A few weeks ago, I received a Living Color Honoree award for my contributions to diversity and inclusion. The black-tie gala made for a wonderful evening to join with other diversity leaders representing leaders in the Asian, Latinex, LGBT, refugee, and other communities. We had dinner with Alyssha Dairsow who is the executive director of Curley Me! This non-profit organization celebrates and serves young black women by helping them realize their potential and appreciate who they are and can be. Also, at our table was Hanifi Oguz who is the director of the Beehive Science and Technology Academy where he works with minority and disabled students in providing them an inclusive environment where they can excel in a STEM curriculum. Both Alyssha and Hanifi are great examples of diversity leaders who bring dedication and passion to their work. Although my focus includes neurodiversity as part of corporate diversity and inclusion, I found myself fascinated with the all the different types of diversity projects going on. Everyone at the event experienced a warm outpouring of mutual esteem as we shared our commitment to changing the world by making it more inclusive.
As I listened to each award winner being featured, I thought about how neurodiversity is one aspect of diversity and inclusion that in some ways permeates every group. Neurodiversity has a broad reach and there are at least three ways this happens. A good understanding of what this term means serves corporate decision makers as they make strategic decisions in their organizations in the service of diversity.
Neurodiveristy is a term that is associated with people who have sensory processing disorders which includes Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism. Let me explain what it means to be neurodiverse in the workplace. Once you know this, you will have more insight than most of your competitors.
Neurodiveristy1 refers to people with autism or similar conditions. Neurodiversity1 is an important diversity catalyst that is absent in most corporate diversity and inclusion programs even though the prevalence of neurodiversity1 has exploded in recent years. Only now is public awareness beginning to match what has been from a clinical perspective for over ten years. Without getting too technical, there are many people coming into and already in the workplace who are autistic whether they know it or not. You might be working for a boss with autism and knowing this can improve your experience on the job. Even so, most people who are neurodiverse1 never get the opportunity to have a good life with a steady job. Those that do, are stuck, bullied, or simply passed over.
Employees with autism are often awkward, uncommunicative, intense, and somewhat stuffed into the corner because their managers and co-workers don’t understand them, nor do they enjoy the social relationship that they have with these individuals. However, neurodiverse1 people can be a strategic asset to employers and no corporate diversity and inclusion program is complete without an explicit inclusion feature for this population.
As evidenced by E&Y, Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase and other top national employers, neurodiverse1 employees outperform their “normal” non autistic peers in their level of creativity, productivity, and quality in a wide variety of tasks and positions. It’s a fact. But most employers don’t know about the superior performance of neurodiverse1 employees nor do their management teams understand how to cultivate this highly talented pool of employees because they don’t know what to look for in the hiring and on ramping process. Because neurodiverse1 workers have lower turnover, less absenteeism, and better safety records than their peer group; these reasons alone merit consideration for inclusion. However implicit bias and halo effects are so subtle that hiring committees usually prefer to hire people that they believe could be their friends because they are perceived to be “like me”.
During the event it was great to hear Josh James, CEO of DOMO pick up on my comments and share his experience with neurodiversity1 in the workplace. This tech leader and entrepreneur clearly gets it. By cultivating neurodiversity1 organizations can get in front of their competition.
Neurodiverse2 is neurodiverse1 plus all the employees who have an unseen or invisible disability.
It is impossible to “see” an invisible disability. For example, we usually consider someone who is confined to a wheelchair as being disabled. Taken together, neurodiversity2 is a much larger group than neurodiverse1 because it includes employees who may have learning disabilities, chronic migraines, ADHD, depression, OCD, have had cancer but are in remission; and many other psychiatric conditions. These employees encounter personal adversity which is just part of the human condition.
Employers do not have any legal right to know which specific employees are disabled per neurodiversity1 or neurodiversity2 and it is illegal to discriminate against disabled employees in the hiring, retention and promotion of anyone with a disability. Employers usually have a latent but unfounded feat that disabled employees increase their overall health care costs or will somehow engender reduced performance by co-workers if they must provide certain job specific accommodations. Neither of these are accurate and according to the Americans with Disabilities Act and related amendments, employers who are subject to the federal law must provide reasonable work accommodations to anyone who is disabled after engaging in an interactive dialogue with company representatives. Most workplace accommodations cost less than $500 and most have no ongoing cost at all.
While employers routinely survey both current and potential employees to see if they are disabled, employees have no legal obligation to disclose their disability either before being hired or on the job. Additionally, some employees are disabled and they themselves are not aware of it. The act of disclosure of disability is nuanced and is somewhat of an art depending upon the employee’s specific circumstances but most employees with an invisible disability will cover up their disability from co-workers and bosses for fear of taking a career hit. A person’s reputation is the most valuable career asset one can have. Human resource and management need to improve their sophistication and increase their empathy if they are to go beyond merely complying with the law as they approve by rote ADA or FMLA requests. Just because a person looks fine, doesn’t mean that they are. If I have an invisible disability, I want to know if I will be safe in your hands?
