Two IBMers hired through a national neurodiversity program have filed patents for their work with the company.
Building a diverse workforce means more than hiring more women and people of color. The tech industry should rethink who is a good fit for IT work and look to neurodiverse individuals to fill testing, cybersecurity and other tech roles. This requires modernizing the hiring process and creating work environments to support this new source of talent.
Michele Lanza, founder of WorkWider, an online career and recruitment site created to support underrepresented communities, said that neurodiversity covers individuals on the autism spectrum as well as people affected by dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD and social anxiety disorders.
“More companies should understand that having diverse teams not only improves a company’s image but significantly increases productivity, innovation, and employee engagement,” she said. “The reality is it’s time for employees to reflect the overall population, which includes people with neuro differences.”
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Lanza’s company works with organizations to develop diverse teams by optimizing recruitment, selection and career development policies to ensure they recruit from the broadest candidate pool possible.
The neurodiverse workforce is an untapped and growing talent pool. In the United States, about 500,000 teenagers with autism will become adults over the next decade.
Lauren Romansky, managing vice president in the Gartner HR practice, said Gartner research shows that a diverse and inclusive workforce is more likely to improve company performance and that organizations are beginning to intentionally include neurodiverse candidates in their recruitment efforts.
“Organizations can benefit from the positive attributes commonly associated with neurodivergence, such as creativity, lateral thinking and a different perspective,” she said. “Additionally, neurodiverse individuals have highly specialized skills and consistency in tasks once mastered, all valuable characteristics that can increase organizational innovation.”
Shalini Pahwa started one of IBM’s first recruitment programs dedicated to neurodiversity at the company’s offices in Lansing, Michigan. She wanted to prove that people on the autism spectrum could bring important skills to IBM, so she started a pilot program to prove it. Pahwa is in charge. She is the quality engineering and testing competency leader in IBM’s Ignite application testing division.
She worked with Specialisterne to lay the groundwork for a small group of people to join IBM. Specialisterne helps companies revamp the hiring and onboarding processes to bring neurodiverse individuals into the corporate workforce. The organization is known for starting the Autism @ Work movement in the United States.
Pahwa said that the first step was to build awareness among existing IBM managers about the needs and abilities of people on the autism spectrum.
“Awareness creates understanding and then acceptance because managers and co-workers understand what people need to succeed,” she said. “Breaking the ice in the beginning is what matters.”
The next step was to change the recruitment and hiring process to focus on capabilities not credentials.
Pahwa said that many of the stereotypes about people on the autism spectrum fall apart when a neurodivergent person joins the team.
“People say they can’t travel but we’ve had several people travel since day one,” she said. “Two of the individuals I have worked with filed patents for the work they have done.”
The program is now called Neurodiversity at IBM and there are cohorts at IBM offices across the U.S., Canada and Australia. Most of the neurodivergent employees are in the testing division, but some are working in software development, and cybersecurity, she said.
“In three years, it has really taken off with an employee resource group, a task force, and a support group,” she said. People hired through the initial pilot program now coach new hires and are part of the task force.
Pahwa said the process of running the pilot project showed the importance of following these three steps to make the program a success:
- Refine the recruitment process to include people of all backgrounds and experience levels
- Create a support group for neurodiverse individuals to use during the first year of work
- Put accommodations in place to create a productive work environment
Changing the hiring process
Several HR experts said the biggest barrier for neurodiverse people is the standard hiring process. It is designed for people with social skills such as making small talk and reading non-verbal cues.
Danielle Sullivan, an autistic neurodiversity advocate, said the best way to revise the hiring process for neurodivergent individuals is to test them in skills that will be directly relevant to their jobs and fit in the office, rather than relying on traditional interviews.
“Although all neurodivergent people are different, many of us struggle with eye contact, speaking off-the-cuff or reading the room—necessary skills in a traditional interview setting, but not always the most relevant to the job we’re competing for,” she said. “Interviews that instead focus on our performance on the skills and tasks that will be the meat of the job are much more likely to offer a neurodivergent person a chance to show their skills, and for the interview team to see them.”
Martynas Kavaliauskas, co-founder and CEO at GPS tracking company TrackingFox, said that companies should modify job postings to state explicitly that neurodiverse applicants are welcome. He also recommends hiring experts on neurodiversity to consult with company leaders and prepare the organization for a more neurodiverse team.
Romansky of Gartner said organizations must have hiring procedures and policies in place to meet the needs of all employees. “Recruiters will need to audit and adjust current recruiting and hiring programs’ efforts to better capture and incorporate the needs of neurodiverse talent,” she said.
Romansky recommended taking these steps to hire and retain neurodiverse talent:
- Work with hiring managers: Consider conducting hands-on talent demonstrations where neurodiverse talent can show their abilities through activities that are similar to those they will be responsible for in the role.
- Work with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leaders: Audit sourcing partnerships with your organization’s DEI function and find alternative sources that cater to neurodiverse talent, such as universities, social groups or even internal referrals.
- Advertise talent support networks: Advertise that your organization has mentorship programs for neurodiverse talent and training programs for existing employees to better understand their neurodiverse counterparts.
- Make job roles flexible: Allow people to play to their strengths to allow for the comparative advantage neurodiverse candidates bring.
“Placing too much emphasis on ‘all-round’ generic competencies can disadvantage staff with differing neurological abilities who may have highly specialized skills,” she said.
Creating support systems for new hires
Once the hiring process allows for neurodiverse individuals, the next step is to create support systems that will help the new hires adjust to the office environment. Pahwa said support groups are a crucial part of the first year on the job for neurodiverse individuals.
“It’s really important to have a system in place to support these individuals such as a one-on-one coach,” she said.
Putting accommodations in place to create a productive work environment is the final piece of the puzzle.
Susan Norton, senior director of human resources at LiveCareer, said break rooms, noise-cancelling headphones, and workstations designed for people with neurodevelopmental differences are common accommodations.