By Indeed Editorial Team
When Andrew Komarow started a job as a financial planner at a major life insurance company, he was asked to attend an all-day motivational meeting. He felt uncomfortable in the large group setting — and frustrated that some people were allowed to sit it out while he had to participate. “I think one of the hardest things for me in the corporate world was not knowing the reason something was the way it was,” Komarow says.
Komarow wanted to explore different ways of doing business, and he left to work independently. Shortly afterward, he was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, which helped him understand his discomfort with certain aspects of the corporate world.“Pretty much everything is easier for neurotypical people — especially when it comes to the unwritten social rules of the workplace”, he says.
An estimated 15% to 20% of adults experience some form of neurodivergence, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), epilepsy and dyslexia.
(A person who is neurodivergent has a brain that processes information differently than for someone who is neurotypical, a processing style that is understood to make up a majority of the population. Neurodiversity, meanwhile, refers to the differences in how people’s brains function. A group of people are neurodiverse, while an individual may be neurodivergent.)
Though neurodivergence is common, 61% of employees who identify as neurodivergent say they have experienced stigma and felt misunderstood at work, according to a 2022 survey by Texthelp, a company that builds inclusive technology. And as awareness of neurodiversity grows, more companies are recognizing that having cognitively diverse teams is a boon to the workplace. Some, including Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft, have programs to recruit and support neurodivergent talent.
“Diverse perspectives enrich our problem-solving,” says Donna Bungard, Senior Marketing Accessibility Program Manager at Indeed. While every person’s experience with neurodivergence is unique, she says, someone with ADHD might tend to think quickly to land on creative solutions, while many people with dyslexia are said to excel at pattern recognition.
Companies that embrace neurodiversity are more likely to have higher staff retention and a more diverse talent pool, according to the Texthelp survey. The survey found that 93% of neurodivergent respondents — and 63% of neurotypical workers — are more likely to be attracted to and loyal to companies that support employees who are neurodivergent.
As Bungard points out, “It’s not only the right thing to do, it is also good for business.”
Here’s how you can make your workplace more accessible and attractive to neurodiverse employees.
Re-evaluate your hiring process
More than a third of people who identify as neurodivergent say they have experienced difficulty in recruitment and the interview process, according to the Texthelp survey. So check your job descriptions for bias or exclusionary language, and make sure all the job requirements are essential for that particular position. For example, “an ability to work in a team environment” might be daunting for some people — neurodivergent or neurotypical — and may not even be necessary for the job in question.
Hire for Talent offers an online resource on how to create job descriptions that are inclusive, as well as examples of how companies can accommodate employee needs. For example, a sheet-metal worker who has difficulties with verbal communication might be able to make requests for materials and equipment in writing instead.
Ahead of interviews, ask candidates whether they have any access needs. For example, not everyone is comfortable using video on conference calls, including in job interviews. Some people might say they need to turn their cameras off; maybe their ADHD or autistic presentation makes them feel uncomfortable or distracted when they see themselves or others on screen.
Don’t neglect your image
The recruitment process starts with a company’s promotional materials, well before a candidate walks through the door. “Have individuals on your website who are using noise-cancelling headphones — or in a video, show someone who is not making eye contact or who is presenting the physical traits of someone who’s stimming,” Bungard says, referring to the self-stimulation movements that allow some people to think more clearly. “It’s important not to just ask someone to act a particular way for the photos”, she adds. And if you’re hiring actors for a promotion, “make sure they identify as neurodivergent to ensure authenticity. And give them a say in how they’re presented.”
Above all, depict real people going about their workday. It’s about “representation, representation, representation,” she says.
Adjust your approach to inclusion
All organizations should educate new hires on neurodiversity and disability as a standard onboarding practice, Bungard says. “Understanding disability will help us understand each other”, she says, noting that not all neurodivergent people identify as having a disability.
Frame this training not as extra tasks to be done but as opportunities. “When people are faced with, ‘I have to do this accessibility stuff’, it’s this add-on, this weight”, Bungard says. “If we change that perspective to ‘this is inclusion, this is another practice we’re doing to make a just, equitable experience for people’, then people want to do that.”
Education chips away at misconceptions. “Accommodations sounds like a scary word,” says Komarow, the founder of Planning Across the Spectrum, which works with employers to customize employee benefits and employee wellness programs to hire, recruit and retain neurodiverse talent. But it shouldn’t be.
For example, one of his employees has ADHD and likes noise in the background when she works, so she plays a TV show on her headphones. “If she’s great at her work, do I care if she has noise in the background?” he says. “If I can allow something and it doesn’t cost me anything or costs me little, why shouldn’t I do it?”
Implement universal design
It’s not enough to seek out and hire neurodiverse candidates — make your workplace accessible and accommodating as well. One way to do that is to incorporate universal design, which can make the workplace usable for everyone.
For example, an open office layout can be problematic for some people who identify as neurodivergent and might have sensory issues or attention regulation barriers. By allowing for designated quiet spaces, these employees and others can do their best work.
“A lot of the time it can come down to stimulation,” Bungard says. “Give someone a place where they can be alone, turn down the lights (or turn them up, depending on what they find comforting), don’t have a lot of stuff on the walls — it may allow people to re-centre.” Also, she says, don’t advertise it as a place for the neurodivergent or disabled, but “for anyone who needs a break.”
An open-plan office space can be modified by creating “low-traffic areas” to decrease social anxiety, or designated “collaborative hubs” where people can gather (instead of converging just anywhere). An open office layout can also be divided into different sections: one for community, one for collaboration, one for concentration.
Don’t neglect lighting, as fluorescent lights can be an issue for people with certain conditions. “Find me one person on the planet who likes fluorescent lights,” Komarow says. “Most adults say the lights hurt their eyes and give them headaches.” In other words, accommodations for some can benefit all.
Encourage focus time for everyone
Beyond physical spaces, people may need quiet in their digital spaces, too, and time away from “all the things that ping us during the day,” Bungard says. That can mean allowing people to block off calendar time and turn off email or other notifications for periods of deep focus.
“Access needs are human needs,” Bungard says. “Encouraging people to be themselves and bring their whole selves to work is only going to make the organization stronger.”