Why is job seeking such an issue for neurodivergent people?
Being a neurodivergent person really isn’t a bad thing. You can have a full and happy life, with good relationships, hobbies, and interests – just like anyone.
The drama starts when you’re forced into systems and structures that weren’t built for you. It begins at school, with demands to sit in neat rows, stay looking at teachers, and conduct yourself with social niceties that don’t really mean much.
Suddenly, a neurodivergent person becomes a square peg in a round hole. And what’s worse, is the hole’s not too happy about the situation.
Some people will rub up against the system. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a diagnosis, they’ll be supported, and understand why everything’s so hard for them. Others will sit quietly, wondering why everyone else seems to be finding life easier, before receiving a diagnosis as an adult.
Diagnosis or not, every aspect of society is built for ‘neurotypical’ brains. And nowhere is this more painful than in a job search. It’s a pain in the butt for most people, but it’s a disaster area for the neurodivergent.
And here’s the thing: it’s not that difficult to make applications, interviews, and onboarding into a perfectly pleasant experience for neurodiverse people.
So in this article, we’re going to lay out some of the ways a company can make inclusive changes to its recruitment strategy. We’ll give you a bit of a reminder about the neurodiverse experience; give a few stern words for some of the bad attitudes we’ve seen; and then give you some straightforward ways to make life easier for neurodiverse people.
Here’s a little reminder about what it means to be ND
Neurodiverse minds experience the world in a very different way to neurotypicals.
The activist Nick Walker suggests that neurodiversity means having a brain ‘that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal”’.
(That “normal” is definitely going to stay in scare quotes, by the way. We don’t believe that socially-dictated normality is helpful. But we’ve got to deal with it for the time being).
If you’re neurotypical, you maybe haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be “normal”. But if you’re neurodivergent, chances are, you’ve spent a whole bunch of your life looking at “normal” behaviour. And wondering why you find it difficult to be “normal”.
It’s “normal” to look people in the eye. It’s “normal” to sit in a chair without fidgeting. It’s “normal” not to have tics. It’s “normal” to be able to read printed text on white paper. It’s “normal” to sit down and focus on a task. It’s “normal” to be able to tell the difference between two minutes and two hours.
If you can’t do these things, even when you try, people find ways of telling you that you’re not “normal”. That’s not much fun.
Doctors sometimes help neurodivergent folks put one or more labels on their “divergent” minds. Conditions like ADHD, OCD, Autism, Dyslexia, and Tourette’s Syndrome, are all recognised by distinguished medical authorities. Other sets of symptoms aren’t used as clinical diagnoses, but they still have a major impact on lives: including dysgraphia, dyscalculia, hyperlexia and Meares-Irlen Syndrome.
But whether or not an adult ND person has got a medical diagnosis, they could be sitting on a whole bunch of secondary mental health effects. Things like shame, low self-esteem, depression, self-harm, feeling stupid, burnout and the sheer trauma of carrying it all around.
Neurotypical people will experience some of these symptoms, but never as persistently as neurodivergent folks. That means that when a neurodivergent person comes to you looking for a job, they’ve had years of shit to put up with. And they’d rather not have any more.
Does being neurodivergent really make a difference to getting a job?
The short answer is “Yes”.
The long answer? Yes. Seriously. It does.
Getting a job is difficult and annoying for everyone. But a neurodivergent jobseeker has got double the work. Not only do they have to prove that they can do the job, but they’ve also got to show that they can function in settings made for neurotypical people.
You might know you’re going to struggle to be on time. Or, that your tics will flair up under stress. Or, that you’ll struggle to listen to a long question if there are other noises outside the interview room. Did you know that it’s far better to sit with your back to the window/door so that you aren’t distracted and can focus on the interviewers questions?
What’s more, you’ll know that you’ll be heavily penalised for displaying any of these behaviours. It sucks.
It’s no surprise that time and again, research from around the world shows that neurodivergent people are heavily disadvantaged in the job market.
The ADHD Australia National Survey Report showed that nearly ⅔ of ADHD adults felt that their work was affected by – and 57% suggested that “dealing with the impact on work” was their top priority for future campaigning. Likewise, the Autism in Australia report suggested that 50% of people living with autism faced barriers to work.
No one likes looking for work. But ND people face challenges that neurotypicals never have to think about.
You know what? hiring ND people can actually be a good thing
Before going any further, we need to get crystal clear: ND people can bring all kinds of personal strengths, skills, and expertise to an organisation.
If you’re a majority-neurotypical company, you may need to change a few things around to help them find their feet. But the payoff will be clear. Employers like JPMorgan, SAP, and Microsoft all recognise the amazing value that ND people bring, and have made significant adaptations to their hiring process. This mega-useful CIPD guide will tell you more.
And it’s not just elite tech companies that can benefit. As “Neurodiversity” is such a broad umbrella term, you’ll find all kinds of workers identifying with the label. Successful entrepreneurs and shop-floor salespeople; data clerks and DJs; musicians and sandwich-makers; rebellious innovators and cautious rule-followers.
