Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage
John is a wizard at data analytics. His mathematical ability and software development skills are exceptional. His CV includes two master’s degrees, both with honours. An obvious hire for a tech company, right? Alas, no. Until John came across a firm that had begun accommodating neurodiversity by experimenting with alternative approaches to talent, he was unemployed for more than two years. While companies he talked with badly needed the skills he possessed, he couldn’t make it through the hiring process.
If you watched John for a while, you’d start to see why. He seems, well, different. He wears headphones all the time, and when people talk to him, he doesn’t look right at them. He leans over every 10 minutes or so to tighten his shoelaces; he can’t concentrate when they’re loose. When they’re tight, though, John is the department’s most productive employee. He is hardworking and never wants to take breaks. Although his assigned workplace “buddy” has finally persuaded him to do so, he doesn’t enjoy them.
“John” is a composite of people whose privacy we wanted to protect—people with autism spectrum disorder. He is representative of participants in the programs of pioneering companies that have begun seeking out “neurodiverse” talent.
Accommodating Neurodiversity in the Workplace
A lot of people are like John…
The incidence of autism in the United States is now 1 in 42 among boys and 1 in 189 among girls, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
…although corporate programs have so far focused primarily on autistic people, it should be possible to extend them to people affected by dyspraxia (a neurologically based physical disorder), dyslexia, ADHD, social anxiety disorders, and other conditions. Many people with these disorders have higher-than-average abilities; research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics. Yet those affected often struggle to fit the profiles sought by prospective employers.
Neurodiverse people frequently need workplace accommodations, such as headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation, to activate or maximally leverage their abilities. Sometimes they exhibit challenging eccentricities. In many cases the accommodations and challenges are manageable and the potential returns are great. But to realize the benefits, most companies would have to adjust their recruitment, selection, and career development policies to reflect a broader definition of talent.
Diverse Talent Pool
A growing number of prominent companies have reformed their HR processes in order to access neurodiverse talent; among them are SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft, Willis Towers Watson, Ford, and EY. Many others, including Caterpillar, Dell Technologies, Deloitte, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and UBS, have start-up or exploratory efforts under way. We have had extensive access to the neurodiversity programs at SAP, HPE, and Specialisterne (the Danish consulting company that originated such programs) and have also interacted with people at Microsoft, Willis Towers Watson, and EY.