Neurodiversity at Work: Professor Amanda Kirby

We talked to Professor Kirby author of Neurodiversity at Work: Drive Innovation, Performance and Productivity with a Neurodiverse Workforce, and discovered more about her passion for encouraging more neurodiversity in the workplace, and how organisations can help to make the recruitment process fairer and more equitable to encourage greater inclusivity.

This article is taken from the latest issue of Think Global People magazine.Click on the cover to access the digital edition.

In a globally competitive market where there is a shortage of talent and an exodus of staff from the office, how can organisations attract and retain a diverse range of employees?Professor Amanda Kirby, Author of Neurodiversity at Work: Drive Innovation, Performance and Productivity with a Neurodiverse Workforce, founder and CEO of Do-IT Solutions and a qualified GP, argues that using the talents of neurodivergent employees could provide some of the answers to the talent gap. She says that if we are to use the best skills of a diverse workforce, then it needs to be more than a token gesture if it is to succeed. Currently, the workplace and the recruitment process are designed for neurotypical employees.

Why is it so important to attract, recruit and engage neurodiverse talent?

“We construct our workplace for neurotypical people,” Professor Kirby explains. “We've always had neurodivergent talent, and we have always had neurodivergent people in society. This pool of talent has got certain strengths and challenges. They don't always get into work, and they don't always stay in work.“We need to be thinking that neurodiversity isn't a thing that we're just interested in now. Instead, it should be about reducing the inequity in society.”Having quotas of people with different diagnoses is also not the way forward, she says.“Not everyone will have a label, get a label, or want to be labelled as neurodivergent. Instead, we should be thinking about helping people to progress and develop their own skills and talents. Putting the right measures in place around recruitment, retention and communication will help everybody, build a more cohesive workplace, and improve cooperation and communication in teams.”Professor Kirby is author of Neurodiversity at Work, a book which explains neurodiversity and how to attract, recruit and engage neurodiverse talent. The book also provides guidance on how to adapt HR policies, processes and workplaces to ensure that all employees, including the 20% of employees in the UK who are neurodiverse, can reach their full potential.She is founder and CEO of Do-IT Solutions and worked in adult psychiatry and stress management early in her career. When her second child was diagnosed with Dyspraxia at age three, she changed focus and became an expert on neurodiversity. She set up an interdisciplinary specialist centre for parents, and works to improve awareness around neurodiversity and to help spread advice about best practice in education and employment.She is an emeritus professor at the University of South Wales and has delivered consultancy, tools, and training to UK and international organisations including South Wales Police, JISC, Post Office, Admiral, JP Morgan, the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).

What changes do managers and HR departments need to make in order to accommodate this?

Many people are excluded from the workplace, despite them having talent, because the workplace has been constructed in a way that is difficult for them to navigate.“Not only are the systems difficult for neurodivergent people to navigate, they also make it hard for parents with neurodivergent children to stay in the workforce, given the extra demands and pressures that they face in parenting,” she says.For people who do things differently and think differently, the current workplace environment is about trying to fit in, rather than allowing people to play to their strengths and manage their challenges.“Our work systems are not flexible enough to include everybody – the workplace in most organisations currently works only for people who fit a certain mould,” she says. She cites the example of a female CEO whom she knows needs to be able to stop work at 3.30pm in order to care for a neurodivergent child, but who would be happy to start working again in the evening if her workplace allowed that flexibility.“An organisation needs to look at its staff and see whether it is losing people or parents along the way. If it is, it needs to question why that is and what practices are contributing to the exodus,” Professor Kirby says.“Think about the environment of your workplace and ask yourself: are we overly rigid in the way we operate and does that exclude some people? Should we allow term-time working and be more flexible for parents who need to cover school holidays? Could our staff go home and pick up children from school and then work in the evenings when they are in bed? Lots of people are quite happy to do that but their work doesn’t offer that flexibility.”She says this flexibility would be particularly attractive to people in the “sandwich generation” who have the dual caring responsibilities of children and older parents. Many of them end up leaving the workforce, working part time, or struggling with stress and burnout because they cannot balance all the different demands of work and life.

How can the recruitment process be fairer and more equitable?

