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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 6
Equality and diversity

Neuro-diversity and the workplace – positive or negative?

23 June 2021

It is widely agreed that we need to improve diversity in the workplace and research shows that diverse workplaces are more motivated, more innovative, and more profitable. But, too often, diversity recruitment and inclusion initiatives ignore neurodiversity.

It’s estimated that 1-in-6 people have some sort of neuro-minority status, such as Aspergers, ADHD or Dyslexia. Yet unemployment rates for neuro-minority people are far higher than for others – up to 80 per cent.

Dr Nancy Doyle, CEO of Genius Within and Co-Director of the Centre for Neurodiversity at Work, Birkbeck College, University of London, and Neil Barnett, Director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility at Microsoft, discuss the reasons for this and why getting different ways of thinking into a workforce can create advantage.


-Hello and welcome to this edition of the ILO’s The Future of Work Podcast.

I’m Sophy Fisher.

There’s a lot of discussion about how we can get

more diversity into the workplace and quite correctly

because there is plenty of research that shows that more diverse workplaces

are more motivated, more innovative,

and for commercial organizations, more profitable.

So far so good. The discussions about diversity recruitment seem

to focus on gender, ethnicity, and physical issues.

What about neurodiversity or rather neurominorities, people with

ADHD, Asperger’s, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or a range of other conditions?

In other words, people who think differently,

whose brains work a little bit differently,

they seem to be ignored by many workplace inclusion programs.

Later in this podcast, I’m going to be talking

to Neil Barnett at Microsoft because Microsoft

has a well-established program for hiring and retaining neurodiverse staff.

First, let me welcome Dr. Nancy Doyle.

Nancy is Chief Executive Officer of Genius Within, a nonprofit

organization working to help neurodiversity be recognized as a positive

characteristic in employment and for neurominority

people to reach their full potential.

She’s also co-director of the Center for Neurodiversity

at Work at Birkbeck College University of London.

Importantly, she’s also a member

of a neurominority, having been diagnosed with ADHD.

Nancy, hi and welcome to the podcast.


-Hi. Perhaps, first of all, I can start by asking

you to explain what exactly is ADHD?

and how does it affect you and your working life?

-That’s a great place to start.

ADHD stands for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

It’s a very pejorative, negative, problem-focused way of describing

what are, essentially, differences in the way mine and other

ADHD-er’s attention and concentration works.

Actually, ADHD people are incredibly good at focusing and we can

do something called hyperfocus which is where we can pay attention

to the same thing for an intense long amount of time

if it’s something that we’re really interested in and motivated by.

Conversely, when that’s not happening, our attention is more easily

split and we’re quite easily distracted by things in our environment.

That would be a really useful style of thinking if you were

doing some sort of patrol, some sort of security work.

If you were on a busy ward and needing to keep your attention on lots

of different patients, if you’re working in a school and needed to pay

attention to lots of children at the same time, if you were

a firefighter and needed to be really highly aware of your environment,

then that distractability is actually advantageous.

However, if you’re working in a busy office and you’re

trying to focus on a quite mundane task or if you’re

in a school as a people and you’re trying to pay

attention to your work in a busy classroom,

then that level of distractibility makes it really hard for you to do what you do.

That’s where the name came from.

It came from naming that distractibility as problematic as opposed

to understanding that that distractibility can sometimes be advantageous.

-Would you regard it as a positive or a negative in your working life?

-It does both things. It’s an absolute

negative right now because I’m in the middle

of an IT systems transition and I can’t concentrate

on things because I’m constantly being pinged by reminders

that I haven’t set up the right protocols for.

There’s times in my life where it’s really, really frustrating,

but there’s also times in my life where it’s really beneficial.

For example, when I’m giving talks or presentations, my ability to read

the room because I’m noticing shifts and body language, posture,

who’s looking at me, who’s not, I can pick up on that stuff really easily.

There are elements of my job that I definitely do

better because of that ability to split my attention.

