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Ep 609: Building A Neuro-Inclusive Hiring Process

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Somewhere between 15% and 20% of the population is neurodivergent. The majority have yet to receive a formal diagnosis, and a significant number of those with a diagnosis choose not to share it publically. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a growing number of employers taking steps to be more neuro-inclusive, which is great to see. However, there is still a long way to go with recruiting, as most hiring processes contain significant barriers for neurodiverse people. There is also a danger that the move to AI-driven recruiting may make things worse if neuro-inclusion isn’t proactively prioritized.
So, what steps can employers take to embed neuro-inclusion in their recruiting processes effectively?

My guest this week is Tania Martin, a neuro-inclusion consultant who was previously Head of EY’s Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence in the UK and Ireland. In our conversation, Tania discusses the shortcomings of the traditional recruiting process and how we can rethink it to be better for everyone.
In the interview, we discuss:

• Harnessing neurodiversity in the workforce

• How EY’s Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence was set up

• Why can making recruiting processes more neuro-inclusive be good for everyone?

• Accessing untapped pools of talent

• Intimidating job specs

• Assessment and spiky profiles

• Helping people to show their best selves during the interview process

• Educating hiring managers

• The role of technology

• What will neuro-inclusion look like for future generations in the workforce?

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[Recruiting Future theme]

Matt: Hi there, welcome to Episode 609 of Recruiting Future with me, Matt Alder. Somewhere between 15% and 20% of the population is neurodivergent. The majority have yet to receive a formal diagnosis and a significant number of those with a diagnosis choose not to share it publicly. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a growing number of employers taking steps to be more neuro-inclusive and that’s great to see. However, there’s still a long way to go with recruiting as most hiring processes contain significant barriers for neurodivergent people. There’s also a danger that the move to AI-driven recruiting may make things worse if neuro-inclusion isn’t proactively prioritized. So, what steps can employers take to embed neuro-inclusion in their recruiting processes effectively?

My guest this week is Tania Martin, a neuro-inclusion consultant who was previously head of EY’s Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence in the UK and Ireland. In our conversation, Tania discusses the shortcomings of the traditional recruiting process and how we can rethink it to be better for everyone. Hi Tania and welcome to the podcast.

Tania: Hello. Thank you very much for having me.

Matt: It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please could you introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

Tania: Absolutely. So, my name is Tania Martin and I am a neuro-inclusion consultant. So, working with organizations to help them understand and implement neuro-inclusive design. And before I jump into a little bit more as to what that is, it’s probably worth setting the scene. What is neuro-inclusion? So, this is specifically around neurodiversity and understanding how you harness neurodiversity within the workplace. So, neurodiversity is actually everybody. We all have different ways of thinking, behaving, reacting. So actually, neurodiversity does embody every single person’s different brain. However, there are individuals that have something called a spiky profile. So, what you will find is that they might be exceptionally good at some areas, but might struggle in other areas. So, for example, I’ve got ADHD and I’m quite creative, very good at connecting things that others might not, but I struggle with organization and time and trying to understand how I break something down into its component parts.

So, somebody who’s neurotypical would be able to do all of those things. And somebody who’s neurodivergent might struggle with some tasks that others might find straightforward. And it’s not just ADHD, its autism, dyslexia, etc. So, I work in that area and I have built EY’s Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence. And as I said, I now work with organizations in this space trying to help them understand neurodiversity.

Matt: Fantastic stuff. Tell us a little bit about the real advantages for employers who really kind of embrace being neuro-inclusive.

Tania: So there are a number of key advantages to employers who are embracing the neurodiversity agenda. I think the first one to point out is that there are people that are currently hiding in plain sight within organizations that are neurodivergent. And what do I actually mean by that? So, I’m talking about those that may only have recently been diagnosed, may not know yet that they are neurodivergent, that are neurodivergent and aren’t telling their organization. So, if you are being neuro-inclusive by design, you’re capturing those people that are within the organization at the moment who require that support, and it helps attract the best candidates to an organization. So Generation Z, there was a piece of research done over the last year and 50% of them either self-identified or were diagnosed as neurodivergent.

