Neurodiversity and Disability Discrimination at Work
News from the UK indicates that cases of disability discrimination concerning neurominorities are on the rise; City AM Reports an increase of 40% for autism, 31% for ADHD and 14 dyslexia-related cases over the past year. This is not surprising given the exponential increase in cases overall, the result of better knowledge and screening across the field. There is also a thriving online community that shares knowledge. For employers, there is a disconnect and a scramble.
Employers have a disclosure problem. We have no visibility into the extent of neurodevelopmental differences in our workplaces, with no obligation for employees to disclose. Moreover, even voluntary reports of disability are sometimes not adequate, as many neurodivergent people do not see themselves as disabled, until they encounter a barrier in their performance and realize there is a barrier. It can come as a surprise to employers when they suddenly find that someone needs accommodations they don’t have, and they need to backtrack. Typically, critical points come with change: a new manager, a new location, a new software system, a promotion. It can also happen when the employee hits a saturation point, they may have brought work home or worked overtime to keep up, it could have been hidden. Something in their personal life means they can’t do that anymore and suddenly the wheels come off. For managers and HR trying to support the employee, it can feel like a disconnect.
midlife diagnosis crisis
For those of us who were diagnosed as adults, we have developed many coping strategies and internalized our problems. Getting a diagnosis turns into a process of self-discovery and as we peel back the layers of “you have to try harder” we realize we are blaming ourselves for things that could have been made easier for us for lack of some flexibility. . It can be a shock. Many neurodivergent adults enter a period of grief – “oh if only I had known this twenty years ago, my life would be so different!” Many of us may view this as a sense of unfairness, and when we approach our employers for accommodations to support us, this feeling can boil over. Employers may find this difficult to manage and trust may begin to crumble. Often, by the time HR is involved, it’s already a crisis.
To meet this demand, many employers are now doing their best to help diagnose those who suspect neurodivergence and understand how to make adjustments. There is a plethora of toolkits and practitioner literature flooding the space with tips and techniques. However, it is not always adequate and requires customization. It also requires careful commissioning, because if it all goes wrong and you end up in court, you have to justify the approach you’ve taken and the expertise you’ve hired. Organizations like the Disability Business Forumthe British Psychological Society, ICPD and the Occupational Medicine Society have business-oriented advice.
Plan pinch points
Neurodiversity has very positive press and certainly many neurodivergent people bring strengths to their work. Historically, neurodivergence as a disability has been handled in a reactive style, where companies assume all is well until there is a crisis and then they try to react. However, knowing that a significant minority in your business are likely to be neurominorities, you can plan for this. Rather than waiting, when the issues are more emotional and confrontational and more risky, get ahead. Neuroinclusion starts with a solid, evidence-based menu of adjustments and accommodations, a well-trained HR team, and guidance for managers. The best way to avoid litigation is to plan ahead and spot problems before they snowball.
Where to start?
If neuroinclusion seems complex, intangible and highly individual, that’s because it is. You didn’t miss a memo where everything you needed was in one place. In management and HR sciences, we are still at the limit and therefore there is not a slice of knowledge that meets all needs. However, there are good ground rules and getting started is easy. Determine what adjustments you can offer in terms of environment, technology, personal training/coaching, flexible hours and organize them as a menu or consulting offering; there are several specialized organizations to which you can subcontract. Most adjustments for this client group cost less than a quarter of the cost of rehiring. In a tight job market, it’s worth it.
Then, build adjustment conversations into all performance reviews so you can address issues at source for individuals. Build adjustment conversations into planned changes to prevent issues at source for teams. Due diligence in accommodation is the right course of action, regardless of the outcome. If they work, great; but if they don’t work, then trying hard will help you have an elegant separation from the business and protect you legally. Not everyone may be suitable for every job, but flexibility where you can reasonably apply it is the legal requirement and is therefore the most important aspect of managing legal risk.