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(Not written by me)

Study explores benefits of workplace neurodiversity
October 31, 2019 By Paul Mayne

Ivey Business School professor Rob Austin explores how companies are approaching the idea of neurodiversity employment for individuals who are autistic, dyslexic, hyperactive or have other neurodiverse conditions.

Historically, companies have asked employees to ‘trim away’ their irregularities; it’s easier to fit people together if they are all perfect rectangles. But ‘fit’ often required employees to leave their differences at home.

“That was important in an efficiency-based economy,” Ivey Business School professor Rob Austin said. “But we are starting to think it’s worth doing the hard work of fitting the puzzle pieces together and asking employees to bring their whole selves to work. It’s often the parts of ourselves that we don’t share that are the most likely sources of new ways of thinking and innovation.”

In an effort to help companies embrace a new way of identifying talent, thus leaving behind fewer people who don’t fit traditional ways, Austin is studying the best practices of ahead-of-the-curve companies, particularly focused on neurodiveristy employment.

Potentially, tens of thousands of neurodiverse Canadians – think those diagnoses with autism, dyslexia, hyperactivity, etc. – want to be employed and possess talents that companies need, but they are unable to get jobs because the way symptoms of their conditions exhibit themselves in the hiring processes.

This leads to opportunities being lost when valuable potential employees are passed over because their performance in hiring situations does not match interviewer expectations, Austin said.

“A common scenario is there are a lot of places where they can’t fill specific jobs, even though there are people out there who can fill the jobs and can do it very well. The problem is, they’re just not surviving the conventional interview process,” he continued.

However, recent neurodiversity employment programs within of SAP, Microsoft, TD Bank, Royal Bank of Canada, Ernst & Young, JP Morgan Chase and Ford show a growing number of corporations realized the benefits of such hiring.

How these programs work is the focus of Austin’s latest research project, thanks to a recent Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant. His findings could accelerate the development of job opportunities for neurodiverse people and also reconcile conflicts about the benefits of fit-versus-diversity in organizations.

The idea of neurodiversity employment began at Specialisterne, a Danish consulting company founded in 2004 by Thorkil Sonne, who was motivated by the autism diagnosis of his third child.

Over the next several years, the company developed non-interview methods for assessing, training, and managing neurodiverse talent. Sonne established the Specialisterne Foundation to spread his company’s know-how to others and persuade multinationals to start neurodiversity programs.

In 2008, Austin published the first case study in this area, about Specialisterne, in the Harvard Business Review. He has subsequently published others documenting emerging practices in other companies.

The incidence of autism spectrum disorder in the general population is 1-in-59. More than 600,000 Canadians and roughly 130 million people worldwide are affected.

Unemployment for such individuals runs as high as 80 per cent, even with the European Union facing a shortage of 800,000 IT workers by 2020, according to a European Commission study. The biggest deficits are expected to be in expanding areas such as data analytics and IT services implementation, whose tasks are a good match with the abilities of some neurodiverse people.

Nevertheless, the neurodiverse population remains a largely untapped talent pool, Austin continued.

Most managers are familiar with the advantages organizations can gain from employee diversity in background, discipline, gender, culture, and other individual qualities. The benefits from neurodiversity are similar, yet not as well-known and embraced, Austin said.

But a handful of early adopter companies “are getting a number of different kinds of benefits from these programs,” he explained.

“They are filling positions they weren’t able to and achieving higher levels of talents in those positions, actually recruiting some superstars on the autism spectrum,” he said. “Many companies are claiming an innovation benefit with these employees, because they think differently, ask different sorts of questions and tend to trigger changes in the way companies do things.”

Some neurodiverse people need workplace accommodations – think headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation, for example – or may sometimes exhibit challenging eccentricities. While they do require managers to tailor individual work settings, in many cases, they are manageable.

To realize the benefits, most companies would have to adjust their recruitment, selection and career-development policies to reflect a broader definition of talent, Austin said.

“Even though there are a lot of companies doing this now, and even though momentum is accelerating, there is a concern it is still primarly targeting what some researchers call high-functioning autistic people,” Austin said. “The category is much larger.

