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Why are tens of thousands of skilled workers being excluded from the workplace?

Written by the Editorial Team

Of all the issues affecting the HR agenda in recent years, few can match the degree of importance that has been placed on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Ironically, however, while efforts being made to address the issue are to be applauded, there is also a major demographic that continues to be ignored and excluded from the conversation – those who are neurodiverse.

Since the 2000s, I have written extensively on human resources, workplace issues and hiring strategy both for our clients and in my own right as a writer for a plethora of publications. But rarely, if at all, have I come across any literature of note within these media that focuses on the reasons why neurodiverse workers are massively under-represented in the workforce.

Yet this is a talent pool that has the potential to help shrink the skills gap which continues to widen at relentless pace. Here’s why.

10 per cent of the UK working population are determined to be neurodiverse, yet 80 per cent of neurodivergent people are unemployed (Harvard Business Review). At time of writing, there are 727,000 unfilled vacancies in the UK (ONS). So, let’s do some maths.

If eight out of 10 neurodiverse people are not in work, it follows that 58,160 jobs (8 per cent of 727,000) could be filled by a talent base that has the skills and desire to take them. That’s more than the populations of Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent, or Halesowen in the West Midlands.

“Innovation … is most likely to come from parts of us that we don’t all share. People are not uniform but are, like puzzle pieces, irregularly shaped” – SAP

What is meant by ‘neurodiverse’ (or ‘neurodifferent’)?

For those of you equally unfamiliar as I was until late about what is meant by being neurodiverse, here’s a wee snapshot. It includes people with such conditions as dyslexia, autism, ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome and dyscalculia.

To be crude, people who are neurodiverse are simply wired differently to those who are not. This does not make them less effective as an employee because it takes them longer to process information which means they miss deadlines, or they have difficulty with certain motor functions.

“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will be best at any given moment?” – Harvey Blume, The Atlantic, 1998

Nor should they be less valued because their mood can swing from one extreme to another due to anxiety in certain situations. In most instances, neurodiverse people are often highly intelligent and phenomenal problem solvers.

But there is a problem and it lies with hiring managers and recruiters.

Super smiley happy recruitment marketing

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Ever read one of those articles that showcases the ‘best offices to work in the UK’? Invariably you will be met with images of dozens of twenty-somethings having a blast whilst playing ping-pong. Or they’re whizzing down a slide from the first floor to grab a latté which they’ll then sip in a shed that has been strategically placed next to the photocopier. You get the picture.

This scares the feck out of me – not because I’m 46 years old, but because I run a business and the chances of my team actually getting any work done in such an environment would be reduced by a good few percentage points.

Now consider what it would be like for someone who is neurodiverse (or ‘neurodifferent’) – a brilliant colleague who struggles to remain attentive, is easily distracted or has anxiety in social situations. Do you think that your recruitment policy is still inclusive?

“The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives” – Scope

By promoting your ‘fun’ and ‘uber cool’ Googlesque workplace, you are excluding a key demographic. Yes, you may think you are being inclusive because you have an LGBT+ or gender equality policy in place, for example, but the truth is you’re only half way there. You need to recognise that neurodiverse people have different needs.

Watch your language

Then there is the way in which hiring managers and recruiters ‘sell’ their company as a great place to work and the vacancies they have. Identikit job adverts follow a traditional formula – they’re looking for ‘super heroes’, as Theo Smith, Recruitment Manager at NICE wonderfully stated at an event I recently attended on the subject, run by Tortoise Media.

He said that employers are “looking for someone who can exceed the expectations of the role. But hiring managers introduce Kryptonite because the organisation’s procedures tell us we need to do them.”

“After three to six months working in the Mortgage Banking Technology division, autistic workers were doing the work of people who took three years to ramp up – and were even 50 percent more productive” – JP Morgan

The trouble is, he added, many employers “don’t actually know anyone with any form of disability.” Hence, the adage that people tend to recruit those in their own image. It is bias – whether it is unconscious or conscious is irrelevant, it is still bias. The language needs to change. We need to move away from the negativity that people associate with those who are neurodifferent and rethink what is really needed to the roles we’re hiring for.

Reassessing what we’re assessing candidates for

The trouble with identikit job adverts is that they can be rather bland – templated if you like. What needs to happen is for the HR, recruiter and ultimate line manager who the successful candidate will be working under to get together and ask themselves, What exactly will this person be required to do? What skills are required to be successful in the role? How important is it for the new person to be ‘career driven,’ to ‘thrive in a fun working culture’ or be a ‘real team player’?

Great as these attributes may be, they immediately exclude most if not all neurodiverse job seekers. Besides, do these things actually matter in the grand scheme of things? Personally, I’d rather hire someone who can do a bloody good job but prefers to work within a specially adapted quiet working space over a staff member with an amazing personality but isn’t as effective in terms of the output that they produce.

Why it matters

Excluding any sector of the workforce is wrong and contravenes the Equality Act of 2010. But there is a bigger argument here for embracing neurodiverse workers and that is the chronic shortage of skills that we have right now.

“Employers need to get better at making the most of what people are good at and make role adjustments for the things they’re not as good at. That’s how you get the best from talented people. Essentially, to get at the things people are great at, we need to stop focusing on what people aren’t good at!” – Ray Coyle, chief executive of Auticon UK

Record-low unemployment may make for good reading in the business pages, but it is a nightmare for employers who have vacancies that remain unfilled due to a lack of available talent. Hang on, that’s not true. There IS talent available – they’re just ignoring it as the 80 per cent figure at the top of this article indicates.

So, if many of these people are highly intelligent and equally capable of performing the skills needed for those jobs they are qualified to perform, then why can’t they be hired to plug the gaps that sorely need to be filled?

There is a talent base of over 58,000 skilled workers not in work but looking for employment and being ignored by employers

This takes a shift in mindset – something that most HR’s are struggling with. Indeed, research undertaken by Diginomica in 2018 revealed that just 10 per cent of HR professionals in the UK formally acknowledge neurodiversity within their employment policies.

Much work needs to be done to increase opportunities for those with neurodiversity in terms of increasing the awareness and understanding as to how to create and develop a working environment that is truly inclusive.

But if people reading this are prompted to have those conversations within their own organisations (and they see the marked impact this can have), then awareness will spread and with it the desire to change their recruitment and retention policies.

(For more information on this, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development have created a brilliant guide: https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/neurodiversity-at-work_2018_tcm18-37852.pdf)