Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Unlocking Potential and Fostering Inclusion

Rebecca Moulynox

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Rebecca Moulynox

Author

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In an era where diversity and inclusion are pivotal to innovation and productivity, Australian workplaces are slowly awakening to the untapped potential within an estimated 30 to 40 percent of their workforce[1] – the neurodivergent population. With an estimated 800 million to 1.2 billion neurodivergent individuals globally, the significance of embracing neurodiversity at work becomes increasingly evident.

Neurodiversity, a term that encompasses a spectrum of neurological differences such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and others, is gradually being recognised not just as a matter of inclusion but as a competitive advantage. However, despite this growing awareness, challenges remain in fully integrating and supporting neurodivergent individuals in the workplace.

The Current Landscape

The Current Landscape

The Australian Bureau of Statistics highlights that a significant portion of the Australian population is neurodiverse, yet many remain undisclosed in professional settings due to fears of discrimination or misunderstanding, leading to an estimated 35% of the neurodivergent population being unemployed or underemployed[2].  This reluctance stems from a historical context where neurodivergence was seen more as a liability than an asset. Given that the Diversity Council Australia Inclusion@Work Index 2023-2024 shows that 42% of workers with a disability experienced discrimination and/or harassment at work in the last 12 months[3],  it’s understandable why employees may not disclose their disability.

Yet, as Rob Austin, a professor at the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario, notes, every company employs neurodivergent individuals, whether they’re aware of it or not. The failure to recognise and support these individuals not only limits their potential but also hampers organisational growth.

According to Great Place To Work® research, when employees decline to share disability status or other parts of their identity in an employee survey, that’s an indicator of lower overall trust in the organisation. For every 10% of employees who chose not to respond to questions about their identity, there was a six-point decrease in overall levels of trust, pride, and camaraderie.  And why does that matter?  Companies lose more than morale when employees withhold their talents, creativity, energy and passion — they lose productivity, profitability, innovation, their competitive edge, and more. Research also reveals that disengagement costs Australian companies an estimated $211 billion every year[4].  So what causes disengagement? One key factor is a lack of trust. For people to be fully engaged, they need to be in an environment where they can be vulnerable and open. Vulnerability and openness are far more likely to occur when trust-based relationships exist.

What makes employees comfortable enough to share a diagnosis or cognitive difference? Employees are looking for signals of how open their employer will be to making space for individual needs.

Strategies for Inclusion

Achieving a neurodiverse-friendly workplace requires intentional strategies. Here’s how to build a more welcoming workplace for neurodivergent employees, which will benefit all your people.

1. Don’t stereotype or assume

Checking your bias helps when dealing with any member of your workforce, and neurodivergent workers are no exception.

“We can’t say that all divergent people will have trouble interacting socially because there’s actually some examples of people who’ve been hired into these programs who work really well in customer service roles.” notes Austin.

Companies that have implemented neurodiversity training programs are much more likely to make fewer assumptions about their employees.

Austin continues, “one of the things that some of these organisations have said to me is ‘we don’t assume anything anymore.’”  Instead, organisations get curious and investigate to learn what processes might work better.

When you ask people about their experience, you not only learn about the challenges they face, but also about their unique gifts.

Chandni Kazi, data scientist with Great Place To Work, has shared her personal story about her learning disability in a Ted Talk. When people made assumptions, she says she was labelled klutzy or forgetful. After her diagnosis, she learned that while she struggles with auditory sequential learning and short-term memory, she has a very strong visual memory and could lean into her strengths to offer unique perspectives on projects.

Sharing her diagnosis with her colleagues has been a liberating experience, she says.

“Sharing [my diagnosis] enables me to just ask for what I need…without sharing, I would be more shut down. I would be more reserved. I would be more cautious. And with sharing, I have more freedom to be innovative. I have more freedom to share what I’m thinking, give myself freedom to make mistakes.”

To avoid making unhelpful assumptions, Kazi recommends that employers find ways to focus on the strengths of their workers.

“As a hiring or people manager, please don’t focus on my weaknesses,” she says. “Think about how to elevate my strengths.”

Managers must also learn how to be patient collaborators to solve challenges that divergent employees face.

“I’m 33, diagnosed for the past 10-plus years, and I still don’t know exactly how I need to be supported,” says Kazi. “I’m constantly trying new things to determine what works for me and what doesn’t. Many solutions are short-term, and having variation in my style helps the most.”

