An Autistic Hiring Manager Explains Neurodivergent Hiring

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Feb 5, 2020

Are you actively recruiting neurodivergent talent? If not, your programs may quickly become obsolete. Neurodivergent employees are eagerly entering the workplace, bringing along fresh perspectives and valuable skills. 

As an autistic hiring manager myself, I can tell you that all hiring managers must treat neurodivergent candidates with respect. We must all equip and empower these individuals to be the very best versions of themselves.

The good news is that business owners are starting to take note of this. They realize that companies with diverse teams are more successful. Inclusive companies are 1.7 times more likely to be leaders of innovation in their market. However, while many organizations recognize the need for and importance of employing diverse team members, the traditional hiring process makes it difficult for neurodivergent workers to get their foot in the door.

Traditional Job Interviews Are Failing Candidates

Employers are often unfamiliar with the unique ways in which neurodivergent people process the world around them and interact with others, leading to miscommunication and misunderstanding during the interview process. Many neurodivergent individuals report not knowing how to sell themselves in an interview and, due to their straightforward and sometimes literal communication style.

Additionally, an unenlightened interviewer may mistakenly disqualify neurodivergent talent based on traditional standards. Autistic people often may not give eye contact, may have touch sensitivities, or may experience anxiety about new situations. Yet many interviewers expect candidates to make eye contact, have a firm handshake, and answer questions in certain ways.

Consider this hypothetical situation: You’re interviewing Bob for a customer-service representative position. He arrives on time in the lobby, is dressed appropriately, and has a portfolio in hand. His experience is suited for the position. However, upon inviting Bob into your office to begin the interview, he does not look you in the eye or shake your hand. He moves anxiously and fidgets throughout the interview and sometimes takes long to answer questions.

Would Bob make the list of top candidates to consider for this position? If the answer is no due to such mannerisms, then you are already, likely unknowingly, letting bias steer your decision-making. 

My Personal Experience

Before I offer some advice on hiring neurodivergent talent, I’d like to share my own story.

I started working for my family’s hair-salon business in my pre-teens. While I did not interview for the position of helping manage day-to day operations, my mother held me to an extremely high standard, making a point to instill a strong work ethic. She was the first of many on-the-job mentors who offered strategic advice and coaching.

Many neurodivergent individuals, like myself, struggle to read between the lines. This can be crippling in the workforce. Identifying a guide who is willing to help decipher the unspoken is critical and has been instrumental in both my personal and professional success. 

My next job was in the fast-food industry. I was not required to interview for the role because I had friends on staff who vouched for me. This was key at the time because, at this point in my career, I did not know what to say or do in a job interview. However, I took my job very seriously and quickly became one of the most dedicated employees on staff, often putting the needs of the store above my own.

About a year later, I was training for an assistant manager position and started taking business and leadership courses at “Burger University,” a sarcastic unofficial nickname we had for the chain’s corporate training center. I attended every course possible at Burger University. 

I should disclose here that part of me being autistic involves an addiction to knowledge. If I am interested in a particular topic, process, item, etc., it is all I think about. My brain simply will not shut off. When I was a young adult, managing fast food was what I wanted to do more than anything else. I was hungry for all the training I could get. When harnessed correctly, this attribute is one of my greatest strengths. It is what managers often treasure about me.

Each of the training courses I attended at Burger University was beneficial, but the most impactful were those that explained proper hiring procedures and dove deeply into the nuances behind interviewing candidates. Through these courses, I learned a tool that many neurodivergent individuals will never have — an interview strategy that enabled me to differentiate interview questions and expectations.

For example, when asked, “How do you make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich?” an autistic person may naturally answer very literally, “I don’t like peanut butter” or “I prefer tuna.” Autistic candidates may not understand that the interviewer really wants to hear a pretty story about a fantasy sandwich that may not exist instead of whether you like peanut-butter sandwiches. 

For many autistic individuals, their communication style is typically literal and direct. Autistic people do not play games, and the interview is similar to a big probing cat-and-mouse game. After learning about interview strategy, I could ace almost any interview with formulaic precision; I understood what managers were looking for.

Here’s What You Can Do

Statistics show that at least 1 in 60 of the people you interview are likely to have an autism diagnosis, so if you’re failing to accommodate neurodivergent candidates, it is likely time for an upgrade.

Your mindset should not be based segregation — “neurodivergent people” vs. “normal people.” Neurodivergent individuals will pick up on this, and you may lose valuable candidates. Therefore, reconsider how you interview all candidates, not just your openly neurodivergent ones. 

Speaking of, while it would be great if candidates felt confident disclosing their neurodivergence during the interview process, many will not. They have learned long ago that sharing such information can result in fewer callbacks. Others, like me, may have discovered that they are neurodivergent relatively late in life, or may still be undiagnosed. (I was almost 30 when I discovered I was autistic.) It is up to you, the hiring manager, to ensure that your process is fair for all candidates, neurotypical and neurodivergent alike. Here’s are some ways to be more inclusive:

  • Make job descriptions clear and relevant. For example, ask yourself, “Does this position really need excellent written and verbal communication?” Neurodivergent individuals may struggle with such a demand. What if a qualified candidate has exceptional written communication but speaks with their mouths in limited capacities? Does this person genuinely have to multitask, or will the individual be able to block off chunks of time to work on one project at a time? 
  • Reformulate your interview questions so that they are more direct and less abstract. Avoid questions like, “If you visit any country, where would you go and why?” They likely have no connection to job tasks and responsibilities. Instead, lay out a specific problem that might arise in the job and have candidates outline steps to solve it.
  • Ask questions specific to the job tasks and skills and avoid hypothetical questions. 
  • Give an overview of your hiring process and be upfront in explaining how long it will take.
  • Let candidates know in advance, if possible, the types of interviews and screening techniques and tools you will be using.
  • Include skills-based interviews or work trials. Identify creative ways for candidates to show their abilities.
  • Don’t hyper-focus on social aspects. 

Remember: Neurodivergent is different, not broken. In a truly non-discriminatory environment, your hiring process would be so inclusive that you will not need someone to disclose a diagnosis for your interview to be fair. At the same time, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations during your hiring process. 

Specifically, Title I of the ADA protects the rights of both employees and job-seekers. Disclosing is often encouraged, especially if a candidate is asking for accommodations, but because the ADA also protects the privacy of people with disabilities, disclosure is not required. 

Lastly, I challenge you to look at the way you hire, onboard, train, communicate, and schedule time with each of your candidates and employes, not just the neurodivergent ones. Remember, every person has a unique work and communication style. Let’s honor that and meet people where they are so that everyone can show up feeling supported and do their best work.

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