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How tech hiring managers can embrace neurodiversity

A cartoon of many people with different symbols where their brains represent neurodiversity.
Image: is1003/Adobe Stock

Nearly one in five people worldwide are classified as neurodivergent, including autism, Tourette’s syndrome, dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD, and social anxiety disorders. There can be many benefits to hiring employees who are neurodivergent, especially in the technical field.

For example, in cybersecurity, an ever-changing field that requires creative problem solving and flexibility, neurodiverse perspectives can be a boon to help teams think outside the box. Some people with neurodivergent disorders may also benefit from longer concentration than neurotypical peers, meaning they may be better equipped for repetitive tasks, such as those involved in software QA or cybersecurity.

The tech industry is still struggling with a labor shortage to fill the available vacancies, and making these jobs more accessible to a wider range of candidates could solve the problem.

Why aren’t more neurodivergent workers in tech jobs?

Despite the benefits of hiring neurodivergent workers, many people classified as neurodivergent struggle to access tech jobs; for example only one 14% of working adults who are autistic are employed, based on data in a 2017 report, according to Neil Barnett, director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility at Microsoft, only 35% of graduates with autism have a job. Among those who work, many autistic people work in jobs that are below their skill level.

SEE: Autistic people succeed in IT jobs when companies hire for non-reference capabilities (TechRepublic)

There are several reasons for this: for example, AI bias in hiring, as well as the implicit bias of some hiring managers. According to a recent study, many leaders and managers uncomfortable to hire someone who is neurodivergent.

Employees should certainly feel this bias too, if up to 40% of the techs did not share their neurodivergent traits. This affects both employers and their employees who cannot get the support they need.

According to the latest news from Microsoft Work Trend Index76% of employees say they would stay with their company longer if they had more support at work.

Barnett sees an increasing need for recruiting programs to address neurodiversity. He is also involved in the Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable, in which employers interested in creating neurodiversity-focused recruiting initiatives participate. According to Barnett, the traditional hiring system, including job applications and interviews, can be challenging for people who are neurodiverse.

Microsoft also sees an “untapped talent pool” among neurodiverse candidates; in response, the company launched the Autism recruitment program back in 2015. This effort is part of a larger goal to increase diversity in Microsoft’s workforce, Barnett said.

Microsoft is one of several employers that have come to embrace hiring programs for neurodiverse candidates. Lime Connect, Handicap:IN, SAP, IBM and many others also have programs. SAP has an Autism at Work initiative that focuses on learning how to work with people on the autism spectrum and looking at local labor laws. IBM has a Truly Autistic Task Force, a safe place where people who identify as autistic can meet.

Revealing neurodiversity during the interview process

According to the ADA, a candidate must be able to meet the stated job requirements, but does not have to disclose a disability. Hiring managers are also prohibited from asking questions about disabilities. However, if the candidate needs housing, the employer must meet those needs unless he can demonstrate that doing so would cause “unnecessary hardship”.

SEE: Checklist: Employee Termination (TechRepublic Premium)

When it comes to revealing neurodiversity, Barnett emphasizes that this is an individual choice.

“The timing of the communication often depends on the reason you’re making it public,” he says. “For example, someone with neurodiversity could develop an action plan to navigate the housing application process with each company and during your career search, as each employer may have a different process or ask for different forms of documentation.”

In the case of requesting accommodation for the interview itself, Barnett advised candidates to do so as early as possible.

“Focus on identifying your needs and highlighting tools or customizations that work for you in other settings,” he suggests.

Barnett recommends that candidates disclose only the most relevant details to keep things simple. Most importantly, he notes that candidates who are neurodivergent should remember that they have a unique perspective for the company.

Overcome obstacles in hiring people

According to Barnett, traditional job interviews, which often contain “open and vague questions,” can be challenging for some people who are neurodiverse.

“Job seekers may feel less comfortable having to adapt quickly to a new environment,” he says.

Social interactions can also be difficult for some people who are neurodiverse, he adds. However, “by creating an alternative ‘front door’ recruitment program,” a person-centered approach, in which needs are revealed, “neurodivergent job seekers have the opportunity to get through an interview process that reduces unconscious biases and allows job seekers to shine with their skills.”

Employers have unconscious biases, Barnett points out, and getting them “screened,” or looking for the ways a particular candidate can add to the organization, is essential to build a more diverse team. Barnett would like to see “representation of people with disabilities in jobs of all different levels and different types of jobs and not just in technical positions.”

Overall, Barnett believes we should have more conversations with employees about their needs — physical, verbal, or otherwise: “It’s about connecting with people and understanding what people need to be as productive as possible.”

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