2. Embrace a broader range of communication methods

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to accommodate neurodiversity in the workplace is to vary your communication channels and styles. Divergent employees can struggle with certain forms of communication and broadening your messaging can be extremely beneficial.

Austin gives some simple examples:

  • Circulate the agenda for a meeting before the meeting.
  • Record the meeting so people can watch the meeting again if they didn’t absorb it the first time.
  • Present ideas in various formats — visuals as well as text.

Kazi’s team does a “Mad Hatter” exercise: A question is asked, then everyone takes a couple minutes to think about their response and then share at the same time. From there, a discussion starts around what everyone has shared with the group.

“Things like that allow me to gather my thoughts, write them down, and make sure that’s what I want to say — and then share,” Kazi says.

Otherwise, she can find herself overwhelmed by the pace of the conversation and unable to track the argument, perhaps misremembering points she wanted to make.

3. Investigate the cost of offering accommodations

Contrary to common misconceptions, accommodating neurodivergent employees is neither prohibitively expensive nor unfeasible. Research from the Australian Network on Disability reveals that 65% of accommodations are cost-neutral, with 20% resulting in financial benefits[5]. These adjustments can be as simple as flexible communication methods or environmental modifications, demonstrating that inclusion does not have to come at a high cost.

That makes sense when you look at accommodations such as sending an agenda before a meeting or recording your Zoom calls.

“People might be very sensitive to certain kinds of sensory stimulus,” Austin gives as an example. If an employee can’t work in the presence of fluorescent lights that flicker at a certain frequency or in a highly noisy environment, the accommodations might be noise-cancelling headphones or changing the lighting.

When you investigate the specifics, it starts to feel very manageable.

“In the programs that are really making strides, we see them establish a formal process for accommodations, and usually the process is not just for divergent people,” Austin says.

Once you agree to meet the individual needs of workers — and can see the relatively low cost to meeting some of those needs — companies can make a big difference in the experience of their people.

“The cost involved in accommodations is more than worth the value of activating the talent on the other side of the equation,” Austin says.

Kazi also recommends that employers find ways to stay flexible as employees’ needs might change over time.

“Things can change,” she says. “In the first couple months at your job, you’re not going to say much because you’re still learning everything and trying to take it all in. But after a while, you can really understand the best way you learn at your company — and I think that’s great for anyone.”

Jim Mullin, CEO of Amaze supports this “It is helpful to consider workplace adjustments as a process of continuous improvement. The sensory experience for many neurodivergent team members only reveals itself over time. Committing to continuously checking in with your employees to ensure that they have the right supports in place will help support optimum performance from team members. At Amaze, we take this approach to support the performance of all team members”[6].

Studies have also shown that neurodivergent individuals often exhibit unique strengths, such as heightened abilities in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics, translating into tangible benefits for their employers. Employers who have embraced neurodiversity report improved innovation, productivity, and employee engagement across the board.

People with disability also often surpass their counterparts without disability in terms of loyalty and productivity in the workplace. Research cited by the Australian Network on Disability indicates that 90% of employees with disability record productivity rates equal or greater than other workers and 86% have average or superior attendance records[7].  Demonstrating the financial benefits of accommodating an employee with a disability.

4. Develop support circles

Many companies have found success in offering divergent employees a support network or support circle, Austin says. These interventions can include professional coaching or resources to help navigate a work environment that wasn’t designed for their success.

External coaches can be particularly useful as divergent employees might need to talk to people about things that aren’t specific to the workplace, but will have an effect on their success.

“Someone might need to talk about things that aren’t within the realm of what companies are usually comfortable talking about,” Austin says.

A divergent employee might be taking their first ever job at your company, or living on their own for the first time. They might not have the life experience you might expect in a traditional hire.

“Can I afford that car? Is the rent of that apartment too high? These are not things companies really want to talk with their employees about,” Austin says.

An external coach or counsellor can fill that gap.

“Individual companies have differences in their support systems, but almost all of them have external and internal support,” Austin says.

 5. Find the right partner in executive leadership

No program to support neurodivergent employees will succeed without executive sponsorship.

“The difference between programs that keep getting better and bigger, and those that plateau or stay indefinitely in pilot phase, is executive support,” Austin says.

“If employees are getting consistent signals from executive levels of the company that this is a long-term priority for the company, that’s a lot different from having an executive who was super enthusiastic about this, and then he left for another company.”

For Kazi, having a CEO who shares his life story is particularly meaningful.

