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April 25, 2022updated 26 Apr 2022 5:31pm

Neurodiversity offers tech leaders an ESG opportunity

By accommodating neurodiversity, tech leaders can support ESG goals while tapping into a valuable talent base.

By Sophia Waterfield

Neurodiversity offers tech leaders a unique opportunity to contribute to their organisation’s diversity and inclusion performance, while tapping into a talent pool with much to contribute. Some employers have therefore begun to seek out neurodiverse candidates for specialist technical roles. But creating a positive employee experience for neurodiverse people requires concerted effort. And for those companies that seek to report on their neurodiversity credentials, definitional complexities lie ahead.

Few employers currently report – or even record – data on the neurodiversity of their workforce. (Photo by sturti/iStock)

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is “the celebration of the variety of ways in which human beings think”, as UK tech leader John Lovell wrote for Tech Monitor in 2020. The term is used to describe people with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, Down syndrome and other neurodivergent characteristics.

While it is important not to generalise, some neurodivergent people have qualities that make them highly suitable for technical roles. In 2020, cybersecurity accreditation body CREST evaluated the business case for hiring neurodivergent candidates in technical roles. People with ADHD, it found, have an affinity for “highly structured [work] with a specific workflow, routine and clearly defined tasks and directives”.

Citing the National Autistic Society, CREST argued that autistic people are “often very methodological and detail-orientated and often show a high degree of focus and integrity… are able to absorb a large amount of information and memorise it, enjoy complex tasks and have a knack for pattern recognition”.

Dyslexics, meanwhile, often work in “highly interdisciplinary fields or fields that require combining perspectives and techniques gained from different disciplines or backgrounds,” it said. “Often these individuals can see connections that other people haven’t seen before.”

These attributes are reason enough to seek neurodiverse workers, but the rise of ESG investment might provide an additional impetus. Although diversity and inclusion are not currently as high a priority for ESG investors as climate change, ESG awareness among board directors is on the increase. In a survey by PwC last year, 65% said ESG is linked to company strategy; a steep rise from just 15% in 2020.

Tech leaders may soon find themselves under pressure to demonstrate their commitment to diversity, therefore. Neurodiversity offers a unique opportunity to meet these obligations.

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How companies are boosting neurodiversity in tech teams

An ever-growing list of companies have sought to develop neurodiversity in their workforce, often in technical departments.

Investment bank JP Morgan, for example, is creating data-intensive roles for neurodivergent candidates to support its AI initiatives, according to a recent CNBC report. UK insurance provider Aviva has founded a placement programme to find neurodiverse candidates for “high quality, skilled roles in our quantum data science practice”. And last year, Google’s cloud division inaugurated an Autism Career Program to recruit and support “more talented autistic individuals in the rapidly growing cloud industry”.

Professional services firm EY has created a global network of Neuro-Diverse Centres of Excellence (NCoE) in 11 countries including the UK. The centres are designed to provide a supportive working environment for neurodivergent individuals, helping them apply their strengths to meet client needs in areas such as AI, data analytics, automation, blockchain and cybersecurity.

Neurodivergent people “are typically highly proficient in some of the ‘in-demand’ skills of right now, and in the future,” said Alison Kay, EY’s managing partner for client service in the UK & Ireland, when announcing the launch of the UK centre. The firm plans to hire 150 neurodivergent employees over the next three years.

Optimising the employee experience for neurodiversity

Rachel Morgan-Trimmer is a consultant who advises employers on recruiting and managing neurodivergent workers. Being autistic and ADHD herself, Morgan-Trimmer draws on her own lived experience in her advice.

“I work with some big organisations who need help making all their processes more inclusive,” she explains. “First of all, they want to understand neurodiversity and raise awareness about it throughout the company; knowing what it is, what the conditions are, and what strengths they bring to their organisations.”

“Secondly, they want to know how to recruit and work with neurodiverse people,” she continues. “We’re a huge untapped pool of talent and people are now waking up to the fact that hiring and retaining neurodiverse people is a sound business decision, thanks to our speed of learning and increased productivity.”

To accommodate neurodivergent workers, organisations need to consider every facet of their employee experience, Morgan-Trimmer argues, starting with recruitment. “Some examples would be writing an inclusive job ad [which should be] much shorter than a standard one, reducing the hiring process time, having an informal call before an interview, taking lots of breaks during meetings,” she advises.

EY has adapted its recruitment processes and working environment to support the needs of its neurodivergent workforce. This includes a shift from “behaviour-based interview processes to performance-based ones”, the firm said. Other measures include conducting onboarding sessions in small groups and providing orientation so candidates can familiarise themselves with the workplace before joining.

The firm has also created employee networks to support neurodivergent workers and their family members and to promote “a greater sense of psychological safety for true belonging and equity”. Morgan-Trimmer, meanwhile, has provided “allyship training” for some clients, teaching employees how they can support their neurodiverse colleagues.

Reporting on neurodiversity

Public reporting of neurodiversity metrics could encourage more employers to make these kinds of accommodation, whether by allowing top performers to demonstrate their achievements or by shaming laggards into action. (A 2021 study found that a rule forcing UK employers to report their gender pay gap figures has compelled organisations to make changes “in order to attract talent and retain workers”.)

Currently, however, very few employers publicise their neurodiversity figures. Indeed, few even collect them: a recent survey of US law firms found that it is by far the least-recorded diversity metric, with just 17% recording the neurodiversity of their workforce.

One challenge is that many forms of neurodiversity are invisible and would require employees to self-declare their neurodivergence were it to be measured, which they may not feel comfortable doing. Some may not even be aware of their own neurodivergence: autism is often not diagnosed until adulthood, especially among women.

Another issue is whether neurodiversity should be included in employers’ disability reporting. While the UK Equality Act provides people with autism the same protections from discrimination as disabled people, some neurodivergent people prefer their condition to be described as a difference, not a disability.

These issues confirm that there is still work to be done in determining how best to manage neurodiversity in the workforce. But the list of employers who see the benefit is nevertheless likely to continue growing.

More on ESG and IT

Cybersecurity is an ESG concern for investors but businesses hold back on transparency

The tech industry’s progress on carbon emissions has been mixed

Can ESG investment change Big Tech?

Buying power: The role of IT procurement in ESG

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