Disability and HR Strategy: Targeting Neurodiversity for Your Talent Pool

March 20, 2018

Disability and HR Strategy: Targeting Neurodiversity for Your Talent Pool

Finding and keeping top talent is an ongoing challenge, especially in high-tech sectors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics CareerCast site recently reported that in 2018 application software developers will top the list of the ten toughest jobs to fill with more than a quarter of a million vacancies projected by 2026 (SHRM 2018). Companies are increasingly turning to previously unexplored talent pools to help to bridge talent needs, and a growing number of companies are specifically targeting neuro-diverse individuals, especially those on the autism spectrum (Pisano & Austin, 2016).

Last month, CBS This Morning highlighted (February 11) efforts by companies such as SAP and Microsoft to build workplaces that are more inclusive of autistic individuals, who often have unique talents for focus and pattern recognition that contribute to success in some technical jobs. On This Morning, company leaders, managers, and individuals with autism who are being offered opportunities to use their skills and creativity discussed the significant benefits of these new talent-sourcing initiatives to both individuals and businesses. These businesses are demonstrating the concept of neurodiversity by recognizing and respecting neurological differences as any other human variation and proving they can be assets in select job functions.

Autism is the most common member of a family called autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), also known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs). Developmental disabilities such as autism are brain-based, neurological conditions that have more to do with biology than with psychology. Autistic individuals are found in every country, every ethnic group, and every socioeconomic class. Autism affects as many as one and a half million people in the United States alone, and CDC statistics estimate that one in 68 eight-year olds had been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum in 2012 (Christensen et al,, 2016). Compared to their neuro-typical peers, people with autism are unemployed or significantly under-employed despite many having advanced degrees. The majority of young people with autism had neither a job nor plans for education in the two years after high school graduation. These employment disparities are a function of misunderstanding by society, and often a lack of adequate preparation for the workforce, as well as access to needed workplace supports.

HR professionals touch every part of the employment process and have a significant role to play in helping to make programs such as these successful. The incremental course of identifying the right individual for a job involves every step of the employment process, in order to facilitate the retention of that person and maximize their job satisfaction. HR professionals can help create effective strategies for the recruitment, selection, onboarding, career development and retention strategies of autistic people and also support their supervisors in providing effective performance management and accommodations (Sumner & Brown, 2015).

Recruitment, Selection, and Onboarding
The first challenge for companies wanting to implement Autism at Work programs is to find the right talent: neurodiverse individuals with the training, background, and unique characteristics that lend themselves to the job functions for which the companies are recruiting. HR professionals can identify sources for such candidates within the local community. These sources might include service provider agencies that offer job training and placement, university offices for students with disabilities or career services that refer likely candidates, and even social media sites that specialize in the interests of autistic individuals and their family members.

Once the candidate pool and referral process has been established, the next step in getting people through the door is smoothing the selection and interview processes. Even candidates with excellent training and credentials, with resumes that stand out as desirable recruits with needed talent, may not fare well in traditional interview situations. Social awkwardness, failure to make eye contact, and inability to clearly present one’s talents and interests have created barriers in this part of the employment process. Therefore, it is essential that HR professionals work with management to design a selection and interview process that prompts recruiters and hiring managers to look beyond these limitations and helps the candidates reveal their aptitudes in unconventional ways. This might include displaying a work portfolio, demonstrating skills in task and team engagement simulations, and other behavioral-oriented approaches that heighten the likelihood that a desired talent match is identified in these previously overlooked applicants.

Career Advancement, Retention and Performance Management
Autistic individuals are no different from other employees in their desire for a chance to use their skills, get recognition for their contributions, and be afforded opportunities for development. HR professionals can assist supervisors in this part of the talent management process by reminding supervisors that all employees, including those who are autistic, desire equitable opportunities for advancement and should be encouraged to take advantage of training and stretch assignments that lead to career growth opportunities. Supervisors may also need support in providing regular candid feedback about any performance issues to autistic employees in a manner that will be heard, considered, and acted on to make corrections.

Communication and Climate for Inclusion
Finally, the HR professional can play a critical role in creating a climate for inclusion for autistic individuals within the organization. Communication about the Autism at Work program and its role as a part of the strategic business imperative should be evident in both external and internal company messaging. Having company leadership tout these programs as an important part of the business strategy to identify new talent will go a long way to ensuring a positive reception within the company and facilitate wider support. In addition, internal messaging in company newsletters and social media about the successes of autistic employees, and the contributions made by supervisors who have embraced, supported, and championed such programs, builds further interest and buy-in from others within the organization. 

The HR professional can also assist with building a climate for inclusion for those who are neuro-diverse or autistic through the creation and nurturing of activities that promote further acceptance within the workplace. An example might be an employee or business resource group (BRG) targeting neurodiversity. Such a group provides people who have disclosed that they are autistic or have other neuro-diverse characteristics such as learning disabilities, dyslexia, or ADHD a safe place to meet others with similar life experiences. Groups may also support employees with neurodiverse family members. BRGs can also offer a supportive forum for individuals who have not yet disclosed their neurodiversity identity to their employer to explore self-identifying. Resource groups can also serve as a source of referrals for additional neuro-diverse applicants and offer candid feedback about how the organization as a whole is doing in providing an inclusive environment that truly embraces individuals with all kinds of differences, including those with autism.



CBS News (2018).  The growing acceptance of autism in the workplace.  February 11, 2018, available from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-growing-acceptance-of-autism-in-the-workplace/

Christensen DL, Baio J, Braun KV, et al. (2016). Prevalence and characteristics of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2012. MMWR Surveill Summ 65(No. SS-3), 1–23. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6503a1.

Mauer, R. (2018).  These are the hardest jobs to fill right now.  SHRM Talent Acquisition, February 28, 2018, available from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/talent-acquisition/pages/hardest-jobs-to-fill-2018.aspx

Pisano, G, & Austin, R. (2016). Hewlitt-Packard Enterprise: The Dandelion Program.  Harvard Business Review, September 8, 90617-016.

Sumner, K., & Brown, T. (2015).  Neurodiversity and human resources management: Employer challenges for applicants and employees with learning disabilities.  The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 18(2), 77-85.

The Authors: 

Susanne M. Bruyère, Ph.D., CRC, is currently professor of disability studies and the director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, ILR School at Cornell University. Dr. Bruyère is also project director and co-principal investigator of numerous federally-sponsored research, dissemination, and technical assistance efforts focused on employment and disability policy and effective workplace practices for people with disabilities including: the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Employer Practice to Improve Employment Outcomes for Persons with Disabilities; and the Organizational Practices to Increase Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities: The Power of Social Networks. She is a past president of the Division of Rehabilitation Psychology (22) of the American Psychological Association, the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association, and the National Council on Rehabilitation Education. She can be reached at smb23@cornell.edu.