Why attracting neurodiverse talent is only a part answer to a global talent shortfall

10 September, 2023, 11:00 am GMT

Ian Tomlin profiel pic

By Ian Tomlin

a diverse group of people together

There is a global talent shortage. That much is not news.

The talent that most organisations are short of is technical and analytical talent. The sort of jobs you need ‘nerds’ for. Those kids that don’t fit it. Sometimes called weird because they’re not great at conversation. Today, we call this social group (and I include myself in it) neurodiverse.

Plato called it the divine madness

Neurodivergent people are often insanely creative, very smart, good with analysis and numbers… some, but not all.

That’s the point. Neurodivergent people are different. Even within sub groupings like Autism and Dyslexia, every individual is… an individual and a unique blend of thinking patterns none of which a neurotypical person (if there truly is one) would describe as usual.

If I paraphrase Wikipedia, “Divine madness, also known as crazy wisdom, is usually explained as the manifestation of a behaviour by persons who have transcended societal norms that may seem to be symptoms of mental illness to mainstream society, but are a deliberate, strategic, purposeful activity by highly self-aware individuals.”

Here’s the thing: Employers now need neurodivergent people in their workforce that think differently because there aren’t enough neurotypicals with attractive CVs to go around.

If an employer were to look at my truthful and complete ‘whole self’ CV, they’d never employ me.

To recruiters I am an enigmatic unemployable. That’s because my career is full of discovering new things, new experiences, learning new roles… because I get bored easy… and I’m certainly not neurotypical, even though I’ve never been diagnosed as being anything else.

This is the first barrier to hiring neurodiverse talent. They don’t fit neurotypical hiring methods or tools. Even age old bankers like the good old CV don’t work here. There is bias against neurodiversity everywhere in recruitment systems. In the expectations placed on candidate profiles.  In the words used to advertise jobs. In the way the interview process is designed.

Let’s not forget that practically every other famous entrepreneur, artist and scientist through history was believed to be neurodivergent. These are the people you miss out on when you design a hiring process targeted at finding ‘normal.’

You have two decisions to make

There are two big decisions that HR and People Officers must make about neurodiverse talent:

1. Do they want to take on neurodiverse people?
2. How do they attract neurodiverse people?

To the first point, many would say, ‘of course yes’ without really getting the leadership team of their business to fully buy into the idea. That’s because, to make a decision, you need to be acquainted with all the facts—the pros and the cons—and there are definite downsides to taking on neurodivergent people.

This is a decision that needs to be aired before it can be made. To prepare for that decision, it pays to run workshops to frame the current maturity of the organisation culture towards neurodiversity needs, and ask for some help from stakeholders on what needs improving. Then, management teams need to be presented with the full facts, the pros AND the cons.

To the second point, working out how to hire neurodivergent people has been described to me by HR leaders as (at best) baffling. You see, neurodivergent people don’t fit into the neurotypical frames of cultural behaviours, recruitment processes and systems, of support, nurturing and retention policies, etc. that every business today adopts.

Why is attracting neurodiverse talent only a part answer to a global talent shortfall?

I stay this because even if you can attract neurodiverse people into your business, you’re going to find them hard to keep if you don’t create a welcoming culture (on their terms). You will need to create a culture that is not resistive to neurodiverse people; one that feeds into them an emotional sense of belonging.

Part of this ‘belonging culture’ is about not setting neurodivergent people into separate boxes to treat them differently, but raising the bar on your workforce culture to embrace all forms of diversity in an equitable way. It’s about recognising the need to serve the career and wellbeing aspirations of people who are encouraged to bring their whole self to work.

Intersectionality is arguably key to getting a universal workforce right. It is a term that describes the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

Companies that want neurodiverse talent to join and stay in their workforce need not to single them out for special treatment, but to treat all equally within a culture made from the ground up for everyone.  Get that right, and industry might just attract the talent it needs in the future, rather than see it go to waste …sitting in bedrooms around the world waiting for a call that never comes.