As a leader, how can you develop a more inclusive workplace for neurodiverse employees and candidates? As a neurodivergent person, what can organisations do to enable you to share your talents and contribute even more effectively?
Against the backdrop of National Inclusion Week, Olivia Sharp, Partner in Eton Bridge Partners’ Human Resources Practice, hosted a fascinating discussion on neurodiversity in the workplace. Olivia was joined by Simon Clements, Talent Director, and Jessica Peacock, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Senior Manager, both at Drax Group Plc.
Drax Group is a renewable energy company engaged in renewable power generation, the production of sustainable biomass and the sale of renewable electricity to businesses. Our purpose is enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future an our ambition is to become carbon negative by 2030.
Jess and Simon have lived experience of the challenges that being neurodiverse in the workplace can bring. The insights they share give voice to others’ experiences (around 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodiverse), and highlight ways in which organisations can develop a more neuroinclusive DNA.
Olivia Sharp: Jess, Simon, can you tell me more about where your interest in neurodiversity comes from?
Simon Clements: My interest started when I was a teenager – I went through ADHD assessments but was never diagnosed. That was the first time I started to think about neurodiversity. Also, my brother is autistic and when he went into the world of work, he worked for lots of different employers for really short periods of time. He lost all confidence in the workplace, and he hasn’t worked for a long time now.
Those lived experiences with my family meant that when I started my career in HR, I took a natural interest in neurodiversity. I’ve been privileged to do some volunteering for the charity Ambitious about Autism, working on their Employ Autism programme, which is about bridging the gap between education and employment for young people.
Jessica Peacock: My own personal diagnosis with ADHD & autism has aligned with an increased awareness and interest in Neurodiversity within organisations. I have been working in diversity, equality and inclusion for about ten years now, and over that time I’ve seen that lots of different things come in and out of the consciousness of businesses around diversity. What organisations tend to prioritise in this space comes from wider culture, and neurodiversity is currently something that’s in that organisational consciousness. It’s important in my role to really take advantage of that to make changes for that group of people.
I was diagnosed with ADHD and autism in my early thirties. About six months before I joined Drax, I experienced autistic burnout, and I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly what I needed to be able to function in the workplace because it isn’t particularly well set up for neurodivergent people. I see myself as a very privileged person because I am neurodivergent and I am in work. There are so many amazing neurodivergent people who can’t work and share their talent because of the way the workplace is set up at the moment.
OS: How is work different for neurodivergent people and why is it less accessible for them?
JP: I think there are two big barriers. First, there is a big chunk of work that is based in social hierarchies and communication and a lot of that is unspoken. There are elements of that which can be really challenging to navigate for many neurodivergent people – so it is often difficult to be successful or come across in the way you want to.
Then there is the structural perspective. Work still tends to have fixed ways to measure success, such as having to work a certain amount of hours in a specific timeframe. For a lot of neurodivergent people the idea of having to be consistent on specific things every single day is extremely intimidating. Similarly, awareness is also an issue. We are only just starting to speak openly about neurodiversity and there are lots of late-diagnosed people who happen to be in work; that is an interesting, new dynamic for the subject.
SC: We have also gone through an era of standardisation in HR, using process and technology to take costs out and deliver efficiencies. To make strides in this space, I think we need to practise inclusive design and think about how we deliver personalised experiences. That’s a pivot from the last five years and it requires skills and capabilities that many organisations don’t have. I think there’s a growing awareness that inclusive design is not just a huge benefit for those who are neurodivergent, but actually a huge benefit to everyone in the organisation. If achieved properly, it will relate to performing teams and drive bottom-line growth.
JP: Inclusive design is something that we can do proactively through looking at the structures and processes that we use.
And then we have those individual adjustments which is where we can be reactive when someone needs something specific put in place. Our managers are aware that they have responsibilities to the individual, but then they also have that wider responsibility of thinking about inclusive design. This, as Simon said, benefits everyone, but it is usually more tricky – you can get cultural tension when we talk about some changes.
OS: Could you give us an example of where that tension has come through and what the solution was?
JP: One of the key things we make clear when we think about inclusive design is that not all neurodivergent people are diagnosed and if they are neurodivergent and employed, then they are likely to be high masking and covering up a lot of their behaviours. So, identifying those individual adjustments might feel impossible because even neurodiverse people may not know what would work for them in all circumstances.
One of the teams I work with has started thinking about inclusive design specifically for meetings. From this work, they have agreed on three key actions. First, every single meeting must have a written purpose or agenda in the subject line. Second, every meeting time has been reduced by five minutes. And third, they have reviewed meeting lengths and attendees. All of these elements of inclusive design help everyone to feel more comfortable about attending and organising meetings, not just those who are neurodivergent.
Also, colleagues at any level can ask three questions about the meeting; why me? why now? why this? It’s a bit of a psychological safety tool for people – being able to move or challenge a meeting without feeling like you’re cancelling or being a being a bad employee can be really helpful. This is particularly important for neurodivergent employees who may be struggling at a particular point in time.