So what that is basically saying is we’ve got a generation coming up who, if we don’t embrace neurodiversity as an organization, they’re simply going to go somewhere else. So, you need to be attracting that talent into the organization. If an organization focuses on strengths. So, I mentioned about spiky profiles. You build teams where people play to their strengths, so you build a diverse team and as a result you get a better result so you harness somebody’s strengths and as a result of doing that, you get a better result as a team. And it’s also about employee well-being, so you feel secure to share the challenges that you have without any judgment. So, you’re not afraid that it’s going to impact your career, you’re not afraid people are going to treat you any differently. And as a result of that, employers get loyal members of staff, they get the best out of people. Retention rates are really high as well. So, it’s also not just good for those who are neurodivergent, it is good for everybody if we start thinking in a more neuroinclusive way.

Matt: Absolutely. You mentioned that you were working with EY before and you set up their Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence. Tell us about that, the kind of the practicalities of it, what it is, what it does, but also how you managed to get it to that point.

Tania: So the Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence, and I’m going to refer to it as the NCoE going forward because it’s a bit of a mouthful. It actually started in US eight years ago. It started as an Autism at Work program, and our global leader Hiren Shukla realized really quickly that actually it wasn’t just those that were autistic that needed extended support in the workplace. So let me be really clear about what the NCoE is. It is all around extended support. So, it’s how do we adjust our recruitment process because recruitment is one of the biggest barriers to entry into an organization for those that are neurodivergent. So how do we adjust the recruitment process? And how do we create an environment where those that are either underemployed or unemployed in the neurodiversity space can really thrive within an organization.

So how do you set that environment up to enable to harness the strengths that I talked about, but also make sure that we have adjustments in place for the areas that they might potentially have challenges. So, my role was to build the Manchester NCoE, working very closely with a couple of others, and that was everything from establishing an ecosystem. So, we were really clear, we were not experts in the neurodiversity space, so we needed to bring that expertise in. And we also wanted to be quite visible about what we were doing, because that was quite important in terms of candidate attraction. So, working with charities and not for profits and other organizations who were neurodiversity specialists, was part of me. Part of my role is finding those people and building those relationships and then everything through to how do we attract the candidates? How do we recruit them?

So, what does the recruitment process look like? What does onboarding look like? How do we train the individuals? What coaching do we need to put in place? What adjustments do we need to put in place? So pretty much the whole employee life cycle was my responsibility internally for EY. It was an incredibly fascinating piece of work to do.

So my background, I started off in recruitment years ago and it really started to change some of my views as to how to recruit and highlight to me some of the areas that actually, knowing what I know now, I might do differently. So, it was a super interesting project to be involved in. And I’m pleased to say that the agenda at EY on neurodiversity is absolutely still a priority for them. It shifted slightly from NCoE to neuro-inclusion. So, it’s how do we take what we’ve learned within the NCoE and roll it out broader, which is absolutely the right direction in terms of progressing neurodiversity within organizations. So that’s a really positive thing.

Matt: Let’s just dig into the kind of recruiting part of this because obviously that’s going to be a big interest to everyone listening. What are the barriers in the traditional recruitment process for people who are neurodiverse and what kind of adjustments can we make and how might that actually make recruiting better overall?

Tania: So this is my area of absolute passion and I could talk about this for hours. So, I’m going to try and keep it as succinct as I possibly can. It really does span the whole recruitment life cycle in terms of having to think about this differently if you want to attract and retain different thinking into your organization, and it does start with where are you looking? So, from an attraction perspective, we spent a lot of time working very closely with charities to identify candidates from a completely different talent pool than we would usually. I remember putting a LinkedIn post out when we were hiring, saying, “I’m looking for the person not reading this LinkedIn post.” So how do you attract talent into an organization that actually is untapped? And that might bring a skill set that might not think of your organization initially as someone that might want to hire them, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be hiring individuals outside of that standard talent pool. So that attraction piece is really important. So, thinking broader about that, there are a number of neurodiversity specific recruiters out there now as well.

So potentially harnessing their services, the job spec. So, thinking really differently about job specs, I often say job specs are full of fluff. There is a lot of words in there and there’s a lot of information that actually potentially people don’t need straight away and can be a little bit off putting, can be a little bit intimidating to certain audiences. So, when we looked at our job spec, I actually got my current team to pull it apart and literally tell me what is wrong with it from top to bottom. And we completely rewrote it and a few things came out. So, somebody in my team who was super dyslexic, he basically said, “I was interested in what the job title was, what you actually wanted me to do and how much you were paying.” And I needed that information accessible to me really quickly because actually reading lots of text is really difficult. So, we thought about the order in which we put the job spec together, thinking about the skills required, so the technical skills and using language such as one or two of the following or, sorry, two of the following, as opposed to getting them to tick every single box.