“If someone is being vulnerable, you can be vulnerable with your own story as well,” she says. “It just makes it feel like more of a warm, inviting space.”

 6. Tie your program to business goals

Austin’s search has shown the importance of staying rooted in the language of business performance and the bottom line.

“Of course the social benefits are really important,” he says. “This is transformative to people who thought they were unemployable, or have been labelled unemployable, and now suddenly they’re tech company workers.”

But those reasons are often not enough to ensure a program survives in the face of economic trouble or hardship within a company.

“If you talk too much in those terms, then people get the wrong framing for the program,” Austin says. “Companies will get the idea that this is some sort of a charitable act as opposed to a way of creating real business value.”

Research shows that efforts to support neurodivergent employees are just as good for the company as they are for employees.

An example comes from initiatives like SAP’s neurodiversity program; the returns are already significant and extend well beyond simply enhancing the company’s image. Benefits observed include enhancements in productivity and quality, increased innovation, and a marked rise in employee engagement across the board. According to Nick Wilson, the managing director of HPE South Pacific, which runs one of the most comprehensive programs of this kind, no other project within the organisation has produced such a wide array of advantages[8].

An unexpected yet valuable outcome has been the shift in managerial approaches towards a more nuanced understanding and utilisation of every employee’s unique abilities. Silvio Bessa, SAP’s senior vice president of digital business services, shares that the program has cultivated a deeper awareness of individual employees’ needs, substantially improving his skills as a manager. This shift towards personalised management underscores the program’s broader impact on enhancing leadership effectiveness and overall workplace dynamics[9].

 

Not a breakthrough but an evolution

Companies like EY, SAP, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise have led the way in neurodiversity employment programs, witnessing firsthand the benefits of such initiatives. From enhanced problem-solving capabilities to increased productivity and innovation, the advantages extend beyond the neurodivergent employees to the workforce at large.

Embracing neurodiversity is not merely a trend but a necessary evolution in the way we think about talent and productivity in the modern workplace. With the right strategies, support systems, and attitudes, Australian businesses can lead the charge in creating inclusive environments where every individual has the opportunity to thrive.

The principles of continuous improvement championed by W. Edwards Deming remain pertinent today, especially in the context of fostering cultural change within organisations. The journey towards embedding practices and normalising diversity and inclusion in the workforce resembles the gradual and persistent process of coastal erosion more closely than it does sudden moments of revelation or breakthroughs. This perspective underscores the importance of steady, incremental progress in achieving substantial and lasting organisational transformation.

The journey towards fully inclusive workplaces is ongoing, but the case for neurodiversity in the Australian workforce is clear.  By acknowledging and leveraging the unique talents of neurodivergent individuals, companies can foster innovation, enhance productivity, and create a more inclusive and equitable society. As awareness grows and practices evolve, the hope is for a future where neurodiversity is not just accommodated but celebrated as a vital component of organisational success.

Learn more about your workforce.  Use Great Place To Work® Certification™  to get unmatched data on how employees feel about their work.

Rebecca Moulynox

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Great Place To Work® Best Workplaces™ in Australia 2024 Evaluation Methodology

Great Place To Work determines the list using our proprietary For All methodology. To determine the Best Workplaces in Technology list, Great Place To Work analyses the survey responses of tens of thousands of employees from Great Place To Work Certified™ companies in the technology industry.

Our survey enables employees to share confidential quantitative and qualitative feedback about their organization’s culture by responding to 60 statements on a 5-point scale and answering two open-ended questions. Collectively, these statements describe a great employee experience, defined by high levels of trust, respect, credibility, fairness, pride, and camaraderie. In addition, companies provide organizational data like size, location, industry, demographics, roles, and levels. Great Place To Work measures the differences in survey responses across demographic groups and roles within each organization to assess both the quality and consistency of the employee experience.

Statements are weighted according to their relevance in describing the most important aspects of an equitable workplace. Survey data analysis and company-provided datapoints are then factored into a combined score to compare and rank the companies that create the most consistently positive experience for all employees in this industry.

To be considered for the list, companies must be Great Place To Work Certified™ and nominate as a company in the technology industry.

We require statistically significant survey results, review anomalies in responses, news, and financial performance, and investigate any employee reports of company incompliance with strict surveying rules to validate the integrity of the results and findings. 

Categories

These organisations’ assessment is based 100% on employee responses to the Trust Index survey.