Also when I’m writing and when I’m creating new work or new

ideas, I can use that hyperfocus and it gives me an edge

in terms of creativity and uniqueness of ideas.

-I know the British naturalist and TV

presenter, Chris Packham, who has Asperger’s,

has been quoted to saying that he couldn’t do his job without his Asperger’s

because it allows him to see things in a different way and therefore,

bring a different perspective to trying

to convey the natural world to ordinary people.

Clearly, there are some advantages.

What I wanted to ask you really was, why do

you think that neurodiversity or the inclusion

of neurominorities has lagged behind other kinds of diversity inclusion?

-Well, it’s not just neurominorities, it’s also

disability in the broadest sense of the word.

There’s a debate at the moment, neurominorities which include ADHD,

autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, it can also include Tourette’s syndrome,

are neurominorities disabilities, or are they different ways of thinking?

In the description that I’ve given you of ADHD, you can see that I’m clearly

landing my plane on the side of, "This is a different way of thinking."

However, there have been times in my life where I felt disabled.

From a legal perspective across the world most developed economies have

legislation, that means that ADHD is a protected characteristic or can be

a protected characteristic in the same way that multiple sclerosis,

Parkinson’s, people living with cancer are also considered disabled.

Disability is the new kid on the block of diversity.

It’s true. Neurominorities are somewhat being separated from

the rest of disability, which is a bit weird for me.

I’m finding it almost slightly ableist to say, "These

disabilities are cool, but these disabilities aren’t cool."

Actually, any disability gives you the advantage

of seeing the world slightly differently.

Any disability that you either require or are born with means that you’re

having a different experience to able-bodied or neuro-typical people.

Any disability will bring that diversity of thought

and experience into an organization’s culture and knowledge bank.

The other thing to remember is that there are a billion disabled people

worldwide, so any business needs to be able to cater for their customers

or service users or clients who are also disabled.

The main advantage of all disability and inclusion programs is

that if you are homogeneous in your internal

conversations and communication,

it means that you’re less likely to be designing

for the people who are going to use your services or products.

You’ve got to have a better match.

Why disability and neurominorities are the new kid on the block,

probably has something to do with that legislation because

it does make it a different thing to be inclusive of disability.

You have to make reasonable accommodations, you have to consider

what physical, cognitive, and emotional needs might come with

those disabilities and you have to provide for them.

There’s a lot of stereotypes and misunderstandings

that this is going to be costly and expensive. It’s actually not.

Research has shown that disabled people are less likely

to leave an organization and so you have lower turnover.

They’re also less likely to take time off compared

to non-disabled peers, so they actually are cheaper to employ.

It costs an average of $1,000 to make

accommodations for someone with a neurominority.

That’s actually is easily recouped in terms of the length

of time they’ll stay with you and the reduction in time off.

-Thanks, Nancy. Just a reminder that you’re listening to The Future

of Work Podcast from the ILO with me, Sophy Fisher.

We’re talking about getting greater neurodiversity into the workplace.

For the first half of this podcast, I’ve been talking to Dr. Nancy Doyle,

CEO of Genius Within and co-director of the Center

for Neurodiversity at Work of Birkbeck College in London.

Joining me now is Neil Barnett, who is director of inclusive hiring

and accessibility at Microsoft, based on the West Coast of the United States.

Hi, Neil, thanks for joining.

-Hey. How are you?

-Fine. I should tell our audience that Microsoft has a well-established

program for hiring and retaining neurodiverse staff.

Why don’t we start with you telling us why you set the program up?

-Great. Well, in 2015, so it’s been

about six years, we started a autism

hiring program that is now neurodiversity hiring, and at Microsoft,

we’ve always hired people with disability.

We see disability as a strength, but in 2015

we could do more in this space intentionally.

We took a step back and we looked at the unemployment rate, in this case,

for autism, which is around 80% unemployment or underemployment.

