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Accessing neurodiverse talent key to filling skills gap

Andrea Girlanda, Chief Executive - auticon

The current skills gap in the STEM sector is reportedly costing businesses £1.5bn per year, and with 9 out of 10 STEM businesses struggling to recruit there’s a shortfall of around 173,000 skilled workers.[1] Yet, making changes to longstanding recruitment processes and working practices could hold the key to unlocking a vast and diverse talent pool.

Accessing neurodiverse talent
Neurodiverse people, such as those with a diagnosis of autism spectrum condition, often have exceptional skills such as pattern recognition, logical thinking, central coherence (attention to detail)  and accuracy, which make autistic candidates strong contenders for many STEM roles requiring these capabilities.

A recent study has shown that only one in five autistic people are in employment, with further evidence to suggest that underemployment is also a significant issue for autistic talent, i.e. of those who are employed, many are in roles that do not make good use of their skills and experience.

Some of the ‘unwritten rules’ in the workplace and systems endemic to the recruitment process can place autistic adults at a disadvantage. For instance, team or departmental customs and challenges in social interactions such as eye contact, the interpretation of facial expressions, or the use of sarcasm or irony can make it stressful for autistic people to navigate everyday work interactions all the way from the recruitment process to the job itself.

At auticon, a social enterprise which exclusively employs autistic adults as IT consultants, we bypass many of the traditional HR practices (such as formal interviews) that can often disadvantage autistic talent. If you begin to drill down into how many processes have an informal element – from networking and word of mouth recommendations, through to the content of job adverts and formal interview situations – it becomes evident that they all have the potential to be highly challenging for someone who is autistic.

For some roles, especially those with a strong technical requirement, it is possible to find quality talent through a series of more generalised assessments and diagnostic tests to check aptitude and skills, followed by more relaxed and informal ‘conversations’ that significantly reduce much of the pressure and anxiety that so often goes hand-in-hand with the traditional assessment systems.

Recognising and overcoming common barriers
It is no secret that the more diverse a team is, the more successful and productive it is likely to be. By committing to optimising inclusivity, organisations stand to maximise their access to the best talent.

In order to kickstart this process, it is crucial that businesses recognise and understand where significant barriers may be present in their organisation so they can be overcome.

Often the changes needed are not actually that sizeable and, with the right support to underpin them and appropriate training, both businesses and individuals can reap the rewards.

Fiona Sage, Chief Claims Officer for Zurich Insurance PLC, was introduced to auticon by a colleague after she mentioned she was struggling to fill a data scientist / analyst role. She says, “I was used to a traditional process of screening CVs and an interview process, but auticon was entirely different. auticon explained how the interview environment could make it hard for autistic people to perform well, so I had to place my trust in the auticon team to find the right candidate with the skills and capabilities we were looking for and our consultant has certainly delivered.”

Providing and accessing support
Research shows that employers can often be nervous of ‘doing or saying the wrong thing’ when it comes to employing neurodiverse employees, so it’s important that organisations know that support is available to help navigate conversations. For example, at auticon we provide ongoing regular access to a job coach who will train the teams who will be working with autistic personnel. Further, the coach will be available to check in every so often with the employer and the employee(s). This makes a huge difference in terms of providing reassurance and managing expectations around expected behaviours and the reasonable adjustments that can be made. The accommodations include things like alternative start/finish times to fit employees’ preferred working patterns (so as to avoid exhaustion and burn out), the optimal positioning of a work station, through to navigating around any miscommunication issues should they arise.

A personalised, consultative approach is best
The pandemic has highlighted some interesting considerations for autistic talent because the requirement for most people to work from home has reduced many of the cumulative stressors that can be a part of a busy commute or office environment. Physically, these might include bright lights or noisy spaces – and as well as potentially unexpected or unplanned social interactions such as small talk, or ‘quick chat’ type discussions that can be commonplace in an office. These all can generate stress for autistic employees. The move to home working has meant communication is conducted predominantly via email or instant messaging. Although this method can create complications of its own, it generally gives consultants more time to process and plan their responses to interactions.

For some, therefore, the choice to move towards a permanent homeworking set-up that the pandemic has paved the way for makes for a preferred work option. For some however, the routine of office-working is favoured because it brings structure and consistency – something that is harder to maintain at home in lockdown. So, as with most things, a consultative and personalised approach is preferable to an assumption that ‘one size fits all’. If in doubt, ask the individual.

Be clear!
It is amazing how ambiguous our communication can often be. For example, “She’s driving me up the wall” when what is actually meant is: “She is really annoying me”. Or, “Can you take a look at this for me?”, when the request is really more akin to: “I would like you to read this, write a precis, and then recommended actions that the business should take”.

At best our colloquialisms and shorthand are confusing, but for someone who is neurodiverse these sorts of statements are completely nonsensical and can be extremely hard to navigate. Crucially, HR leaders can pave the way by encouraging all employees to be conscious of using clear and specific communication – it is good practice for everyone, not just those who are autistic.

Chris Evans, Head of Claims Performance & Analytics for Zurich Insurance PLC, has been line managing auticon consultant, Lars Backstrom, since October 2020. He says: “By working with Lars I’ve learned to think differently about things, as well as how to express myself clearly…understanding the importance of being unequivocally clear in expressing our needs and wants. This is particularly important when you work in data, because if someone doesn’t stress their requirement exactly, you can come up with the wrong thing entirely! This insight has been not only beneficial for working with Lars, but for everyone really.”

Creating an environment where people can bring their unique experiences and perspectives
Committing to a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) strategy that encompasses neurodiversity is vital to business success, especially as industries continue to evolve at pace and against an increasingly challenging and volatile backdrop of unpredictable global events such as Covid-19. We see time and time again that neurodiversity often gets forgotten in the D&I conversation – but bringing varied perspectives and skills onboard makes for more agile, creative, and successful teams, thereby enabling businesses to not only survive but thrive.

Providing an accessible, fair, and safe organisational space with the right supports in place to ensure everyone can function to the best of their ability is something that benefits everyone, not just autistic employees. But in industries where Talent Acquisition teams are crying out for highly skilled specialists, breaking down barriers to get autistic talent through the door is a great step in the right direction.

[1] https://www.stem.org.uk/news-and-views/news/skills-shortage-costing-stem-sector-15bn

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