Disability Awareness Day fell on 12 September 2021. Disability is a recurring issue upon which lawyers are asked to advise, generally because, there is a performance issue. We read on a regular basis about the challenges of recruiting and the “war for talent”. Ignoring a substantial sector of the community, the neurodiverse, can make the recruitment process even more difficult.
I recall advising an employer several years ago in circumstances where the employee had suffered a brain injury which impeded their ability to make decisions, but they were otherwise high functioning. The employer had decided that the employee was no good “and had to go”. The risk of a discrimination claim for failing to make reasonable adjustments and the potential damages which might flow from such a claim were significant. The decision was eventually taken to make the reasonable adjustments that were required. Six months later a very happy HR manager rang me to tell me they had promoted the employee.
The point of this story is that it often depends how one approaches the situation. This is particularly true of the neurodiverse. Neurodiversity makes some aspects of the individual’s life more challenging but can often bring significant advantages.
Neurodiversity encapsulates a very broad spectrum of people. At one level we are all neurologically different but, for many, the differences are not significantly noticeable. However, those with diagnoses of dyslexia, autism or ADHD are significantly neurologically diverse. One of the challenges that arises from having labelled the difference is that the labelled individual is then seen as “being different” or being substantially different.
Those differences may produce beneficial results but they may also make matters more challenging. Dyslexia is often associated with challenges involving particular types of processing but can bring advantages when thinking /planning in 3D. Those with an ADHD diagnosis may find social interaction particularly difficult but may have an increased ability to concentrate and spot anomalies. Having team members who think differently, or who approach problems from the “other end”, may produce significant benefits.
The first step in becoming more inclusive of those who are neurodivergent is to ensure that those involved in the recruitment process understand the benefits that can arise from working with people who “think differently”, or look at problems in a different way, to those we might regard as neurotypical. It is well recognised that those with a diagnosis of autism might have a ‘laser like focus’ in document reviews, with incredible attention to detail. Those with a diagnosis of dyslexia may have greater spatial awareness and an ability to think in 3D. With 10-15% of the population falling into the neurodiverse category, employers who do not explore the talents within this section of the population are missing an opportunity to recruit some exceptional talent.
Although undoubtedly talented there will be challenges to overcome. Many on the autism spectrum, although possessing huge talents may lack some of the other skills needed to “be successful”. Interviewing well may be difficult for some despite their undoubted talents; passing assessments based on computers may also be more challenging.
When dealing with a neurodiverse candidate employers should consider making reasonable adjustments to the recruitment process. This might involve making changes to the interview process, avoiding open ended questions which may cause them to freeze and, instead, asking closed, targeted questions or allowing them to showcase their talents by demonstrating their skills on a specific project. For dyslexic candidates it may require taking any computer based assessments off computer and putting them on paper, as a reasonable adjustment.
In a world where it seems that hot-desking may become endemic, the working environment is likely to be critical. Many neurodiverse individuals struggle even with the smallest changes; having to “find” a different desk to work from each day may be several steps too far. For the neurodivergent, employers should consider having an allocated desk / office from which the individual can work. The accommodations which are made may cause tensions with other employees, it will be important to ensure that they have been helped to understand why some have been “favoured” above others with a coveted quite office space.
Making adjustments to the job role will also be important. For some, having to interact with the public on a daily or even occasional basis may be too much. However, a role may be created which does not require contact with the public where the employee deals only with their colleagues.
Helping employees to integrate, and be integrated, will be important. How far employers can go in telling others how best to interact with a neurodivergent colleague will depend on what has been agreed, but being able to coach and counsel them will assist in circumstances where individuals may speak (too) bluntly sometimes.
Managers may also need to check in more regularly with the neurodiverse to ensure that there are no issues with colleagues and that they feel engaged and enthused by what they are doing to avoid a drop in performance.
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.