We thought we had a lot of jobs at Microsoft that some of the strengths

of someone who is autistic would be really good for whether

it’s pattern recognition or attention to detail.

We had a lot of jobs at Microsoft that we thought it’d be a good fit.

In 2015, we did this pilot, knowing that we didn’t know everything,

knowing that we just had to start and learn along the way.

We did a small pilot, and we found some great, great talent.

We hired five software engineers, developers, and we quickly

realized that there’s a lot of talent in the marketplace,

that was just having a tough time going through that traditional interview

process in many companies, that typical interview where it’s one day,

back to back, really fast-paced.

We started this, and then said, "Hey, let’s think about doing more,"

and ever since then, I think we’re on our 22nd or 23rd cohort,

we found just great, tremendous talent for the company.

-You’re no longer restricted to people who are on the autism scale,

but you also cover dyslexia, dyspraxia,

ADHD, all types of neurominority, yes?

-Absolutely. Last year, we moved from just focusing on autism to hiring

neurodivergent talent, dyslexia, ADHD, exactly, as you stated.

We really wanted to open the talent pipeline, and even be more

inclusive, and really tried to think about our processes and how we could

adjust and continue to find more great talent for the company.

-What do you think that neurominorities bring you that, what

you might call neurotypical or neuro normal people don’t?

What can they contribute that’s that extra something?

-It’s a good question. Everyone is different.

It’s a broad statement and everyone has their own talents

for anybody, whether it’s someone with a disability or not.

We found neurodivergent individuals, again, this is a broad

stereotype, whether it’s attention to detail or pattern recognition,

some great traits, and behaviors that really help in the workplace.

Again, it’s a spectrum. Everyone has different talent, and we embrace

all the talent of the neurodivergent.

-Can you give me a couple of examples?


The role of a data science, a data engineer, we’ve found great

talent that can build and really good at forecasting and modeling.

All the analysis that is needed for attention to detail, we found some

great talent from the neurodivergent community in this space as an example.

-For you, is it just people working in IT and software?

That’s always a cliche for neurominorities, isn’t it?

What about HR and other business areas?

-You hit the nail on the head.

It’s a big stereotype or misconception that folks

on the autism spectrum or folks that are neurodivergent,

it’s always about technology roles or STEM

roles, and that’s the furthest from the truth.

It’s really important for other employers out there to think about

hiring folks from the community, across all different

job types, from HR, to finance, to marketing.

At Microsoft, we’ve hired folks

in customer service, in finance, technical

content writers, all different types of roles, not just technical roles.

The good news is I see more and more employers out there doing

exactly this, looking for other types of roles other than

the technical software engineer data type roles,

which is really the big opportunity for all employers.

-What adjustments have you had to make

to help your neurominorities workforce fit in?

I think that’s something that worries a lot of potential employers,

that somehow it’s going to disrupt the smooth flowing of their existing

operations and they’re going to have to make too many expensive concessions.

-For workplace adjustments, also known as accommodations, which are really

meant to ensure that your employee is as productive as possible at work,

we have found very basic adjustments or accommodations.

Examples could be noise-canceling headsets to keep folks less distracted

with all the noise around them, or when we were all working in person,

we had a lot of open floor plans at Microsoft and before the pandemic.

Sometimes an adjustment could be not having the individual sit

on the walkway where people walk by all the time, but in a couple of rows,

or getting an additional monitor.

You’ve seen folks that have two or three monitors on their desk

that wrap around like a shield to help with distraction.

There are adjustments made, but honestly,

we found them to be very inexpensive and minor.

Again, everyone is different.

Some folks obviously might need more workplace adjustments, but for us

through the program, the adjustments have been only a positive that has led

the employees really be as productive as possible.

-You mentioned a minute ago the hiring process and that’s something

that Nancy Doyle also mentioned because for neurotypical people,

the average recruitment process is a bit of a nightmare.

You’re sat in front of this panel, having questions flying at you.

