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The Rise of Neurodiversity at Work

Organizations are finally embracing neurodiversity in their workplaces.

Key points

  • Organizations have long ignored neurodiversity, but this changed with the "neurodiversity at work" movement.
  • True diversity of thought on a team can provide a critical competitive advantage.
  • Today, top organizations are embracing neuroinclusion. Those that don't may face talent struggles.
Mantas Sinkevičius / Pexels
Mantas Sinkevičius / Pexels

Top employers are no longer ignoring neurodiversity in their workplaces. Organizations that continue to do so are likely to lose the talent wars.

DEI: a long history, but one that has largely ignored neurodiversity

Diversity and inclusion—now often known as “DEI” with the added word “equity”—has a long history. Indeed, organizational focus on this area dates from the 1960s and the civil rights era. The first known corporate resource group—or “enterprise resource group”—was formed by black employees at Xerox a year later. Early in the following decade, the Equal Opportunity Act further targeted discrimination at work, and organizations began hiring specialists to avoid the fines that began to be meted out to transgressors.

Over time, DEI reports and studies emerged, from McKinsey’s The Changing Face of Marketing (exploring a slowly more integrated corporate workforce) to Workforce 2000 (1987) which highlighted the coming further diversity of the American workforce as the millennium approached. By the early 2010s, studies like McKinsey’s Why Diversity Matters made clear that diversity is a significant asset for organizations, stating confidently that “Our research finds that companies in the top quartile for diversity are more likely to have (superior) financial returns…diversity is probably a competitive differentiator."

Yet, these articles and reports typically had one thing in common: None explicitly mentioned or discussed neurodiversity, the diversity of human brain wiring (and the fact of many neurodivergent employees and job applicants, who—even now—face obstacles due to a lack of inclusion in employment). Even Deloitte’s impressive thought leader piece Diversity’s New Frontier in 2013, which highlighted the critical importance of diversity of thought (the value of different perspectives at work) failed to do so.

Why? Well, societal appreciation of neurodiversity, and of the need for neuroinclusion (in all aspects of life and work) is relatively new. Indeed, the very word “neurodiversity” was coined only in the late 1990s by Australian sociologist Judy Singer as she wrote of growing neurodivergent conversations and connectivity on the nascent web. Neurodiversity activists have worked tirelessly ever since to change societal perceptions of neurodiversity and neurodivergence and replace outdated stereotypes with a more inclusive framework.

Organizations begin to focus on neurodiversity at work

Back to the DEI world. In the early 2000s, a number of organizations had well-documented success with targeted “disability hiring programs." These programs—such as that developed by Randy Lewis at Walgreens—looked to create opportunities for demographics their organizations had done a poor job of hiring and including to that point. Lewis’s initiative achieved significant press coverage and awards, and helped to slowly shift the narrative on neurodivergent capabilities in the workplace.

By the mid-2010s, with organizations facing a major talent crisis, a number of employers decided to adopt the disability hiring model specifically for neurodivergent talent. Now, famous brands were hiring for front-end, glamorous roles, and declaring to the world they value autistic talent. “SAP focuses on having scalable HR processes," the company’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the time, Anka Wittenberg, told Harvard Business Review. “However, if we were to use the same processes for everyone, we would miss people with autism."

Thus, the “neurodiversity at work” movement was born—and while many company careers websites continued to trumpet a commitment to all aspects of DEI without mentioning neurodiversity, pioneer employers began to change this.

Neuroinclusion today is a top priority for leading companies

Perhaps most significant to the growth of neurodiversity at work—more significant even than the early autism hiring programs—has been the emergence and rise of the neurodiversity enterprise resource group, well over four decades after the first ERG of any kind all those years ago at Xerox. Such groups, at companies like IBM, Salesforce, and Accenture, provide critical support while driving or facilitating “neuroinclusion” initiatives enterprise-wide.

Growing societal understanding of neurodiversity has no doubt played a part in organizational adoption of the topic as a talent management priority. It is recognized today that as many as 20 percent of people may be neurodivergent in some way, with top business people such as Richard Branson, Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran, and Elon Musk demonstrating the awesome potential of those who think differently.

Fauxels / Pexels
Fauxels / Pexels

It’s also understood, of course, that human neurodiversity means there is no one “normal” brain: Every interaction at work, therefore, takes place between people with different brains, yet with the appreciation of neurodiversity often still patchy, often such interactions take place without neurodiversity and neuroinclusion in mind. Cultural ignorance can persist, too—meaning employees feel uncomfortable disclosing as neurodivergent, preferring to “mask” or pretend to be neurotypical, often at a great cost to their productivity and mental health. Neurodivergent employees interviewed by Uptimize have reported many such negative interactions—from patronizing baby talk to hostility (seeing disclosure as just an “excuse” for being slower at a particular task, for example), and disbelief (“you can’t possibly be autistic—you’re female!”).

All this can change, though, and change quickly. Today, many top organizations are embracing neurodiversity in their workplaces across culture and process (through training and education) and through technology, too, leveraging tools designed to combat bias and blind spots for this same purpose. This, unsurprisingly, continues to have a positive impact on the ability to hire untapped talent, belonging and retention, management, and innovation. One large organization found itself overwhelmed with customer queries at the beginning of the COVID crisis: By deliberately assembling a highly neurodiverse team to solutionize, the firm was able to respond to the crisis rapidly and effectively, demonstrating in microcosm how true diversity of thought can be a critical competitive advantage.

Some industries are moving faster than others when it comes to neuroinclusion. In those moving fast, such as tech and finance, such efforts are fast becoming an expected norm: In the words of one neurodivergent employee at Salesforce, “I could not imagine ever working again for a company that wasn’t taking steps to be neuroinclusive." In any industry, organizations have a major but fleeting opportunity to solidify their employer brand and employee experience as truly inclusive. Those that don’t, in the age of Glassdoor and employee/candidate transparency, will face further talent struggles.

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