term. On the government side, this represents a fairly steep cost to the social assistance system that could be decreased by encouraging more employers to take steps to create a working environment that embraces people beyond those who are neurotypical.

Those who do manage to find employment are more likely to be exhausted from masking themselves, aren’t comfortable talking about or disclosing their diagnoses and feel like they are treated differently once it’s disclosed or that there is still a stigma that will follow them around. All of this makes many people who are employed feel uncomfortable which feeds into the ‘job hopping’ that they end up doing.

So, ignoring or devaluing this job pool is quite costly, for both the people who are missing out on job opportunities, but also to the employers and to the social assistance system as a whole.

The Benefits of Neurodiverse Employees

We will get into some of the accommodations employers may want to consider in a moment. As a note, many of the accommodations aren’t just good for people with autism or ADHD – they are good for pretty well all employees! And in such a cutthroat race for talent, any edge helps.

When it comes to hiring for neurodiversity, employers worry a lot more about what they will need to do than what they will get out of it, probably because they assume it will be more trouble than it’s worth. But employees with things like autism or ADHD bring a lot to the table:

  • They are highly creative individuals, generally speaking.
  • They require clear communication, which is very beneficial to the business world, if a little off-putting at first
  • Many people who are neurodiverse can work in highly productive bursts. It may not fit the 9-5, but they get a lot done in their bursts, assuming they are given the ability to do it!
  • They bring unique experiences and skillsets which diversifies your office and leads ot more innovation
  • It forces a healthier outlook in the office: people are more willing to talk about their mental health challenges or hidden disabilities when they see others are talking about it and many of the accommodations you bring in for your neurodiverse employees are beneficial to the neurotypical ones as well.

And of course, you’re drawing from a pool of talent that a lot of other businesses aren’t tapping, giving you a lot less competition! This is certainly not something to ignore given the employment gap right now.

Accommodations

Now, what tends to scare a lot of employers off is the idea that they will basically have to change their entire way of doing things around a handful of people, but this really isn’t true. Assuming you are being thoughtful in the hiring process, you’ll probably find that the accommodations you’ll have to make are fairly minimal and ones that everyone can benefit from. Examples of common ones include:

  • Quiet spaces to work (but your more introverted staff will appreciate that too)
  • More flexible hours (everyone is pushing for this now. And a greater focus on output rather than butts in chairs, which is something that many employees with autism, ADHD, or other things will certainly appreciate since they can work in focused bursts rather than worrying about fitting in a schedule)
  • Remote working (Again, this is being pushed anyway)
  • Many people want very clear communication. But again, this is something to strive for anyway. No employee really wants ambiguous, foggy communication. Short, straight and to the point will likely be appreciated by everyone
  • More care to fitting people in where they will excel – but you should be striving for that anyway
  • People with neurodiverse spectrums may require more guidance at first. A good way to do this is to make sure they have a mentor or a partner for the first while. This not only helps to settle the newcome in, but also promotes bonding with the larger group, which everyone will appreciate

Another thing which really has to be looked at is the interview process itself. We’ll actually look more in depth at this later, but for now, it’s important to note that interviews are particularly scary for people who have variations in how their brain functions. They may struggle with the conventional social norms, disclose too much information, get confused easily, or get distracted. It’s important to be very clear about the job role, don’t be put off by different social cues (such as not making eye contact or being overly transparent) and offer remote interviews (video or audio) instead. And dump the generic competencies! Being clear in what the job is and how someone would fit in is best. But honestly, these are just good things to keep in mind for interviews anyway.

Awareness around the prevalence of neurodiversity is on the rise. It’s not just the extreme ends that are being shown now – there are more employees with things like dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, FASD, autism spectrum disorder, and more. By ignoring them, refusing to make accommodations, and trying to fit them incorrectly, employers are cheating themselves out of loyal, hardworking employees who could bring something innovative to their business. And in a world where employers are strapped for good help, ignoring an entire pool of potential workers is just a plain bad move.

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