The idea of inclusive organizational design (see “Defeat Diversity Derailers: Inclusion by Design” for the introduction) was born out of trying to explain a startling paradox: an 85 percent unemployment rate among a subset of professionals with college degrees, high levels of self-motivation and often exceptionally analytical, systematic, and innovative thinking.
That number is not a typo. By some reports, the unemployment of autistic professionals with college degrees might be as high as 90 percent. What leads to this loss of talent?
The research reveals multiple organizational barriers to access and success that in combination cause this mismatch between the talent and the opportunities. However, while these barriers, such as the use of selection methods that lack validity, tolerance of workplace bullying, and the lack of process transparency might be particularly detrimental for people on the spectrum, other groups and individuals also suffer. Removal of these barriers would help those who face gender, age, ethnicity, class and many other biases.
Even more importantly, it would help address intersectional effects. For example, the combination of barriers created by gender, class, culture and invisible disability can’t be addressed by interventions targeting just one, or even three of these differences. However, creating an autism-friendly organization removes enough barriers to help address such complex intersectional needs.
The barrier-free organization would make work-life better for people, period.
Key Do’s (and Don’ts) of Inclusive Organizational Design.
Let’s say your organization is interested in developing an autism hiring program. You could start small, with one or two individuals in typical technical roles, in specific departments. Examples of successful programs include SAP, JPMorgan, Microsoft, and many other companies. Alternatively, you may aim to create a fully autism-friendly organization like Ultranauts. The most comprehensive approach maximally expands the inclusion by developing organizational processes that would work for people from many different backgrounds and in many different roles.
The key principles of inclusive organizational design extend what works for autism inclusion to creating organizations in which diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are maximized for all. Going beyond focusing on specific groups may seem challenging if this approach is new to your organization. However, in the long run, the deep work of creating inclusive processes and removing barriers for all and for good, rather than building temporary ramps for some, will save much effort and frustration.
- Don’t just design limited autism [or first-generation, or veteran, or any other group] - friendly hiring system. Design a valid one – based on the thorough job analysis and selection methods aligned with core job responsibilities. People of color, women, people from low socioeconomic class, people facing age discrimination, people with a range of disabilities - everyone who may face bias in hiring – will benefit.
- Don’t just design an autism-friendly workplace. Design a flexible one. Those with visible and invisible disabilities, with caretaking responsibilities, and truly, everyone will benefit. Without flexibility, 36 percent of employees are top performers; flexibility in when, how, and how much people work increases this to 55 1 percent.
- Don’t just design an autism-friendly communication system. Design a transparent one. Veterans, first-generation college students, and immigrants pulling themselves up by the bootstraps will thank you.
- Don’t just design an autism-friendly work culture. Design a psychologically safe one. Those with depression, anxiety or PTSD might need this safety the most, and autistic people are more likely to be targeted by bullying, but we all need psychological safety to be our most productive, most creative selves.
- Don’t just design an autism-friendly organization. Design a human-friendly and a talent-friendly one. When a teacher designed an autism-friendly classroom, all students thrived. In Ultranauts, a majority-autistic company designed with neurodiversity in mind, a full range of employees and the business itself thrive.
- Don’t try to make people “fit” by assimilating and suppressing their individuality. Hire for values-fit and celebrate culture-add. Too often, arbitrary “culture” requirements are used as a reason to reject all differences.
- And finally, don’t just design an autism hiring program because you’ve read the “amazing autistic productivity” reports. These only apply to a segment of the population, and all humans should have an opportunity to maximize their potential – regardless of specific internal characteristics or external compliance requirements. Business case is important, but human dignity is essential. Design work for the inclusion and thriving of the full spectrum of humanity -and your organization's maximum thriving. Design for inclusive thriving.
The key principles of inclusion by design also map onto the foundational principles of organizational justice.
Procedural justice is impossible without valid decision-making tools and without focusing on equitable opportunity for all to reach performance outcomes – including flexible work. Informational justice entails transparency. And interpersonal justice is aligned with psychological safety and belonging without assimilation. In its essence, Inclusive Organizational Design is a fairness-based organizational design.
In the follow-up articles, I will focus deeper on specific steps and tools for applying Inclusive Organizational Design principles to key aspects of the employment cycle - job design and selection, work organization and performance evaluation. I also plan to discuss specific challenges in leadership and culture that may need to be overcome in building inclusive organizations. Please share your questions, thoughts, and stories in the comments!
 Mary Baker, What is the Employment New Deal, Gartner, October 13, 2020.
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