The other piece is around the language around how can we support you to make sure that this is a recruitment process where you can show your best self? So not simply saying we’re an inclusive hirer, saying, actually we want to make this. We want to give you the opportunity to shine through this recruitment process. So, what do you need from us to enable that to happen? And give some examples. Sometimes people don’t know what we’re actually offering, “Okay, we can give the interview questions upfront,” which I know some people go, “Oh, my goodness me, why would you do that?” We did that for one of our processes every single person got them up front. And actually, it made a real difference in terms of the responses we got and the time we spent interviewing.

And then from an interview process I go back to when I was taught and when I was trained around recruitment and somebody said to me, “Communication is absolutely key. Make sure they’re making eye contact, they have a firm handshake, and if they talk too much and their language is not clear or concise, we need to mark them down in terms of their communication.” We basically just ruled out anybody that’s autistic or ADHD. The barriers are there and I think actually I can talk about the actual specific barriers I’ve just given you there. But if we’re really honest, the biggest barrier that we’ve got in terms of recruitment is the hiring managers who are currently responsible for that recruitment and don’t know any different. And that, I think, is not only do we need to fix the recruitment process? We also need to reeducate a whole group of hiring managers who don’t know any different. And when they’re asked for a job spec, they simply pull out the last one they had and they tweak it because they haven’t got time to think about it. So, I think there’re two ways we need to approach this. It’s not just what the recruitment team can do, but also how do we get those hiring managers to engage with neurodiversity as a concept, understand it and therefore intervene a slightly different way.

Matt: Yeah. I mean I think it’s super interesting the way that the traditional recruitment process is set up which is just very– excludes lots of people. So, I have ADHD and I looked back over my career and I worked out that a very few of the jobs I got, I actually got through a normal of recruitment process and in fact whenever I went into a normal recruitment process, I didn’t tend to get the job. They were all through referrals or someone I knew or an assessment center process that was slightly different. And that was a real kind of revelation for me. It was really interesting. And I think also when you’re doing some of the assessments and things like that, one of the things that I found when I’ve experimented with some of the assessment tools out there, it will come back and say that I absolutely hate structure and need to work in a very kind of creative way. And then the next page it will say I can’t work without structure, [laughs] which is very confusing. So, yeah, I mean I think it’s really interesting but I think that it tells us a lot about the kind of the legacy recruitment process anyway, I think, doesn’t it?

Tania: Yeah, absolutely. And that need structure with the hate structure with a typical ADHD brain, I think very often we contradict ourselves at every single corner. So that makes me smile. Yeah, I don’t think people are necessarily asking the right questions at the moment. I think this is what I’ve learned going through this neurodiverse centre of excellence process is it allowed me the opportunity to really disrupt what we do or what we did at EY in terms of thinking about things differently. And I think very often we simply rinse and repeat a process simply because we’ve always done it that way and nobody really questions as to why we’re doing it that way. And it’s only when you get a group of people together that are neurodivergent and you go, “Why didn’t this work?” And they literally sit there and they go, “This doesn’t work. This doesn’t work. This doesn’t work.” It opens your eyes up and goes, “Wow, I’ve never thought of it that way.” So, it was a real privilege for me to have a group of people that were so open and honest about what didn’t work for them.

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[music]

Matt: A lot of employers are looking deeply at skills at the moment in terms of becoming skills-based organizations, moving towards skills-based hiring. So, kind of really shaking up that some of those old recruiting beliefs that have been there for decades. Do you think that will really help from a neuro-inclusion perspective?

Tania: Absolutely. Let’s be really honest. Every single person has parts of their job that they love and parts of the job that they don’t like doing. And the whole point of skills-based hiring focuses on the actual skills required for a role. And by doing so, you get people that are going to bring their strengths to that role. So, it’s getting away from this notion of a well-rounded individual. And I get it, I absolutely get it. When you are hiring large numbers of people, it is a much simpler process to just look for those people that tick every single box, whether that is good communication skills, ability to present excellent team player, all of those things. And by the way, I’m still not sure I really understand what an excellent team player is and how that’s defined. So, I get it is hard to not want to get people to tick every box, but if you focus on the skills, you really are going to be hiring those that might potentially fall down in some of those areas, but might bring something really special to the role that you’re actually trying to hire, particularly in the technology space, when actually some of the things that we look for really aren’t necessary.

