I have to be honest, I hadn’t appreciated how ignorant I was on the subject of diversity. As a middle aged, western, white business owner I was pretty sure that I knew what people were talking about. I fully subscribe to equal pay for equal contribution, and returning mothers make a significant contribution even if the maternity laws don’t make it easy for small business owners. My millennial management team are colour and gender blind, so visibly we have diversity in the workforce.
So, to be honest, when involved at the coalface of running a business and you hear people championing diversity, a common reaction is to sigh and consider it another meddling in the running of a business. Another health and safety type initiative. More regulation to deal with, promoted by a self-serving HR industry borne out of the bottomless funding of the taxpayer.
I was awakened to diversity by a panel session at the IAB Leadership Summit. There, people shared their personal experiences and promoted the Diverse Minds conference I now found myself sitting in. I don’t mind admitting to feeling a little awkward, as Diverse Minds was not geared towards general diversity but neurodiversity. The majority of those attending were either neurodiverse or already committed to the movement. The movement being to change people's perceptions and open employers' minds to actively seeking a workforce that reflects the society we live in.
Those who spoke bravely shared their personal experiences and talked about ‘coming out’ with their personal diagnosis. I say diagnosis because it’s not a disease, it’s not even a condition. In my view it’s part of who they are and what I learned is that the diagnosis helps them and those they want to share it with understand who they are. By the way I think I am what’s termed neurotypical, what up to recently has been called 'normal'. I dislike labels but get this one because if you are not ‘normal’, what are you? Just a word like ‘normal’ creates a problem that is unnecessary.
So there I am, the middle-aged, grey-haired, white, western businessman sitting amongst neurodiverse zealots and I quickly start to understand. Not their diagnosis and the difference between Asperger's and autism. Not the challenges a dyslexic person faces in the work place or how ADD or ASD can hinder progression. I understand the massive opportunity for businesses to understand their current and future recruitment needs and how to harness the superpowers that are neurodiverse.
When I was at school if you couldn’t spell or read then you were thick and stupid. It didn’t matter that you were a brilliant artist, musician, sportsperson, actor, chemist or mathematician - everyone concentrated on what you were bad at, not what you were good at. It’s shameful that even now children are forced to study core subjects they aren’t any good at instead of the ones they excel at and enjoy.
Bill Gates, Einstein, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Anita Roddick; all neurodiverse. The list of genius neurodiverse people is endless. So why are 16% of autistic people unemployed? Is it because they are locked into their circumstances and can’t see a way out? Yes, different people are predisposed to different skills. So identify it, harness it and make a few reasonable adjustments. Show people the way out and benefit.
All the neurotypical need to do is realise that we are in fact ALL different and it is that very difference that gives us an advantage. We need to talk openly about being different so that different becomes typical.
Individuals have a right to be who they are. They don’t have a problem, society has a problem.
Business is driven by innovation. Innovation is driven by curiosity. Neurodiverse people ask direct and challenging questions. They are curious, hence they innovate. As one delegate told me “when people say think out of the box I can’t. The reason is because I don’t see a box”. It’s therefore not surprising that without the constraints of the neurotypical, those who were referred to as ‘odd’ were in fact just different and potentially a genius.
So it wont be plain sailing; everyone needs support and the type of support we need to give is different. Most businesses already employ neurodiverse people. They just don’t know it, or haven’t given the employee the confidence to ‘come out’ and be open about their difference and own it. But the facts speak for themselves. The reason why companies such as EY, SAP and Microsoft are targeting neurodiverse talent is not because they want to tick a corporate CSR box. It’s because there is a bottom line benefit of doing so. They employed them before without knowing it. Now it’s a business strategy to gain competitive advantage. In a talent short market, what is the logic in ignoring 20% of the workforce that are classified as ‘disabled’, whether visibly or invisibly?
So how do we effect change when the theoretical and practical collide? How can we open hiring managers' eyes to the opportunities of considering difference, when for years we have failed to consider transferable skills. How can we effect change when hiring managers are under short-term pressure to hire people who can 'hit the ground running'. (I would love to know what an autistic person makes of that phrase).
It has to come from the top. It takes real leadership because it is significant change. It is positively evolving the culture of the company to be inclusive and different. To reject the 'they won’t fit into my team' reason for rejecting candidates. To take a longer term view. To make reasonable adjustments and offer support. To create diverse workplaces we need to influence leadership. To influence leadership we need to show the bottom line benefit.
So after a day surrounded by the evangelists of neurodiversity, I recognise my ignorance and will seek to learn more and identify how both my company, Aspire, and our clients can benefit from an inclusive approach.
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