There’s no end to the rare talents that you might find in a neurodiverse job-seeker. But just to get us started, here’s a list of qualities that you might happen to see in a neurodiverse worker:
- Crisis management
- Good memory
- Calculation skills
- Specialised tasks
To put it another way, recruiters aren’t losing out when they make neurodivergent people feel welcome in their organisation. They’re gaining workers who can provide extremely valuable skills.
Finding the right home for a neurodivergent mind at a majority-neurotypical company may require a bit of flexibility and innovation. But the flexibility reaps benefits in the long term.
Five shitty attitudes from employers that will really piss off neurodiverse applicants
Writing in the 2020s, more and more people “get” the idea of neurodivergence. The neurodiversity movement has gained momentum over the last couple of decades, spreading a message of inclusion and diversity.
So it’s even more frustrating when some folks hang on to outdated attitudes. In other words, neurodivergent people are pretty damn sick of being labelled as mentally deficient and whiney. And there’s absolutely no excuse for it.
Let’s just take a moment to reflect on some of the attitudes that are still doing the rounds. If you see them out in the wild – don’t be afraid to challenge them.
1. Acting as if folks are being fussy when they ask for reasonable adjustments
Workplace support for neurodiverse people is often about really small stuff. It doesn’t cost much – except perhaps an attitude shift.
If an applicant needs a preview of their interview, there are recruiters out there that’ll get pissy, tetchy, annoyed, irritable, and impatient. Even worse, they might end up providing the accommodation under sufferance and then regularly remind the applicant that they are getting ‘special’ treatment.
This is a lose-lose situation. You’re putting your neurodiverse applicant in their place before they’ve even walked through the door. And if the recruiter’s nettled, guaranteed, the applicant will feel ten times worse.
So when someone asks for what they need, just be nice.
2. Be vague about your reasons for asking about additional needs
In most places, there’s no law that says neurodiverse job applicants have got to disclose their condition to potential employers. And oftentimes, there are laws that say employers can’t discriminate against someone for having any kind of disability.
And unfortunately, some folks report that their job application improves when they don’t talk about their difference.
It’s really difficult to know what your recruiters are going to do with a disclosure.
If you want applicants to tell you about the way they work, say why. Say who will know about that information. And talk about all the support you can freely offer them.
3. Be ignorant, stay ignorant
If you’re neurotypical, a neurodivergent person’s needs might feel a bit puzzling. Neurodiverse people get that it might be confusing. After all – for neurodivergent minds, the neurotypical world is a puzzle.
But year after year, there are fewer and fewer excuses to be ignorant about neurodiversity. Do some reading. Talk to people around you. Get on social media.
And if you meet a neurodiverse person, and don’t instantly understand what they need – it’s not a problem. Trust them. Ask them relevant questions. Listen to their answers. Thank them for the time they’ve taken to educate you. Trust me, NDs are quite the experts on their own conditions.
If you’re worried about offending someone, the Australian ADHD Professionals Association has got a pretty useful guide about your use of language. It’s plenty relevant for interacting with any neurodiverse person.
Remember, by the time a neurodiverse person comes to you to talk about a job, they may already have been through years of shame, fear, guilt, and self-doubt. Don’t make it worse.
4. Don’t involve your applicant in the conversation
Even if you’ve done heaps of well-intentioned research, you don’t know about the lived experience of the neurodiverse person you’ve just met.
Don’t decide on the support you’re going to offer without talking to the candidate first.
Catherine Bean, a researcher in the UK civil service who has autism, reminds us that it’s a two-way street: “When conversations are initiated by managers about working more inclusively, the burden is taken off individuals. Employees may not know the full extent of resources available to them, so it’s important for managers to be proactive in helping their teams succeed.”
Start a conversation. It makes everything a lot easier.
5. Make it sound like you’re being oh-so charitable and kind when you employ an ND person
This is the worst.
First up, let’s not forget, ND folks have got a ton of unique skills and perspectives to offer.
Secondly, if you want to be known as a neurodiversity-friendly employer – that’s great! But it’s going to take more than one hire to change the culture of your company.
Make sure your hiring processes actually discover the strengths of the candidate in front of you. When you start consistently interviewing and hiring neurodiverse people, you might start to earn your reputation. Inclusive hiring is not a tick box, it’s an evolving company culture that is built on from experience and insights gained from hiring and working with NDs over time, and recognising what is possible when being truely inclusive.
10 things that make hiring much easier for neurodiverse folks (without costing you much)
There are now some great examples of major organisations adjusting their practices to help them bring the best out of every applicant. But there is still a whole morass of companies who don’t give two hoots about meeting the needs of neurodivergent people.
If you’re not in a position to produce a top-to-bottom change in culture, you’re not alone. But it’s not that hard to make your company stand out from the pack.
Just check out this list. Half of these things won’t cost you a cent – but will be very valuable for anyone who’s worried about coming for an interview.