  • Micro 10-29 Employees
  • Small 30-99 Employees
  • Medium 100-999 Employees
  • Large 1000+ Employees

Great Place To Work® Best Workplaces™ in Australia 2023 Evaluation Methodology

Great Place To Work determines the list using our proprietary For All methodology. To determine the Best Workplaces in Technology list, Great Place To Work analyses the survey responses of tens of thousands of employees from Great Place To Work Certified™ companies in the technology industry.

Our survey enables employees to share confidential quantitative and qualitative feedback about their organization’s culture by responding to 60 statements on a 5-point scale and answering two open-ended questions. Collectively, these statements describe a great employee experience, defined by high levels of trust, respect, credibility, fairness, pride, and camaraderie. In addition, companies provide organizational data like size, location, industry, demographics, roles, and levels. Great Place To Work measures the differences in survey responses across demographic groups and roles within each organization to assess both the quality and consistency of the employee experience.

Statements are weighted according to their relevance in describing the most important aspects of an equitable workplace. Survey data analysis and company-provided datapoints are then factored into a combined score to compare and rank the companies that create the most consistently positive experience for all employees in this industry.

To be considered for the list, companies must be Great Place To Work Certified™ and nominate as a company in the technology industry.

We require statistically significant survey results, review anomalies in responses, news, and financial performance, and investigate any employee reports of company incompliance with strict surveying rules to validate the integrity of the results and findings. 

Great Place To Work® Best Workplaces for Women™ List Methodology

The Best Workplaces for Women™list is determined using Great Place To Work’sFor All™methodology to evaluate hundreds of Certified™Great Place To Work®organisations across Australia.   

Data is based on over 40,000 employee survey responses from women in Great Place To Work® Certified™ organisations across Australia. 

The survey 

The survey enables employees to share confidential quantitative and qualitative feedback about their organisation’s culture by responding to 60 statements on a 5-point scale and answering two open-ended questions. 

Collectively, these statements describe a great employee experience, defined by high levels of trust, respect, credibility, fairness, pride, and camaraderie. In addition, companies provide organisational data like size, location, industry, and the number of women in the workforce and management positions. 

Considerations 

Great Place To Work analysed the gender balance of each workplace, how it compares to each company’s industry, and patterns in representation as women rise from front-line positions to executive/C-suite roles. 
Survey data analysis and women’s representation figures are then factored into a combined score to compare and rank the companies that create the most consistently positive experience and opportunities for all women, regardless of their role or demographic background.   

Eligibility   

To be considered for the list, companies must be Great Place To Work Certified™. Companies must also employ at least 50 women. We require statistically significant survey results, review anomalies in responses, and investigate any employee reports of company in compliance with strict surveying rules to validate the integrity of the results and findings. 

Please note this list is NOT ranked. 

Great Place To Work® Best Workplaces™ in Australia 2023 Evaluation Methodology

Great Place To Work, the global authority on workplace culture, determined the Best Workplaces™ Australia 2023 List by conducting annual workforce studies through our Trust Index Survey™ and Culture Management platform Emprising®, representing the voices of almost 50,000 employees across Australia.

Employees responded to over 60 survey questions describing the extent to which their organisation creates a great place to work For All™, meaning that the company empowers all individuals to reach their full human potential. Eighty-five percent of the evaluation is based on what employees report about their experiences of trust and reaching their full human potential as part of their organisation, no matter who they are or what they do. We analyse these experiences relative to each organisation’s size, workforce make up, and what’s typical in their industry and region. The remainder of the evaluation is an assessment of all employees’ daily experiences of the company’s values, people’s ability to contribute new ideas, and the effectiveness of their leaders to ensure they’re consistently experienced.

To ensure surveys truly represent all employees, we require enough people in each organisation to respond that results are accurate to a 95% confidence level and 5% margin of error or better. We review any anomalies in survey responses, news and financial performance to ensure there aren’t any extraordinary reasons to believe we couldn’t trust a company’s survey results.

 

Categories

These organisations’ assessment is based 100% on employee responses to the Trust Index survey.

For larger organisations with more than 100 employees, we also use our Culture Audit™ tool, asking organisations to share with us their practices, policies and programs to creating a great workplace For All™ and evaluating the approach they take.

Why do you say in one place your national list scoring is based on 85%/15% and in another place that it is 75%/25%?

We are explaining two different things:

1.  The criteria we evaluate

2.  Where the data comes from