Does Your DE&I Strategy Optimize for Neurodiverse Employees?

Colleagues smile as they work on a project in an office conference room.

Neurodiversity in the workplace has become a hot topic. Here's a look at the best practices for sustainable inclusion of neurodiverse employees as part of your larger DE&I strategy.

Are neurodiverse employees part of your DE&I strategy? Chances are good that you work or have worked alongside someone with neurodivergence. In fact, 15%-20% of the population is neurodiverse, according to the British Medical Bulletin.

Harvard Health notes that neurodiversity describes "the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one 'right' way of thinking, learning and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits." Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, dyslexia and Tourette's syndrome are examples of neurodiverse conditions.

Neurodiversity has become a more frequent topic of discussion in recent years, with many businesses seeking to amplify marginalized voices through diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. To better understand how organizations can optimize for and embrace neurodiversity, we talked with ADP's Chief of Product Inclusion Giselle Mota, who identifies as dyslexic.

Research helps drive action

Neurodiversity in the workplace is part of today's broader diversity conversation. Large, well-known organizations including Harvard, Ernst & Young and Deloitte are researching neurodiversity, helping to drive important change and acceptance.

"Research leads to conversations about creating assistive technology, creating talent pipelines of people who are neurodivergent or creating an employee research group (ERG)," says Mota. "Policies, programs and processes are being made around the topic in part because of the research."

This research — and the best practices shared — give organizations a starting point for their own initiatives.

Amplify neurodivergent voices

Mota notes that it's critical to evolve the conversation. Leaders must amplify the voices of people who are neurodivergent rather than speaking about them or for them. "Within ADP, we're hearing a lot of people – leaders and associates -- who are neurodivergent, speaking up on their own behalf, because they have their own voices, telling their own stories and their own perspectives," she says.

Organizations should make a concerted effort to highlight their neurodiverse employees and ensure they play a key role in important decisions. This group of workers can benefit by helping design programs and standards, charting their professional development and facilitating discussions about how these aspects can affect the overall employee experience.

Recognize the contributions of neurodiverse employees

People with neurodivergence can have unique perspectives and insights that may greatly benefit organizations. The ability to approach ideas and situations differently than others is a strength that should be recognized and valued. LinkedIn recently added "dyslexic thinking" as a skill.

While this is definitely a step in the right direction, Mota notes that different phrasing could be more inclusive and effective. "It should have said 'neurodivergent thinking,'" she says. "That would've covered a wide umbrella of many different things, especially as all people are not the same."

Still, it's a critical development, one that highlights that more leaders and organizations are recognizing the benefits that neurodivergent employees can contribute. The key, Mota explains, is to ensure the conversation doesn't stop at the business case for neurodivergence inclusion. Instead, the topic should provide a springboard for deeper dialogue around how you can better support neurodiverse employees.

Build a culture of acceptance

Organizations need to move beyond awareness and into acceptance — a process that often starts with changing the way people view the topic.

Mota uses an analogy to emphasize how skin color (and even skin type) is addressed as part of DE&I initiatives. "We train around not discriminating; we speak openly and create ERGs around different groups of people," she says. "There are legal protections that help protect against discrimination based on skin color. But then you can even go a little further. What about vitiligo? What about a burn victim? How do we start to make that more normalized and accepted?"

In the same way, Mota notes, it's helpful for leaders to explore whether they're accepting and supportive of neurodiversity.

"Can you start embracing and thinking about what it looks like to work with people of different neural types, just like we accept and we create legislation, training and more around other diversity factors?" suggests Mota.

Mota recommends using what you're doing with other areas of diversity as a starting point for considering neurodiversity. This can include training on neural types, fostering open conversations and determining if you need to create protections or accommodations.

Dig deeper to normalize differences

Not everyone relates and communicates in the same way; some people exhibit different social behaviors and body language. This diversity can be used to strengthen team bonds and interpersonal relationships as everyone has something unique to offer. Normalizing differences and having open conversations can make it easier for employees on the neurodiversity spectrum to navigate the workplace.

"Someone can say we want to accept people or invite people into our organization that are neurodiverse," says Mota. "But what happens when someone's staring at you and it makes you feel uncomfortable, or they aren't giving you eye contact on a webinar meeting and you feel like they're disengaged? It might not be that they're disengaged. For example, some people that are autistic may say that eye contact gives them physical discomfort."

Accepting different workstyles and meeting employees where they are can give managers and associates a reference point for what neurodiversity looks like in action. It can also provide openings for employees with neurodivergence to start a conversation.

Develop long-term success strategies

Propping up a program for neurodiverse employees is the first step. However, leaders must also ask how to foster long-term success and acceptance for neurodiverse workers.

Mota recommends meeting with employees with neurodiverse profiles to ask what they need. She suggests following the mantra of "nothing for us without us." It's crucial to incorporate the perspectives of neurodiverse employees — both initially and over the life of related initiatives — to ensure your organization is being truly inclusive.

For example, you can invite neurodiverse employees to participate in and lead training sessions. Find practical ways to get them involved and keep them engaged.

It's also wise to consider this group's needs in long-term business planning. "If you're mandating that everyone must return to an office, for instance, did you consider how that strategy might affect people who are neurodivergent?" Mota asks. "Such schedule changes and routine disruptions can have an impact on someone who's neurodivergent."

Just because a worker was in the office before remote work began, doesn't mean that returning to the office full-time, hybrid or at all is best for them. Discuss directly and consider their preferences around sensory experience, in-person interactions, accommodation needs and change management.

Including employees with neurodivergence in your DE&I initiative is not just smart, it's the right thing to do. By cultivating acceptance and amplifying the voices of neurodiverse employees, it's likely that initiatives will be both effective and sustainable.

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