At the same time, employers are more effective when they have a diverse wellness culture and have proven themselves deserving of the trust of employees so that disclose of invisible disability is met with compassion, personal support, and celebration of neurodiversity. I invite human resource leaders and executives to get out of the deficit mindset where we think of neurodiversity1 or 2 as a problem and into an inclusion and opportunity mindset. Whenever I make a presentation on invisible disabilities in a company, it is always followed by many employees coming forward to disclose to management their status which is a starting point for a new future for both the company and the individual.
This can be frustrated when organizations have which have invested in leadership models or profiles are hard wired as to what it means succeed in their company. I know of a consulting firm whose claim to fame is premised on selling companies on the idea of looking out for what they call the “fatal flaw” in people as if there are some C-suite dwellers who are free of flaws relating to their relationships with others. While these mythical people may not be disabled in any way, they surely spend most of their time pandering, shifting accountability to others, and relentlessly promoting themselves about all else. A company could be well served by focusing their effort on neurodiversity2 and I am certain that many employees would embrace this especially when an organization knows how to design an effective program.
This leads me to introduce the concept of neurodiversity3.
If neurodiversity1 refers to people with autism and are disabled but have superior capabilities in workplace while neurodiversity2 includes neurodiverity1 but is also broader to include all invisible disabilities, then it is neurodiveristy3 that encompasses everyone at work. Neurodiversity3 unlike the other definitions of neurodiversity includes employees without a diagnosable mental condition or in other words, these employees could have idiosyncratic traits that make them unique, but they are otherwise considered by most people to be normal however subjective that term is.
These three aspects of neurodiversity are critical to diversity and inclusion leaders because they elevate the conversation around diversity and inclusion so that concrete actions can be taken to advance wellness and belonging for everyone. With this understanding companies can make informed choices about where to start and who to work with. My focus involves creating workplaces that are diverse without pretense. In other words, diversity becomes real instead of it being fake. I am committed to helping clients become inclusive and this can only happen when inclusion does not leave anyone feeling envious of other social groups. Finally, belonging is the mother lode of social and economic rewards but to arrive at this level belonging must belong to everyone.
With the benefit of the three contextual definitions of neurodiversity, business leaders can consider the strategic questions of where and how to begin and enhance their diversity program.
The big payday is achieved by working all three!
In an environment where leaders focus their strategic energy on neurodiversity3, they actively appreciate the relationship between and across all the neurodiversity concepts and celebrate each. These leaders know that even people who are not neurodiverse are benefitted from working in concert with colleagues who have different skill and mindsets from themselves. Neurodiversity makes everyone more resilient and better when the company makes neurodiversity safe.
The quintessence of diversity and inclusion is connected to how each of us think, feel, behave and identify ourselves, and our relationships. Of course, our skin color, gender, age, national origin and many more characteristics and experiences influence how we think, feel, and identify. However important these characteristics are in our lives… we all think, feel, and identify every day. We should realize that it is what makes us neurodiverse that makes us special whether disabled or not.
Neurodiveristy is a preferred approach to diversity because it does not diminish who we are nor does it lock us into observable characteristics that become problematic as we advance our diversity goals. One tip for using a neurodiveristy3 strategy would be to discontinue using personality or temperament tests when we recruit and hire for positions. So called predictive temperament tests are one way hiring managers attempt to get at “invisible characteristics” of employees. The downside of psychometric hiring tests is that they promote uniformity which can be at the expense of innovation and readiness to change. A few years ago, Target Corporation got hit with a multimillion-dollar verdict for their illegal use of a temperament test which the court said discriminated against minorities and disabled candidates. Even if the test itself is nondiscriminatory, hiring managers can be lazy when they primarily rely upon test results even though human resource people and test vendors’ claims that their test is only one element of the hiring process. Once you have the test results in hand, just go ahead and try to prove that it wasn’t a key factor in your reason for rejecting a candidate. An improved hiring practice would be to hire candidates who are distinctly different from the employees already on board but this would require better skilled managers.
Finally, no matter how stringent a company’s hiring practices, neurodiverse2 candidates can not be completely avoided altogether. This raises the question of what happens after the hiring of someone who struggles more than others because they actually have two full time jobs? Their first job is to do their job per the job description. Their second job which the boss inadvertently assigned them to do is to avoid disclosure of their disability because the environment, is hostile to difference and disability. The employee can resign from this job when the environment becomes safe for neurodiversity. Managers need to smarten up and appreciate that if someone did disclose that they are neurodiverse2 and there was a gap in their performance, would the manager immediately conclude that the cause or cost of the mistake is the neurodiverse2 factor or would the mistake more arise just from the normal variation in human performance or lack or resources, time demands, or carelessness? There is a parallel here supposing that a black employee’s mistake may be put under the microscope more than the same mistake made by a white employee with the same experience and job knowledge. When bias rides again, workers and employers are cheated. We must be better.
That night as I enjoyed the Living Color Gala and the intimacy of inclusion, I longed to share this experience especially the warm mutuality of knowing that we are alike and different and that it is not just okay but wonderful with others. Neurodiverity1,2, and 3 provide strategic options for companies who want to up level their diversity and inclusion program so that it becomes both a strategic asset and a driver of workplace wellness.
Asperian Nation uses a nine-step process to design and build a renewable diversity and inclusion process that enable companies to harvest the power neurodiversity.