How Do You Hire For Brain Diversity?

A new kind of diversity is starting to take center stage: brain diversity. Business leaders are starting to recognize that workplace diversity should encompass more than the traditional racial and gendered definitions, and that a lack of brain diversity can be as harmful as a lack of gender and racial diversity to a company’s bottom line and productivity.

Some companies are taking note: SAP and Freddie Mac are actively seeking out autistic and dyslexic employees for the unique strengths they can bring to the organization. For example, autistic employees are generally thought to be more detail-oriented and focused while employees with ADHD might be better at bringing high energy and creativity to the workplace.

Of course, companies run into some difficulty with actively aiming to hire such individuals. It’s important to remember that while 2 percent of the population might have some kind of neurological disability, there is a spectrum with some in the group exhibiting certain characteristics more than others — basically, it can be difficult to tell.

In fact, some employees might not realize themselves, or they might not realize that they lay somewhere on a spectrum until much later in life when they are already established at a company.

In addition, it’s illegal for a recruiter or interviewer to flat-out ask if a person has a certain disability, and many with brain irregularities aren’t jumping to share their condition because of the fear that they’ll be considered a liability or immediately categorized a certain way.

In a recent Fortune article, one employee who realized later in life that he was somewhere on the autistic scale compared coming out about his condition to his workplace to someone coming out as gay.

The effect is that some highly talented individuals with brain disorders might come off badly in interviews or seem antisocial, or interviewers might question if they are a “good fit” for the company culture without considering that they might have a neurological irregularity.

On the other side of the spectrum, it’s also not fair or accurate for recruiters or interviewers to assume that socially inept job applicants or interviewees with large gaps on their résumés have some sort of neurological disability.

So where does one draw the line? The sad truth is that there is currently a lot of stigma around employees who might have neurological differences, and in some cases, revealing their condition might jeopardize their job.

So far, some of the best advice seems to be to create a work environment where all employees feel included and the emphasis is on the job, not factors that don’t directly play into job performance. A general culture of openness might push back on some of that stigma and make employees with these disabilities more comfortable speaking about their condition or asking for help if they need it. One great piece of advice I saw was from an autistic employee who would let his peers know ahead of time that he had a habit of sometimes saying the wrong thing, and that it would be a big favor if they would point it out to him when it happened.

It’s important not to assume that an applicant has a disability, but everyone in the hiring process should definitely keep the possibility in mind and be sensitive to it when hiring and potentially choosing to look a layer deeper past a spotty résumé or poor social skills.