“There is a lot of progress being made but there still is a whole lot more people to help.”

As more companies move towards neurodiversity hiring, a variety of programming has developed. Austin wants to delve deeper. He is also interested in understanding how companies manage tension between employee fit and diversity and how neurodiversity hiring programs challenge that.

“This is a specific example of a broader movement called the diversity movement. It often argues there are business advantages to having diversity present in a business team, but there can be an uncomfortable stand-off between these two sets of ideas,” Austin said. “On one hand, employee fit is a good thing, but employee differences are also a good thing.”

Source: Western (University) News, Canada
The modern day "standard" interview process was developed by Andrew Carnegie, the famous US Steel billionaire, and was likely intended to showcase how much "added value" a prospective employee could bring to the workplace.

Carnegie theorized that under industrial capitalism, the average man went from spending his time creating value (such as growing crops or working at a one-man trade) to selling his time to a capitalist, who then assembled many people to create things of far greater value (such as, say, an ocean liner or a skyscraper) than a single person could create on his own. Carnegie then noted that since every man has an equal amount of hours in a day, that the farther up one went in a corporation the greater the need for individual leverage, ie to show the capitalist in charge that one could bring far more value to the capitalist than a base laborer who had only his time to sell.

Carnegie's theory has a serious blind spot in that it relies heavily on "selling" one's value to the capitalist in a social setting, thus meaning that people who cannot "sell" well are overlooked. In Carnegie's day, this was not too much of a problem, since people outside the norm were usually institutionalized for life. However, in our time, with so many more non-"normal" people living in the greater society, this has become a very severe deficit to corporations and the capitalists who run them. People with useful skills but who are not "social butterflies" find themselves locked out of work or relegated to menial work on the assumption that they only offer time and nothing else.

Just a little background on how the modern job seeking routine came to be and how it is deficient in our world compared to the world it arose in.
I support workplace diversity of all kinds. What good is a second opinion if that person thinks just like you do?
I support workplace diversity of all kinds. What good is a second opinion if that person thinks just like you do?

How true.

Uniformity in the workplace can't be a good thing relative to technological innovation in a competitive market.

Reminds me of how Henry Ford's obsession with the Model T nearly proved to be Ford's demise. When the market dictated that they had to move beyond mass production of only a single idea that aged with time.

So the more thought processes that are employed, the more innovative alternatives that might result when needed the most. With science and engineering going in so many directions, this would seem the best way to go to keep pace with an ever-changing market.
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It is tragic if the estimate that 80% of autistic people are unemployed is accurate. Not to mention those that are employed, but underemployed. In the state that I live in, employers are desperate for employees - some of these are not very good jobs but plenty of them are good jobs requiring a lot of talent. By some estimates, there are 100,000 unfulfilled jobs in the state. Having a job can be stressful and difficult, but it can also be rewarding and give someone a sense of purpose. It is sad that many people are unable to experience the growth that comes with holding a job not b/c they lack skills, but because many employers are unable to see that value that certain people could bring to their companies.

I agree with @oregano that the current interview system is broken. I personally think the current system is a joke and does not make any sense. Particularly for technical positions. I've had plenty of interviews where I've not received offers in which I was probably the best candidate. In hindsight some of these would not have been a good fit for me, but some of them were. I've only had success landing jobs in public accounting - a very competitive industry, but one in which employers mostly care whether or not you can get the job done. Imagine that. There is also generally a constant demand for employees.

I think there is a great miscommunication during the interview process when involving an aspie candidates. Many of us have super skills that are not visible, and we have trouble articulating what those are. To add to that, I don't think the interviewer is even aware someone could possess some of the skills we do. That may sound arrogant, but I think that is accurate. To add to that, I think some of the skills we bring to the workplace are not apparent initially. They take time to be visible for others to see.

At the end of the day, it is good to see employers are finally realizing the benefits of neurodiversity. It seems like employers go out of there way to promote hiring diverse employees based on other factors like race, gender, etc. But neurodiversity doesn't seem to be discussed very often.

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