How have you recalibrated your hiring process

so that you can actually get the best out of your potential

recruits and actually really see what they can

do rather than just frighten them into silence?

-That’s been one of the keys

to the success of this program at Microsoft

and again, other employers who do a similar type of activity.

First, I would say anyone can apply for any job at Microsoft

or any company through the traditional process that we just talked about.

That one day you apply online, you sit in front of a bunch of people

and they ask you a lot of questions and you go

from person to person, that’s the typical approach.

We have candidates that choose that path and they get jobs at Microsoft.

It happens all the time every day.

There’s also folks that do better in, what I call more

of an accommodated interview process or a different front door.

This is a more programmatic approach where candidates will self-ID

and they will come in, and instead of being one-day back-to-back interviews,

very fast-paced as you described, what we’ll do

at Microsoft is we have a multi-day approach.

It’s a three to four-day approach where we bring

folks in, they get to know each other as candidates.

They get to know the hiring teams and managers.

We spend probably two days doing exercises together on teamwork

and collaboration and letting people feel comfortable and showcase some

of their skills, and then we spend time on practice

interviews to get candidates ready for the big interview.

We give them feedback.

One of the things that’s really important is we want to make

sure that they’re getting skills and learning so that whether

it’s Microsoft or any other job, they’ll take some good

lessons from so that they can help them on the next interview.

Finally, on the last day, we do full traditional

interviews like we do for any other employee.

We just make sure it’s even more inclusive.

We schedule breaks between them.

We make sure that the managers and the hiring teams that are

interviewing have had training on disability etiquette and autism

as a strength and neurodiversity as a culture.

We really try to set the candidate up for success, but what’s

really important for everyone is the bar is still the same bar.

The performance expectation, the same as any other

employee, it’s the same pay, it’s the same benefits.

All we’ve really done is just try to make an interview

process that’s more focused on their skills than

some of the soft skills that sometimes people focus

on during those traditional one-day interviews.

-That’s a really important point actually.

It’s not like you are learning the required standard

for neurodiverse people or neuro non-typical people.

They’re being held to the same performance standards.

You’re just making it easier for them to get through the door

in the first place and to perform, I suppose, to their best level,

and that best level still has to be

as good, if not better, than everybody else.

-Absolutely. It’s really important.

For everyone, to understand, this is not charity.

This is about finding talent for your roles.

This is about screening, trying to find more talent, and think

about how you can be more inclusive interview approach

to find this tremendous talent that companies are finding,

but the bar is still the bar, the expectations are the same.

The interview process is really important.

The flip side is once you hire individuals making sure that you have

the right support structure in place to set them up for success too.

-Tell me about that because it’s one thing to get hired,

but then you want to get on in your career and build a career.

Inside the organization, you’ve got to get on with

the other staff and you got to be managed.

Your managers and the other staff who are not

on this program, what do they have to do to adjust to these?

There must challenges for them too because they’re sitting next door

to people and working with people every day who aren’t thinking like them,

that being the whole point.

-One of the things that we’ve done, obviously as a new employee to Microsoft

or any company, there’s the traditional processes that you go through,

the typical structure that you have.

We encourage employees to take advantage of all the things that all employees have.

The other things that we do are-- we call it as a support circle.

We build out the support circle around each

employee and there’s three components of that.

The first is we provide, through the program, access to job coaches.

These job coaches can do a variety of things.

They can help on the transition for the first time to, let’s say

a corporate work environment, or they can work with the manager.

They can help the employee through things like

prioritization of work, or working with different co-workers.

Having access to a job coach has been really important.

Again, not everyone takes full advantage of it.

It’s an individual need but we make access available to job coaches.

The second thing we do is we provide each employee through

our program, access to what we call a community mentor.

That’s someone from our disability employee resource group.

It could be a parent, it could be a co-worker

that has a disability, but somebody that you can reach out to,

not your manager that helps you just understand the culture

of the company and getting around, "Do I need to go to this meeting?"

as a buddy, new to the company. The community mentor is so important.

