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HCM & Neurodiversity Inclusion in the Workplace

By Tatiana Arthur

There is a lot of discussion taking place on the topic of diversity. Most of this focuses on inclusion of employees with differing genders, ethnicities or other demographic characteristics. But, there is another form of diversity that is often overlooked, even though it affects about 3% of the population: neurodiversity.  Neurodiversity is the diversity of the human brain and mind – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our human species. When thinking of the neurodiverse population, think of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyslexia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for example.

Prominent technology firms like SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Microsoft, as well as industry-leading firms like EY, Deloitte, and JPMorgan Chase have begun fostering an inclusive working environment for neurodiverse employees. Conversations surrounding acquiring, managing and optimizing a neurodiverse workforce are occurring more and more frequently. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella feels that “…having an employee base that is representative of all backgrounds and abilities is one of our greatest strengths”. Many employers are embracing a neurodiverse workforce because they have found the benefits, such as an increase in productivity and a more robust talent pool to be an asset to their overall organizational dynamic.

In this blog, I’m going to share some of the things we at SAP have learned from our own experiences promoting neurodiversity. When SAP’s Autism at Work program initially began, it started with recruiting. SAP quickly came across many candidates who held advanced degrees and even patents, but little to no job history. Our experience confirmed research showing that talent is often missed because of overreliance on the interview process or lack of flexibility by the companies (Holland, R. Harvard Business Review). SAP’s experience with neurodiversity taught us that historical methodologies of human resource management are inadequate for creating a truly inclusive workplace. Human resources practitioners are challenged with the need to accommodate a working environment for every employee as opposed to expecting every employee to fit inside of a box.

I recently had a conversation with Tom Cory, a Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist and HR practitioner at SAP about this very topic. Tom explained the concept of “adaptive functioning” as being critical to developing an inclusive culture for neurodiverse employees. Adaptive functioning is a developmental psychology theory that examines how well a person handles common demands in life compared to others of a similar age and background. Neurodiverse employees often struggle with issues related to time management and etiquette (see figure above). But, these things are not necessarily critical to being successful in a role and can be learned and supported with certain HR benefits like coaching, behavioral health management insurance packages and state funded vocational rehabilitation programs. Adaptive functioning theory is utilized in the Vocational/ Rehabilitation space to look for additional factors that determine success in the workplace. In other words, ways people can be successful even if they do not fit into the traditional mold of an “effective employee”. While it is possible to look for positions that avoid adaptive functioning deficits, an employee will also work to have a growth based plan that will enable them to learn the adaptations they may be deficit in.

Rather than focusing on what people struggle to do, adaptive functioning focuses on what people do well and their ability to grow to reach full potential of a desired skill. And then, works to create a work environment where people are supported in doing what they do well. This is key to creating a neurodiverse inclusive work environment and has become a key element in SAP’s success in hiring and retaining neurodiverse employees. Jeffrey Wang is an HR practitioner as well as a cohort in SAPs Autism at Work program since 2015. An opportunity presented itself to speak to Jeff about this very topic and he said “The Autism at Work program definitely changed my life for the better. For one, the program set a solid foundation for me to build a network and develop work relationships. Not only that, it has provided a platform for me to find my voice and share my perspectives.” SAP’s focus to create a more neurodiverse culture has challenged us to shift from the mindset of strategy before people, to people before strategy.

To learn more about how to promote neurodiversity in your organization, I encourage you to check out the following informational resources:

  • Specialisterne is a global nonprofit organization that provides programs for talent and career development for autistic people. Specialisterne USA’s goal is to enable 100,000 jobs in the United States by 2025.
  • The Arc is the nation's leading advocate for all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families and the premier provider of the supports and services people want and need.
  • Neurodiversity in the Workplace is an initiative by The Arc of Philadelphia that provides career opportunities for people through specialized services and advocacy by connecting them with companies in the area.

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