1. Decide what you need when you advertise the job
Figure out what your company needs – and look for someone to do that. If they don’t need to drive, don’t ask for a license. If they don’t need to be sociable, don’t go on about soft skills
2. Streamline the job description
Job descriptions can use a lot of boilerplate that could distract a literal-thinker. Don’t let the bumf distract from the key message. Lisa Haggar from the UK reckons that non-standard approaches can help to cut through the crap – suggesting that infographic or video job descriptions would be better than “two pages of waffle.” Trimming down your description will help everyone. This would be beneficial to visual candidates also (yes, even the neurotypical ones).
3. Format the job pack appropriately
When you’re looking at any job application materials, formatting can really help make the text accessible. For some ideas, the UK Dyslexia Association has a very useful presentation guide for internal documentation – covering fonts, layout, colours, and written style. If your company has strict rules about ND-unfriendly fonts and colours, you may as well point this out as soon as you can.
4. Tread carefully when it comes to disclosure
The application form is the first opportunity for an applicant to talk about their neurodivergence: but only if they want to.
Disclosure is actually a pretty thorny issue. Some recruiters will (sadly) look at neurodivergent people negatively. Anecdotal evidence suggests that withholding details of neurodivergence can be a better job-finding strategy.
So if you give the opportunity to disclose neurodivergence, make sure that you plan to offer accommodations to suit each and every candidate. In Australia, there’s no legal obligation to disclose neurodivergence. Applicants might hold the information to themselves if they don’t feel the company can be trusted.
5. Be open-minded with qualifications and experience
Some recruiters place a lot of weight on high grades from top institutions. And this elitist attitude is passed on to automated filtering systems that cut out whoever hasn’t got the right grades.
ND people may have had a very mixed experience of education in the past. Some people will get through school and uni with a whole raft of qualifications.
Others will have struggled to get the support they need, at every step of their journey.
What skills and knowledge can your candidate demonstrate today – regardless of their academic track record? Applicants with a mixed educational record may still be fully capable of doing the job.
6. Before the interview, be clear about the schedule
Some recruiters use interviews to trip their candidates up, with left-field questions and unusual formats. This doesn’t work well for your ND applicants: an unusual interview arrangement can prevent a candidate from answering well, when it comes as a surprise.
A transparent and predictable process will help everyone.
Let the interviewees know what to expect. And if you can, consider sending out some of the interview questions in advance: you’re far more likely to get well-thought-out, deeply-considered answers.
One local government recruiter has found this makes a massive difference, for everyone being interviewed. The council now gets “more thoughtful, authentic, and truthful responses that are better indicators of how someone’s skills will be leveraged (or not leveraged) in the organisation.”
7. Reduce sensory overload in the interviewing environment
You might not have given much thought to the environments in which your applicants are interviewed.
But unpredictable sensory stimulation can have a really negative effect.
Set aside a quiet space with few distractions, and many of your neurodiverse applicants will be able to focus on the job interview more effectively.
They might come with their own ways of keeping calm, such as noise-cancelling headphones. They’re not trying to do something strange or unusual. They just want to chill out and find their zen in an unpredictable environment.
8. Be understanding with social skills
When job recruiters say they’re looking for a “good fit” for a company, they’re talking about a whole bunch of soft skills that don’t mean much for the job itself. This can sometimes mean
‘we want someone who won’t upset the status quo’, it doesn’t bode well if a company has to have only those who fit the existing culture. No diversity, no growth!
If someone’s struggling to make eye contact, asks to not shake hands, or goes off on conversational tangents – ask yourself if this actually makes a difference for the post. Likewise, if they don’t seem to have a responsive emotional range, that could just be part of their neurodiversity.
Make sure your candidates are comfortable. And however they behave socially, listen carefully to their answers.
9. Follow-up referees pro-actively
A real-life referee may be a vital way of assessing a neurodivergent candidate’s suitability for a role. Get a referee on the phone, and you’ll hear all about the candidate’s team-working, communication, and social skills.
If the candidate has contributed positively to an educational or work setting before, the referee will give you much more authoritative knowledge (compared to whatever you see on the interview day).
10. Consider candidates for other jobs
After you’ve gone through the whole process, the applicant in front of you might not be right for the job.
Maybe you can see that their skillset just doesn’t meet your needs right now. But there’s also a possibility that their character and disposition would not be appropriate in that particular role.
If you’ve already had them through the door, keep an eye out for roles that may suit them better down the line. You know what they have to offer. So bring them in when you can!
Making a bit of effort is better than nothing
Recruiters meeting a neurodivergent candidate for the first time need to keep in mind: “If you’ve met one neurodivergent person, you’ve met one neurodivergent person.”
Here we’ve tried to give you a few basic pointers for how the application process might be better for neurodiverse candidates. But you don’t know what help you’ll need to provide until you actually talk to the ND candidate.
So if you’ve appreciated these ideas, please, please, please remember: this is a starting point. Nothing in this article is idealistic, utopian, or difficult. It’s stuff that pretty much any recruiting firm could put in place tomorrow. If they wanted to.
Get your attitude right, make some changes, and maybe then we can start to talk about truly inclusive workplaces. After all, getting neurodiverse people into your business isn’t an act of generosity or charity. When you support neurodivergent in your workplace, everyone benefits.