Professor Kirby suggests that for many organisations, diversity falls at the first hurdle of the recruitment process. Generally, job ads and the interview process are not designed to be fully inclusive.“Even before the interview stage, you need to make sure the application process is inclusive,” she says. “You need to ensure that the words you use, the readability that you're offering, is clear and explains the whole process. People can't ask for support if they don’t know what's going to happen in the process.”Options might be to interview over Teams or Zoom in order to fit in with a person’s commitments and to help them feel relaxed with the process. It would mean neurodivergent people might not have to have the stress of travel and would understand what the process involved from start to finish. By providing lots of information about the process, it will feel inclusive to everyone who is thinking about applying. The interview process also needs rethinking in order to accommodate the differing needs and responses of neurodivergent people.“In the formal job interview, we favour people who can answer questions quickly. Yet what we might really want is people who can reflect and think carefully about a question,” she says. “Organisations need to check the biases and understand who they could be losing by trying to have a cultural fit rather than a cultural mix,” she says.

How might managers see the world from the point of view of neurodivergent staff and how can they integrate their skills into the workplace?

By ensuring that teams and managers are communicating clearly, there are benefits to be gained across all staff members, she says. “There are challenges if you don't communicate effectively with your team. Everyone has different communication preferences and styles.”Professor Kirby runs e-learning programmes for embracing neurodiversity and having better conversations at work.“We have an advanced practitioner course, which is online, in bite sized pieces that you can access over a period of time,” she says. “It is about upskilling people and thinking about how we provide support across the whole organisation because not everyone or everything has a label, and not everyone gets a diagnosis. Instead, it is about providing practical strategies.”She believes there is a danger that organisations will be tempted to revert back to type and end up with rules about which days staff need to be back in the office, which defeats some of the purpose of hybrid working.“Companies are starting to try to define hybrid working – for example, hybrid means everyone's got to be in the office on a Monday or Friday or two days a week,” she says. “When we try to define it, it stops working for everybody. So again, we're trying to move people into a set workplace shape, dictating that this is the formula and this is the way we work.Rather than listening to a parent who is saying: I've got a young child and I need to continue working, I can work four days a week, but I need to be at home at 3.30pm to pick my children up, organisations try to define what working hours mean. But this can be counterproductive, she says.“If you are flexible and understanding, that valued member of staff could continue working for you for the next ten years. If you are overly rigid, you will end up losing talent. People have messy lives. That means they're coping with a wide range of challenges outside work, from moving house to death, divorce, marriage and all sorts of other things going on in their lives. In order to keep people we need to recognise that variability and harness it.”

What about stereotypes?

Professor Kirby warns that when thinking about attracting and retaining a neurodiverse workforce, it is important not to stereotype people. It is wrong, for example, to think that everyone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will be interested in computing and have an analytical approach.“We've got to be careful about stereotypes,” she says. “When we're attracting talent, some people will have very good analytical skills and they may be on the autism spectrum. Some won't and it shouldn’t be a case of hiring for talent by label. This is about mental well-being across the whole organisation. Look at retention, attraction and progression figures. It’s not about quotas, because if you are looking for labels then you are already have a social bias because you're recruiting white middle class men who can get a diagnosis.“Also, we shouldn’t be thinking about presenteeism as a measure of productivity or absenteeism as not being interested. Instead, think about how are we productive? If staff are working from home and are highly effective, then why do you want to make them come in? Productivity is the best measure. Why make people, especially neurodivergent people, attend a physical meeting which involves two hours of travel time, when you could meet online instead? If you're micromanaging, often you're constraining people rather than encouraging people.”

How to start the neurodiversity conversation

Professor Kirby says that to start raising awareness across the workforce, mangers and colleagues can invite “respectful and curious conversations” to start happening. If team members improve their communications skills, then everyone will work better together.  “If you are respectful and curious, you will find out what people's experiences are. You will get feedback around what's working, and what is not working, because every organisation is different in terms of its staff and how it's run.”“That means having those conversations, expressing communication preferences. Perhaps some people would prefer email communication, or bullet points rather than long paragraphs.”Professor Kirby works in Australia, New Zealand, India, America and Europe, and says while in North America there has been a lot of focus on autism, there is a lack of understanding around other neurodivergent traits. The good news is that in some global companies these open conversations are starting to happen, and organisations are thinking about how they use language and communication.“It is about thinking how neurodiversity as a concept can traverse different cultures, different countries, and what is means in different places,” she says. “How does that transpose in other countries and cultures, and what effect does different healthcare systems have on access to diagnosis and understanding? These are all helpful starting points.”Managers can start to ask questions such as: What is inclusive? What are our communication challenges? What are we misunderstanding?  Looking to the future, she says neurodiversity should be “hard baked into an organisation” rather than used as a token gesture.“Otherwise, it feels like just another gesture, and that can cause resentment,” she says. “All of us have got messy lives and face different challenges throughout our lives. Let's have a more flexible approach to the workplace and enable people to adapt and evolve over time.” That way, we harness and keep the best talent, and give people the opportunity to develop and grow.

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