Research shows that diverse workforces offer different ways of thinking and perspectives about business matters. The benefits are coveted by enterprises in a variety of industries, which is why many cited diversity, equity, and inclusion as top business priorities for 2022, according to Gartner.
Diverse workplaces help managers achieve business goals. Polls and recent research have demonstrated that diverse and inclusive workforces provide a competitive advantage and better customer service. But how can an enterprise address diversities that can't be seen?
Cynthia Coupé, a speech language pathologist, TEDx speaker, and the co-founder and CEO of Outreach Advocacy Resources and Services (OARS), Inc., says that neurodiverse people make up about 40% of today's population. Neurodivergent people include those diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and more, and these potential employees are at risk of being marginalized or minimized by current workplace and societal norms.
"When a company has positive inclusion policies, procedures, and programs in place for neurodivergent minds, there is a higher probability of retaining and recruiting this important (and often sought-after) demographic," she says. "When we don't pay attention to these kinds of minds, we risk losing a competitive advantage, as well as having higher rates of employee turnover and dissatisfaction."
Challenges in the Workplace
Coupé explains that neurodivergent people often have difficulty communicating or expressing their ideas under pressure. "While this can vary from subtle to obvious, it's one of the qualifiers of a neurodivergent diagnosis (e.g., autism and ADHD)," she adds. "This means that it may be difficult to express oneself in a group setting or during other daily interactions. It also means that social 'rules' may not be followed, such as talking out of turn, knowing when to stop talking, being able to ask questions, organizing thoughts, or following through on given tasks."
Additionally, Coupé points out that those who are neurodivergent have "split skills," which means they are very intelligent in one area, such as math, but can struggle in another area, such as spelling. "Split skills can have many different presentations and cause confusion for people who aren't familiar with neurodiversity," she says. "In the career setting, this may mean that individuals miss promotions, are isolated during social events, or feel they have to hide their true selves for fear of rejection or being misunderstood."
For many, these challenges have led them to "mask" or hide their true nature, which can be successful to a certain point. However, over the long term it can cause problems. "For people who are neurodivergent, masking can cause greater anxiety, depression, and breakdowns due to the pressure of having to hide," Coupé says. "Fortunately, the social changes we are now experiencing have allowed many neurodivergent individuals to speak more openly about their differences and their needs in the workplace."
Encouraging Diversity and Inclusion
Open and honest dialogue is the starting points for a diverse and inclusive workforce. When employees believe they are the only ones, Coupé says it can be "very isolating." She adds, "If a neurodivergent employee can speak with a trusted coworker, mentor, or supervisor about how their brain behaves differently, it can be very empowering."
By the same token, when individual employees are able to know and understand their own neurodiversity, they feel empowered because they can demonstrate how they can be most effective in the workplace and advocate for their own needs. For example, if background noise is distracting, a neurodivergent employee can let the team know that noises should be turned off during meetings to ensure they can pay attention and participate fully.
"Communication styles and needs can look very different between these two populations (neurodivergent and neurotypical). Oftentimes coaching between the two sides can lead to improved understanding and outcomes for all parties involved," Coupé says. "It's a two-way street when we get to learn about ourselves and our colleagues. Being able to have an open and honest dialogue about our differences is vital for true understanding."
There are no quick and easy fixes, but it can ease the path by having neurodivergent people in the mix to inform human resources, management, and other teams about how to approach inclusivity. No decisions should be made about neurodiverse people without their involvement, according to Coupé. They should always be involved when new policies or procedures are being formed, and employers should foster understanding by leveraging neurodiversity training for all employees. In this way, the entire workforce can be educated about neurodiversity and all its forms.
Throughout the process, employers need to form and employ inclusion strategies that shift company culture and workplace norms, including unsaid expectations used during the hiring process. Moreover, Coupé advises companies to partner with others to foster neurodiversity employment objectives, recruit and retain neurodivergent workers, and bolster workplace diversity and inclusivity.
"Neurodivergent minds are universally present in all races, classes, and genders," Coupé explains. "There is really no other diversity sector that falls under all areas of human diversity. It's important to know that when we are able to be sensitive to neurodivergent minds, we're also including overall diversity."
Unfortunately, this group has higher rates of unemployment, depression, and suicide, compared to any other demographic, much of which stems from their need to "mask" who they are to fit in or due to a lack of understanding in the workplace. "When a team is able to understand, be curious, and accept neurodivergent minds, the health of the entire group is improved," she says. "When we create a culture that is universally designed for any kind of mind, we reduce exclusion and increase the ability for everyone to work to their best abilities and focus on their strengths. Universal design in the workplace increases productivity and retention, as well as acceptance and inclusion. Happy minds equal happy teams."
Because neurodivergent people's minds work differently, they can be an asset in the workplace for problem-solving, creative projects, and out-of-the-box thinking. Employers simply need to ensure workers are trained in how to accommodate neurodivergent employees who find unsaid rules confusing or are unable to meet certain expectations or communication norms. Through training and open communication, workforces can tap these skilled workers to meet business needs in unexpected and creative ways.
Want to learn more about neurodiversity and how to create a more inclusive talent pool? Join Cynthia Coupé for the webinar, "Diversity You Can't See," on July 27th at 12 p.m. EDT.
The webinar is part of the series created by the Making Our Strong Community Stronger initiative, sponsored by BMC, Broadcom, IBM, the Open Mainframe Project, Rocket Software, TechChannel, and VirtualZ Computing. Register online here.