SC: If you think about the business case around this example, just imagine a large organisation with thousands of employees. How many times do we hear people say they have back-to-back meetings? People being able to self-select can get thousands of working hours back and this can create huge profitability gains. These seemingly small cultural or structural tweaks can have a huge impact on organisational success. If you deliver the message to the C-suite in this way, it tends to have a better impact in terms of gaining support.
Also, sharing interview questions or scoring criteria ahead of the interview is something I am a huge advocate of. Unless it’s a role where you’re wanting to test someone’s ability to think on their feet, you’re not actually assessing someone’s competency by asking them a live question versus giving them a chance to think about their skills and experience. Making this change really increases the opportunity for a neurodiverse person (and in fact anyone) to perform in a more comfortable environment.
At Ambitious about Autism, we are helping to reengineer the recruitment process for autistic people. Interestingly, a HR Director can often be a bit reluctant, but often a business leader is more onboard with these changes; especially those who have a bit of lived experience of neurodiversity.
OS: I wonder how much of that is because HR professionals may not always feel comfortable talking about this subject?
JP: Definitely, there’s an assumption that a HR colleague should know everything about all of these subject areas, and obviously that would be impossible. It’s my job to be a specialist and even I don’t know everything there is to know. However, you don’t have to know the ins and outs of every single type of neurodiversity – you’ve got key principles and you can support on how to implement those.
OS: Simon, would you mind telling us a little bit about Ambitious about Autism?
SC: Of course, Ambitious about Autism started in the education space, and they then realised the huge opportunity for helping employers tap into an underutilised pool of autistic talent. Around 80% of autistic people who have undertaken Further Education are not in full-time employment. Ethically and economically, that’s not right. The charity works across the UK and has run thousands of internships with a range of organisations from SMEs to FTSE 100 companies. They source autistic talent and critically, they provide education, awareness and enablement to organisations to ensure the workplace, environment and role has the right conditions for success and the added benefit of providing growth to all involved.
OS: It’s helpful to recognise that career paths for a neurodivergent person can be just as diverse as for a neurotypical person.
SC: We’ve probably all seen initiatives which suggests that with a certain neurodivergent condition, comes a certain skill set. But Ambitious about Autism have placed internships in more or less every function you can think of, so this just isn’t an accurate perception.
JP: We’re still really grappling with stereotypes and I think it’s about understanding the uniqueness of each individual, and building recruitment and assessment processes that enable everyone to perform.
OS: Jess, you have spoken publicly about your experience of autistic burnout before you joined Drax – what did Drax do that worked for you?
JP: Having a manager that had an understanding of neurodiversity and prioritised inclusion was critical to accepting a role a Drax. On an individual level we were able to have really clear conversations about what I needed in a working environment. Having my own unique adjustments respected has been a game-changer for me. More broadly there’s Inclusive Design things we do, like embedding ‘User Manuals’ into our teams. The manual shares information about our individual ways of working and preferences which has made a really big difference to our whole team.
SC: We talk about bringing your whole self to work, but we don’t often put these simple practices in place to enable us to do that. The user manuals let us all share a little bit of information about ourselves – if you feel psychologically safe, you can say to people hang on a minute, this is where I’m at. That leads to higher performing teams and organisational success.
OS: How has the organisation responded to the new ways of working?
JP: We have really focussed on building strong foundations for DEI so we can make sustainable change in the future. This means adapting our approach to where different parts of Drax are at with DEI. Being bold in some areas and making smaller change in others.
SC: There’s a tendency for senior leaders to look at targets and measures, and that’s not necessarily always the right way to approach it. We need to start with the foundations. For example, do we have workwear for every-body? Are our facilities inclusive? We create local plans for our business units that all feed up to the bigger medium and longer-term goals.
JP: We are quite a practical business, and we tend to get a lot of buy-in when we put practical changes in place; having quiet work areas or dimmable lights in some spaces for example.
OS: Is there one thing that you have learnt from your experiences or that you would do differently?
SC: I think you need to have the resilience to understand that you’ll have patches where things go really well and patches where things are frustrating and don’t go well and to develop a mindset that says that it’s ok; it’s all part of our growth and development. We’re on a journey and the things we are doing have a huge impact on people’s lives.
JP: I’ve learnt that people don’t all need to fully understand and support every aspect of my work for change to happen. It’s important to lean into the organisations priorities and embrace their interests. Learning to use the increased awareness of neurodiversity to benefit as many colleagues as possible has been really important. And, for me personally, I would love to have been diagnosed earlier!
Thank you to Jess and Simon for joining me in such a thought-provoking conversation. This issue, personal to so many of us, will continue to evolve – educating ourselves and keeping the conversation going is the best way to help both people and organisations achieve their full potential.
Eton Bridge Partners are committed to supporting organisations to build diverse leadership teams and develop inclusive cultures. Please do get in touch with Olivia to continue the conversation.
- Neurodiversity at Work 2023 – research paper Birkbeck, University of London
- Is Your Company Inclusive of Neurodivergent Employees? – Harvard Business Review
- Stop asking Neurodivergent People to Change the Way They Communicate – Harvard Business Review
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