‘We thrive when we can be ourselves’ – Emma Case
There has been much talk of ‘embracing Neurodiversity in the workplace’ recently. But with only 10% of organisations factoring Neurodiversity into their HR policies, it comes as no surprise to us that many ND people turn to self-employment to find the career satisfaction and flexibility they need. So companies: if you want neurodivergent talent, you’re going to have to change.
This was the take-home message of ND Works, our first event of 2019 which focused on the benefits of empowering Neurodiversity in the workplace, and on what steps employers could be taking to create a more supportive and inclusive environment.
FND founder Lucy Hobbs opened the event with some valuable insights into her own experiences of ADHD in the workplace. As a freelance Creative Director she’s seen more than her fair share of offices and organisations throughout her career, both the good and not-so-good in terms of their sensitivity to neurodiverse needs.
She handed over to Pip Jamieson, ‘delightfully dyslexic’ founder of The Dots and the event’s keynote speaker, who took us through her powerful presentation: “Why I’ve come to believe my dyslexia is a superpower and how to get the most out of dyslexic employees‘.
Jamieson began with a personal account of the challenges and prejudices she faced at school, turning to how differences in thinking and problem-solving had led her to succeed because of her dyslexia, not despite it, as has been true for many of the world’s leading entrepreneurs.
“Different minds come up with the best solutions”
She also shared her thoughts on what the industry could do to make the recruitment process fairer, an issue she has sought to tackle head-on with The Dots. Unlike its main competitor LinkedIn, her site is well suited to non-linear, ‘portfolio’ based careers, which she feels better showcases neurodiverse talent and puts candidates on a more equal footing. On the issue of the hiring process itself, she added:
“The industry could make the recruitment process fairer by hiring by committee to iron out any biases and not asking for cover letters which can put dyslexics at a disadvantage”.
The second half of the event was devoted to our panel discussion,‘Empowering neurodiversity in the workplace’, compared by Nadya Powell, co-founder of Utopia. She was joined by Emma Case, Life Coach and founder of Women Beyond the Box, Amy Walker, Founder of Neurodiversity Works and Diversity & Inclusion coordinator at Group M, Alex Loveless, Independent Data Scientist and consultant for AstraZeneca and Sunshine Jackson, award-winning programme maker and founder of Amplify.
The discussion focused on what organisations could be doing to allow neurodiverse talent to flourish, and some inventive and practical ideas emerged. These covered all aspects of employment, from applications and interviews to the working environment, daily routine and organisational structure.
‘We need to be allowed to be fallible, whole human beings’ – Sunshine Jackson
The panel first identified a number of challenges that ND employees often face. Amy Walker made some compelling points about the interview process and how it can disadvantage applicants whose communication style falls outside the neurotypical norm, regardless of their overall ability:
‘Hire good talkers and you’ll get good talkers, but who’s going to do the work?’ – Amy Walker
Both Sunshine Jackson and Alex Loveless homed in on the frustrations of being expected to fit into bureaucratic, process-oriented systems with excessive structure being imposed from above: they spoke from an ADHD perspective about how such ‘rules for the sake of rules’ can lead to apathy, boredom and ultimately, dissatisfaction with the job:
‘Large systems reward game-players. Some can play the boredom game. We can’t’ – Sunshine Jackson
Emma Case shared her own example of being driven to start her own coaching business after her earlier career in fashion turned into a ‘cycle of crash and burn’ where the effort of constantly masking in order to fit into an NT worldview often left her exhausted by midday.
‘To nurture ND talent, employers must allow us to be ourselves’ – Emma Case
What did they feel bosses could be doing better? Suggestions for workplace adjustments such as relaxed interviews, transcription software, ‘nap corners’, home working days and ‘no phone call’ policies were made.
‘Employers need to scrap their baselines – don’t assume everyone can operate at the same level’ – Alex Loveless
All agreed that flexibility: specifically allowing employees to ‘be themselves’ at work and at interview was essential to hiring and retaining neurodiverse talent, a sentiment that was neatly summed up by Nadya Powell:
‘Let’s create a world where everyone can ask for a nap!’
Our panelists made it clear that Self Employment can often provide a more suitable environment for ND professionals if they can make it work, but it has its downsides, both for the employers who lose out on valuable staff and for the individual: specifically, while many conditions such as ADHD, ASD and dyslexia are classed as protected characteristics for employees, this protection doesn’t always extend into the freelance sector.
This lack of regulation and recognition means many ND freelancers are afraid to open up about their diagnoses to potential clients:
As a freelance creative, I have never felt comfortable disclosing my neurodiversity at work out of fear that it could affect my booking prospects. People can judge harshly or will put you in a ‘box’ because they have no idea. — Lucy Hobbs
If we are to ensure all ND workers have equal prospects of working in the environment they feel most comfortable and able to thrive in – whether as an employee or a freelancer – it’s crucial that all those involved in hiring gain a better understanding of what neurodiversity entails.
Words: Abi Silvester