Diversity & Inclusion – sometimes referred to as “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” or “DEI” – has a long history, stemming from corporate mandates following civil rights legislation in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the first ever known ‘employee resource group’ was formed by employees of color at Xerox in 1964. The company at the time had unusually progressive hiring programs but, once hired, employees still found they faced discrimination.
The evolution of DEI
Since the birth of DEI, the major focus of activity across organizations has been on the hiring and inclusion of ethnic minorities and women. As a result, most large organizations have been implementing solutions (whether focused on hiring, ‘diversity’, or the employee experience – ‘inclusion’) for many years. More recent, but still decades old, are corporate efforts to include talent from the LGBTQ+ community and, since the seminal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, disabled talent too.
As a whole, DEI in 2023 is strong. Organizations proclaim their passion for diversity and their inclusiveness. Many report diversity statistics, celebrating successes and expressing determination to fix shortcomings. As HR priorities have become C-Level priorities over the past decades, top executives extoll the value of diversity and their organization’s unwavering commitment, noting both the social and business benefits DEI can bring.
What’s missing from DEI convos at work
And yet, dig deeper into an organization’s career website, DEI report, annual statement or C-Suite interviews, and it’s clear that neurodiversity and neuroinclusion are often missing. It’s still far from the norm to see these materials expressly mentioning the value of diversity of thought, or of different kinds of thinkers. To be sure, there is change afoot as more and more organizations begin to embrace neurodiversity within their teams.
Today, the fundamental fact of human neurodiversity – everybody has a different brain and we don’t all think alike – is belatedly being acknowledged. Similarly, the fact that as many as 20% of people may be, in some way, neurodivergent, such as autistic people, dyslexic and dyspraxic people, and ADHDers. The many strengths that can come with different brain wiring are also only recently being given due recognition – indeed, it’s impossible to ignore that many of the top businesspeople of our time are both neurodivergent and credit this with much of their success. Dyslexia “made me a millionaire”, said real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran for example, who has also pointed out that half of the judges on the famous ‘Shark Tank’ show are, like her, neurodivergent.
Yet in the workplace, neurodivergent professionals often continues to find themselves marginalized, judged, and forced to “mask” or pretend to appear “neurotypical”. Look at the top reasons employees state for leaving their current employers and you’ll find strong statements around a lack of understanding from managers and colleagues, suggesting at least some correlation with the frustrations often expressed by neurodivergent colleagues at work.
Noting the large proportion of neurodivergent entrepreneurs, like Corcoran, it is also striking how many chose an entrepreneurial route over a corporate one. Indeed, at Uptimize, we like to ask companies a simple question: Would a Steve Jobs or a Richard Branson make it through your hiring process? Typically, after a moment’s reflection, comes the honest reply: “Probably not”.
Why this dissonance, then? Every organization is competing to attract top talent, keep them around, and drive innovation – with billions of dollars spent on the latter in a frantic attempt to keep up with the pace of change. With the lifespan of organizations plummeting, it follows that innovation is a near obsession of many leading CEOs. But, despite an oft-declared enthusiasm for “diversity of thought”, and a recognition of the importance of people (any organization’s most expensive asset!) when it comes to performance, neurodiversity can still be – wrongly – overlooked.
The answer comes, simply, from the deep cultural ignorance of neurodiversity and neurodivergence that has persisted ever since the word “neurodiversity” was first coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s. Sadly, the medicalization of neurodivergent “conditions” – with diagnoses based solely on negatives – has contributed to cultures where neurodivergence is characterized only as a hindrance, is misunderstood, and where neurodivergent people find themselves marginalized despite the many “flip-side” strengths of neurodivergent thinking styles.
On the cusp of change
Fortunately, this is now changing. As organizations develop more robust support and programs for people within ethnic minorities, women, and other minorities at work, employers are asking their teams, “what would you like us to cover?” And they’re frequently receiving the clear message: Neurodiversity, please. Neurodiversity ERGs have blossomed in the past 5 years, often spun out of more general disability-support networks, and leaders of such groups have begun to play a major role in ensuring the topic is top of the agenda for their colleagues in talent acquisition, DEI, and HR.
At Uptimize, the neurodiversity training company I founded having seen the need for greater neurodiversity awareness at a personal and family level, we partner with leading companies like Accenture, Salesforce and IBM to equip all staff to be “neuroinclusive” – changing how colleagues, leaders and recruiters think about their daily interactions, and helping pave the way for more diverse, productive and innovative teams.
To paraphrase Pierre Escaich, neurodiversity program leader at video games monolith Ubisoft, not only are people an organization’s most important asset…it is those people’s brains that are their most critical asset, tool and resource. Smart organizations are recognizing this, and quickly seeing the fruits. As one Salesforce employee declared proudly, “I could never work anywhere else again that wasn’t making efforts to be neuroinclusive.”
All of the goals of DEI: fairness and equality, diversity of thought, being a magnet for millennial talent (that openly prefers inclusive brands)… all of these are goals that neurodiversity and neuroinclusion can contribute to strongly, and indeed must be a part of. Similarly, organizational talent goals – from talent acquisition to team performance – cannot, realistically, ever be optimized if the people, processes and technology involved are ignorant of the fact that we all think differently or designed without neurodiversity in mind.
It’s time to embrace neurodiversity
DEI, rightly, is most often a well-resourced and valuable aspect of an organization’s work. It cannot, though, continue without embracing neurodiversity, the many candidates and colleagues who are neurodivergent, and exploring and acknowledging too the many intersections between neurodivergent identities and other minority identities at work.
For many organizations less familiar with the topic, it may seem, wearily, as yet another diversity topic to address. This shouldn’t be the case. Embracing neurodiversity is long overdue, and offers a clear path to meeting the talent challenges businesses face today and will otherwise face tomorrow.
Ed Thompson is the CEO & Founder of Uptimize and the author of A Hidden Force – Unlocking the Potential of Neurodiversity at Work