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Power of difference

Kate Cooper, Head of Research, Policy & Standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management discusses its recent research, ‘Workplace neurodiversity: the power of difference’(i)

Writing in Business Insider(ii) recently, Bank of America’s Chief Information Security Officer Craig Froelich urged employers to be more attuned to the experience of neurodiverse individuals – not just to harness their talents, but to ensure their needs are met in the workplace.

Froelich drew comparisons between the sounds of working at home and those in the office, which was brought to his attention by one of his neurodiverse colleagues before the COVID-19 pandemic:

“I can hear every conversation of the people on my floor. I can hear the resistance of your shoes as they glide against the carpet. I can hear the high-pitched noise from the ceiling lights. I can hear all the pings on the computer and all the rings on the phone. I can hear the building shift and the wind outside the double-paned glass. I hear everything.”

Froelich went on to discuss why cybersecurity has a constant demand for outside-the-box thinking, pattern recognition, idea generation and problem solving – all hard-to-find skills that often exist among neurodiverse individuals.


ILM’s recent research on workplace shows that it is vital for organisations to establish a supportive environment for neurodiverse people. Pattern recognition, ideas generation and a different approach to problem solving are key identifiers of the additionality that neurodiverse individuals can provide, not just in cybersecurity.

The majority of diagnosed autistics, dyspraxics and dyscalculics who responded to the survey reported that people in their workplaces behave in ways that exclude them, with just under half of dyslexics and people who have ADHD/ADD having similar experiences.

The private sector seems to be the least friendly place for neurodivergents. The research indicated that the third and public sector seem to be more inclusive places where more neurodivergent people are employed and where it appears to be more acceptable to be open about the conditions. Not being able to bring your true self to work is not a situation an enlightened employer should find acceptable. Hiding one’s true self requires energy and can be anxiety-provoking; energy that would be better spent on one’s work. Being anxious about relationships with colleagues adds to the complexity of collaborating with co-workers.

A key finding from our research is that workplaces are far less inclusive for neurodivergent people than neurotypical people believe. The majority of neurotypicals think their workplace encourages behaviours that are inclusive of neurodivergent people, but half or less, of autistics, dyscalculics and people who have attention deficit disorders (ADHD/ADD), don’t agree.


Many neurotypical respondents are confident that reasonable adjustments for neurodivergents are made during recruitment and selection processes, but many autistics, dyscalculics and dyslexics disagreed. As a result, they are not attracting and recruiting enough talented neurodivergents because the processes, not the applicants, are wrong.

A perception gap between what managers think is happening and how that is experienced by others in the organisation is a consistent and recurrent finding, almost irrespective of the issue being researched. Nevertheless, this research highlights how detrimental this perception gap can be on the day-to-day experience of neurodivergents at work. Although the findings show there are varying levels of inclusion in different sectors, there is a serious absence of references to neurodiversity in official policies and procedures.

Recruitment and selection processes are crucial in ensuring that no one fails at the first hurdle. A first step is to make an explicit statement applications are welcomed from neurominorities and reasonable adjustments throughout the selection process are there for neurodivergent applicants.

The interview process itself, where applicants are presented with unfamiliar questions, given little time to formulate responses and where there are high expectations of eye contact, can cause underperformance in autistics. The interview is an artificial situation and one that may not reflect the everyday role, yet performance in the interview is still considered to be a predictor of job success. The use of desk tasks where applicants have time to provide answers to questions, without the pressure of in-the-moment expectations, are much closer to most people’s daily work demands.

Similarly, selection tests that place candidates under artificial time pressures that they wouldn’t normally face in the job role can place neurodivergents at a disadvantage, due to different processing speeds and abilities. Tests requiring high level of intense focus may disadvantage some people with ADHD, while others may benefit from this depending on the profile of their traits.

Tasks requiring rapid word or number processing can disadvantage dyslexics and dyscalculics, while those using unfamiliar computers and physical tools can impair dyspraxics.

Business leaders should look to providing more unconscious bias and inclusion training for all staff, along with ensuring managers are fully aware of the range of reasonable adjustments that can be made to support neurodivergent staff. We also recommend organisations review their policies and procedures on inclusion, bullying and harassment to ensure they include provisions for their neurodivergent colleagues. A fully inclusive workforce is not only likely to be more innovative and productive but also more compassionate, an environment that is good for all employees.

About Sarah OBeirne

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