One of the things we did do as part of the work we did at EY was go, “These are the some of the things that you might be asked to do at work, but we understand that not all of them are going to be your strengths, but we will give you support to do that.” And sometimes I think if you focus on the strengths of what is required, but then software and the language around, do you know what we understand you’re not going to be able to do everything and we know that and we will be able to give you some support around that that will get people to apply to the job in the first place. The other thing I’ll say on the skills side, so there’s a couple of really good examples I’ve seen recently. So firstly, we ran a purely skills-based assessment center. So, I was looking for technical ability, the ability to solve problems and the ability in how they engage with the process. And when I say engage, it wasn’t just who was the most vocal, it was who was actually making really positive contributions in the chat as well.

So those were the three areas I was focused on as opposed to ticking lots of different boxes. But another really great example of skills-based hiring recently that I saw was an organization that actually took somebody on for a six-week job trial. So rather than expecting somebody to just go through an interview process and get the job, actually give them the opportunity to come in and show what they can do actually within an organization. So, I think there’s different ways to do it, but I’m very pro skills and focusing on skills. I think that’s how you get the most neuro-inclusive recruitment process in place for organizations.

Matt: And you mentioned technology there and obviously we’re now entering an era where AI is going to do everything for us. What’s the role of technology in neuro-inclusion?

Tania: I think it’s got multiple roles to play. As a candidate it’s useful if you’re allowed to use it. And I know the jury’s out in terms of whether or not organizations are allowing people to use AI. I think from a recruitment perspective, technology can be really beneficial to people who apply. But I’m going to say something, I think it needs to be as an option. So for example, I know a lot of people that use video interviews as part of their hiring process. So, what I mean by that is people like recording something and then submitting it. And I know for neurodivergent individuals, for some people that can be incredibly intimidating. Is there an alternative to that? There’s an amazing piece of technology that has been actually developed for NASA in terms of their communications, that’s starting to be trialed in organizations around actually interviewing, using text rather than video or speaking.

So, giving a person a chance to reflect, a chance to think before they have to answer, that’s one of the things I often say, “If you’re interviewing, make sure you give the space, you leave that pause and that pause might feel like it goes on forever, but it gives the person that you’re interviewing that opportunity to really collect their thoughts and come back with an answer.” So, I definitely think there is a place for technology. I think technology is definitely evolving, how we harness it. I think we just need to see how it evolves. But that optionality piece, I think is something quite different in terms of thinking about it differently.

Matt: Final question, obviously the knowledge and awareness of things like ADHD and autism has dramatically increased in the last 10 years or so. And I know that there will be lots of parents listening who have neurodivergent children currently going through the education system. And what would you say to them in terms of their children’s sort of prospects in the workforce? What’s the workforce of the future going to look like from this perspective?

Tania: I often liken the neurodiversity journey to where we were 10 years ago around mental health. So, I think 10 years ago we were just about starting to talk about mental health and now it is absolutely normalized within organizations that people have mental health and therefore organizations need to be aware of that and help employers manage that. And my hope is that the neurodiversity journey is at the start of that. So, where we start to normalize these conversations, I think it is at the start. We’ve got to be really honest and I’m very open about where EY are. They still have lots to do and they will be the first to admit that they’ve made a good start. But there’s still a huge amount of work to do. Nobody has fixed it yet. But people are starting to think about that and I think that is a really positive step in the right direction.

Employees are definitely catching on because of this Gen Z stat that I mentioned. We definitely have a generation coming through that are more vocal, that are not afraid to use their labels. I was at an assessment center before Christmas and somebody came up to me having no idea who I was and started talking to me about his autism and I think that’s a really positive step in the right direction that people are not afraid to say, “This is me and I therefore expect something different. And for anybody that’s got a child that is currently at university or about to apply for a role, the one thing I will say is don’t hide it. I think hiding it is actually probably doing more damage than good. We need organizations to know it is there. We need organizations to react and if the organization does not react in a way that is positive, that says a lot about the organization and where they are on their journey. Because if the recruitment process is not set up for somebody who is neurodivergent, it’s very unlikely the environment that they’re going to be moving into is going to be set up for that person as well. So, I think overall positive. I’m feeling hopeful and there’s a lot of us shouting about this at the moment, which is a really good thing. But realistically we are at the very beginning, so it’s not going to be perfect straight away.

Matt: Tania, thank you very much for talking to me.

Tania: No worries. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Matt: My thanks to Tania. You can follow this podcast on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify or via your podcasting app of choice. You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel by going to mattalder.tv. You can search all the past episodes @recruitingfuture.com. On that site, you can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

[music]

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