Are workplaces ready to support neurodivergent employees?

Are workplaces ready to support neurodivergent employees?

In my work within the education sector, particularly with schools, I am seeing more cases involving young people diagnosed with neurodiverse conditions like autism, dyspraxia, ADHD and dyslexia.

I have learned how schools, colleges and universities can support young people to ensure having a neurodiverse condition doesn’t disadvantage them in comparison to their peers.

Society in general is waking up to the fact that people are neurodiverse.  We don’t all think in the same way – and that’s not a bad thing.

But when today’s young people start their careers, are workplaces ready to continue to support them?  There are various legal and inclusion factors for employers to consider.

While neurodiversity isn’t, of itself, a protected characteristic, a neurodivergent condition may be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010 depending on the impact the condition has on day-to-day activities. This means many neurodivergent employees are protected in law against discrimination, and employers are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to support them at work.

An employee doesn’t require formal diagnosis in order to be protected under the legislation; for example, they may have symptoms of autism that are severe enough to impact on day-to-day life, but have never received a piece of paper from a doctor confirming their condition.

Of course, due to stigma and fear of discrimination, an employee may choose not to disclose their neurodiversity to their employer. They may not even realise whether their condition impacts their performance at work.  This can make things even more complicated for employers.

There is a need, therefore, to educate HR, managers and colleagues around neurodiversity and employers’ legal obligations.

Unique strengths and talents

While complying with the law is, of course, a compelling reason for employers to support neurodiversity at work, it’s also important because some will feel it’s the right thing to do.

Speaking to the relative of a woman with autism and dyspraxia, one particular comment hit home. She said, “employers don’t understand that my sister’s condition won’t disappear once she’s trained up. She’s not just going to get ‘better’ at social skills. But there’s so many things she’s really good at.”

Employers may simply be unaware of the benefits neurodivergent employees can bring.

Someone on the autism spectrum might be uncomfortable in social situations, but could be excellent at analytical work. An employee with ADHD might need support to stay on track with projects, but their creative thinking might lead to a solution no-one else has thought of. Someone with dyslexia might need their writing proof-read, but could be a fantastic verbal communicator who excels at presenting.

What is ‘reasonable’?

I am often asked, what is a ‘reasonable adjustment’? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But just because something is inconvenient to the employer does not make it unreasonable.

The definition of reasonable may differ depending on the size and resources of your organisation, and a tribunal would generally expect a larger employer to do more to accommodate a disabled employee than would be required of a smaller organisation.

Common employee requests might be flexible working hours or a change in working location. Someone with ADHD may find a noisy office difficult and may prefer working from home, or in a quieter area. And an individual who struggles with day-to-day functions, like getting ready for work, may ask for a later start.

Adjusting targets, or absence trigger points may be reasonable.  Someone may prefer written instructions to verbal, or vice versa. Every individual is different, so it’s important to observe, listen to the employee and seek medical advice concerning what support is required.

Such requests have to be balanced against the needs of the role and the organisation to determine their reasonableness.

Recruitment 2.0

Employers also need to ensure they’re not putting unlawful barriers in place that prevent neurodiverse people from gaining employment.

Organisations are expected in law to anticipate the needs of disabled applicants and make reasonable adjustments to their processes.

Job ads should be easy to read. Application forms should be accessible, with clear, precise questions, and available in a range of formats. Help should be offered to anyone who needs support to apply.

Those selecting candidates and interviewing should be educated about unconscious bias, and the importance of not simply rejecting a candidate without further consideration because, for example, their body language is different from ‘normal’.

Interviews can be a barrier to employment for neurodiverse people. Has the interviewer been trained to ask questions in a way that doesn’t put neurodiverse people at a disadvantage? Could interview preparations be issued beforehand and written work submitted in advance?   It’s a complex area and employers need to be prepared.

The more inclusive our workplaces can be for neurodiverse people, the more likely we are to find out what a large section of our workforce is ‘really good at’!

A version of this article was featured in The HR Director on page 36.

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