Some people are still talking to their community mentor,

two years later and having Thanksgiving dinner together.

We provide a community mentor.

We provide a job coach, and then as you hit on it before,

we provide training to the hiring team and to the co-workers.

We provide training around neurodiversity

as a strength, neurodiversity as a culture.

It’s an in-person training where someone comes

in that’s neurodivergent, and teaches this class.

It used to be in person, it’s now online.

It lets managers and teams ask questions and demystify.

We also obviously provide online training for more employees, that scale.

There’s a support circle around it, but again,

everyone is different and so we adjust.

We found that providing some of these structure has really

helped us with the growth and the retention of our talent.

-Why do you think more companies are not doing what

you’re doing and tapping into this talent pool?

You obviously talk to a lot of other big companies in your industry as in others.

Do you get any feedback from them on what they think about

this program and why they don’t necessarily run one themselves?

-A couple of thoughts.

I think there is a growing, you could call it a movement

of employers that are doing similar work to what Microsoft is doing.

One of the things we lead at Microsoft is

something called Autism @ Work Employer Roundtable.

We have over 35 large companies that many of your audience

have heard of like SAP, JPMorgan Chase, EY and Ford.

There are a lot of companies that are doing this today, which

many people may not know, and they’re doing a great job.

I talk to a lot of employers each week.

There’s a lot of employers that are wanting to do this.

I think to your question about what holds them back is

sometimes they just don’t know what they don’t know and they’re

afraid to start without knowing everything.

One of the things I encourage is just to start small and to leverage partners.

There’s a lot of non-profits. There’s a lot academics.

There’s a lot of other employers that can help, but getting

started is important and that’s how you learn and grow.

You will see more and more large employers.

We’re really trying to help the small and mid-sized business which

I think is the biggest opportunity to get started in the days ahead.

-I can hear some of the smaller employers, small medium-sized enterprises

listening to this podcast and going, "Well, it’s all right for Microsoft.

They’ve got loads of cash. They’ve got loads of resources.

Yes, they say this may be a talent pool, but I’m a small business.

I’ve got maybe a couple of dozen employees.

One person in HR is all too much. I can’t cope."

How do you get SMBs on board with this, as well?

-That is the million-dollar question.

There are so many small mid-sized businesses that are doing this today.

There are bakeries and coffee shops and t-shirt manufacturers.

There are so many but there needs to be so many more.

You’re right. These SMBs may not have an employee resource group

or large HR teams but similar concepts can be done.

The fundamentals are all the same.

Part of what we drive with this employer roundtable

that we lead is that we have small and mid-sized companies

in the roundtable with these large companies.

One of our goals as roundtable members is to help

other companies think through and start programs.

What’s great is for the small business, one of our small businesses will

sit down and start talking through the business case, how they did it,

what funds they can tap into, what experts they can tap into.

Again, it needs to happen more. You’re right.

You don’t need to be a large enterprise to do this.

There’s just tremendous talent out there.

No matter the role, whether it’s retail, customer

service, IT, I can’t stress

enough the impact of doing

this and just finding great talent in today’s marketplace where

talent is so hard to find really tapping it and getting into.

-Ultimately, do you think this is a component of competitiveness?

-Yes. I think that’s definitely a big component of the diversity of thought.

When we think about diversity, it includes the diversity

of thought and creating a more inclusive culture for your team.

I think that’s a big component of it.

More and more companies are seeing this and leaning in and trying

to figure out how to make their culture at their company more inclusive.

Tapping into the neurodivergent community is

just one of several great ways to do that.

-Neil, thank you so much for your time.

That’s Neil Barnett of Microsoft.

I’d like to give thanks also to Dr. Nancy Doyle

of Genius Within and Birkbeck College.

Please join us again soon for another

edition of the ILO’s Future of Work Podcast. Goodbye.