Most people are neurotypical, meaning that their brain functions and processes information in the way society expects. However, it is estimated that more than 15% of people in the UK are neurodivergent, with the number of diagnosed neurodiverse individuals increasing every year, which means that their brain functions, learns and processes information differently. Despite this, there is a significant lack of awareness and understanding around neurodiverse conditions, which include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism (including Asperger’s syndrome), dyslexia and dyspraxia – and this presents a barrier for individuals trying to gain access to the workplace.

Over the last decade, educators have developed a range of tools and strategies to support neurodiverse individuals which allow them to feel supported and included, and to achieve their potential in education. Arguably the current generation of young people are more open about their condition and more literate in their understanding of their potential than any previous generation, with a higher expectation that others will adapt their approach to accommodate their neurodiversity.

The question is whether the employment market is ready to adopt similar strategies as this generation enter the job market, to harness this growing cohort of diverse talent. This article focuses on the practical steps employers can take to ensure their recruitment processes do not discriminate against neurodiverse individuals, and instead recognise and harness the benefits that come from this untapped talent pool.

Disability discrimination

Neurodivergent conditions will often have a substantial and long-term effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, amounting to a disability under equality legislation. If so, the individual is protected against discrimination and the employer must make reasonable adjustments to remove or minimise any disadvantage to them in the recruitment process and in the workplace.

In Government Legal Services v Brookers (2017), the employer required a job applicant with Asperger’s syndrome to sit a multiple-choice test. The Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld the Tribunal’s decision that the multiple-choice test was an unjustified provision, criterion or practice which amounted to unlawful disability discrimination. The employer had also breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments by failing to adapt the format of the test to accommodate the job applicant.

Whilst there is no legal obligation to develop processes which cater for disabled candidates in general, there may well be a clear commercial benefit in doing this if it opens up new talent pools. Of course, if a neurodiverse condition is shared by a candidate, an employer will most likely have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments to the recruitment process to accommodate their needs.

Employing neurodiverse individuals

The number of individuals with a particular neurodiverse condition varies considerably, with at least one in ten people estimated to have dyslexia, 3 in 100 adults with ADHD and one in 100 of the population on the autistic spectrum. Although approximately 50% of disabled adults in the UK are employed (compared with around 80% of non-disabled people), currently just 22% of autistic adults in the UK are in any kind of employment. Other neurodiverse people, including those with ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, also face difficulties and discrimination in the workplace. Indeed, disabled people with neurodiverse conditions - autism and other severe or specific learning difficulties - are among the disabled people with the lowest employment rate in the UK.

Despite a bias against recruiting individuals with neurodiverse conditions, neurodiverse employees bring a number of strengths and benefits to the workplace. Depending on the particular condition and their individual circumstances, neurodivergents can excel in analysing data and problem solving, and in innovation and creativity. In addition, some neurodiverse individuals show exceptional attention to detail while others are particularly good at recognising trends and patterns, or at seeing things from an unconventional viewpoint.

Yet, without a conscious effort to include this group of individuals in their workforce, employers may be disregarding strong job applicants with a range of valuable skills.

What steps can employers take to ensure their recruitment process is fairer for neurodiverse individuals?

Conventional recruitment interviews can be particularly challenging for neurodiverse job applicants, especially for those on the autistic spectrum disorder who may find it difficult to answer open-ended questions, make eye contact or interpret voice tones and facial expressions. Despite this, very few employers have a neurodiversity policy in place that can provide for adjustments in the hiring process.

Some businesses are however seeking out cognitive diversity and focusing on a fairer process for neurodiverse individuals, for example by adjusting their recruitment process by replacing in-person interviews with performance-based tasks, such as analysing a set of data or producing a report in small groups. Others are providing training for interviewing managers on the common challenges shared by neurodiverse individuals, such as the difficulty in interpreting non-verbal prompts, and altering the physical layout of office space, to minimise high volumes of noise and lighting, as well as other sensory stimuli.

While some businesses are at the forefront of thinking in this area, all businesses evaluating their ESG programme should consider whether they are leaving a gap in their diversity and inclusion strategies.

There are a number of steps businesses can take to provide greater equality for neurodiverse individuals in the recruitment process, including:

  • Make it clear that the organisation welcomes neurodiverse individuals, such as by sharing on your website experiences of neurodivergent employees and how the business has supported them.
  • Implement a neurodiversity policy which allows for adjustments in the recruitment process, including:
    • allowing for an interview process that can be conducted over a longer period with more breaks
    • providing for alternative assessments, with a focus on performance-based tasks as opposed to one-to-one interviews
    • avoiding the use of psychometric tests
    • allowing neurodiverse job applicants to bring a supporter to the interview who can assist with communication and comfort
    • giving consideration to the physical environment where the recruitment process will take place - these spaces should take into account the challenges experienced by neurodivergents when faced with high levels of noise and bright lights
    • providing job applicants with the option to safely disclose their condition at various stages in the recruitment process.
  • Deliver training to recruitment managers and interviewers on neurodiverse conditions and on making adjustments to the recruitment process: how to phrase questions, allowing for breaks and how to avoid unconscious bias against unconventional behaviour.
  • Use clear and concise job descriptions with a breakdown of responsibilities and tasks involved. These job descriptions should also allow for a wider range of skills at the expense of generalist competency requirements.

That said, it is important to avoid oversimplistic labelling drawn from stereotypes and generalisations across all neurodiverse conditions – for example not all individuals with ADHD will find it difficult to concentrate. Individuals’ circumstances will vary, so employers must ensure their needs, and their strengths and weaknesses, are assessed on an individual basis throughout the recruitment process.

Is your organisation ready to embrace the individual in this way? Do your recruitment processes and your policies focus on your core values and foster an inclusive culture? We can advise on how to adapt your processes and policies and how best to bring them to everyone’s attention. In addition, we can provide training for recruitment managers and interviewers on workplace culture, discrimination and unconscious bias, and making adjustments to the recruitment process for neurodiverse individuals.