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Why Supporting Autistic Employees Goes Beyond Hiring Initiatives

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“We can have a diverse place, but unless you really have inclusion, meaningful inclusion, where people feel they are welcomed in the workplace, they have a stake in the work, it’s really difficult to retain a qualified workforce.” — F. Patricia Shiu, Director of OFCCP, U.S. Department of Labor

I never put much thought into the difference between workplace diversity and workplace inclusion. That is, before I became a lead recruiter and community manager for an engineering firm with an autism hiring initiative. Today, I warn of the Diversity Danger Zone: the pitfalls of neurodiversity hiring initiatives.

You’ve likely heard of the broad-scale hiring initiatives to attract an untapped and underemployed talent pool. But I venture to guess, you’ve likely not heard of models of workplace inclusion practices. That’s because there aren’t a lot of models out there. Take, for example, autism hiring initiatives. Although there are many initiatives for hiring autistic people, there are no readily available models for inclusion for the autistic employees.

Autistic individuals often have coexisting conditions. For instance, as an adult on the autism spectrum, I have dyslexia, PTSD, and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). That doesn’t take away from my ability to give 100% to my job and succeed, but it adds to my need to be understood and valued. It means I don’t respond well to critical feedback, because of past trauma, and it means I have extreme empathy for people who have similar conditions.

An autism hiring initiative that doesn’t focus on inclusion measures — such as support means for mental health issues, learning disabilities, and autism awareness — puts organizations and individuals at risk. 

A lack of inclusion resources signifies there is a greater likelihood that an autistic worker, or an employee with a similar profile, won’t feel valued and supported. A lack of inclusion efforts means resources to support an autistic employee’s sense of belonging, such as what it means to be autistic from an autistic’s vantage point, the challenges some autistics face, and the nuts and bolts of the autistic culture, are missing. It means stereotypes are likely to abound, assumptions will be made, and some (illegal) discriminatory practices will ensue, such as expecting all autistics to attend emotional IQ training while their coworkers stand by. Putting inclusion measures on the back burner sets up an autistic employee to fail.

Generally speaking, a lack of inclusion efforts will lead to disgruntled, depressed employees, who don’t want to stick around or represent the company. After being hired, an autistic employee (like all new employees) has a great potential for vocational success. Sadly, some autistic employees have reported that a lack of workplace support has led to the minority worker being bullied, having no choice but to quit, being let go, or in extreme cases ending their life by suicide. When considering diversity hiring initiatives — particularly neurodiversity ones, which by their nature attract individuals with brain variances — the efforts toward inclusion ought to be in equal measure to the efforts put forth toward recruitment. If not greater.

Frankly, the perks of positive branding organizations receive from putting neurodiverse populations in the spotlight ought to be backed with effective support systems. Employer diversity measures without specific inclusive procedures and processes don’t equate to inclusion. Workplace diversity quantifies select differences amongst employees. Inclusion puts the concept of diversity into motion by pulling together resources and ideas and putting initiatives into action.

Diversity hiring initiatives without inclusion initiatives mean leaders aren’t devoting adequate time and resources for effective inclusion.

If every lead member of an organization can’t easily list what inclusion goals and benchmarks are, then that’s a sign true inclusion is lacking. Inclusivity done right denotes welcoming and valuing diversity amongst employees and cultivating a culture of communal respect, involvement, connection and engagement — an environment where a wealth of backgrounds and perspectives are appreciated and embraced. This doesn’t happen without some careful planning. The rare exception is a strong inclusive workplace culture that already exists with a substantial track record. Outside this rarity, if leaders assume inclusion will organically develop with hopeful thinking, but without adequate planning and resources, they are setting more than the diverse employees up to fail.

“Diversity in Action” (my favorite name for inclusion) is a catalyst for innovative ideas and efficiency. Inclusion boosts personal growth and morale. The return on investment from inclusion measures can include self-examination, personal growth and job satisfaction; a sense of belonging, empowerment, and mutual respect; a capacity to reach full potential; an encouraging atmosphere to harness ideas and perspectives; a high rate of employee involvement; increased productivity and retention rate, and overall job satisfaction.

Inclusion done right doesn’t have to be costly. It can be folded into company processes and procedures. A little effort has the potential to lead to higher retention rates, happier employees, and a greater bottom line.

Tools for Effective Inclusion Might Include:

  • A well thought out diversity and inclusion mission statement
  • A workplace inclusion plan with exact objectives and benchmarks
  • A transparent task force or working group dedicated to oversight of inclusive measures
  • Employee resource group(s)
  • HR personnel, community manager, or diversity and inclusion specialist to serve as a lead advisor for best inclusion practices; (preferably someone who represents a minority at the organization)
  • A leadership group representative of the organization’s minority members, e.g., having an autistic on the leadership team of a company when a company has an autistic hiring initiative
  • Ample and equal opportunity for the minority being targeted in hiring initiatives to advance in pay and receive equal benefits
  • Community gatherings to solicit ongoing feedback from all employees
  • Communication channels and structures that keep ideas and feedback moving and flowing
  • Confident top leaders who are willing to allocate tasks and trust others to be key decision makers and thought leaders
  • Procedures and processes that reflect universal inclusion for all workers
  • Procedures and processes to ensure employees with specific workplace needs are supported long after initial hiring and onboarding
  • Clear understanding of how to support employees requiring workplace adjustments (e.g., Job Accommodation Plan, peer support)
  • Outside support agencies, such as JAN: The Job Accommodation Network

In closing, where diversity can be thought of as the quantity, such as the human capital and recruitment numbers, inclusion can be thought of as the quality, such as the valued employees and productive working environment. The diversity side is about numbers, like how to recruit diverse talent and how to highlight differences amongst workers. Under inclusion, we move away from the numbers and address action, essentially: the who.

Inclusion is about seeing the “numbers” as unique individuals with needs. It’s about acknowledging the who. It’s moving beyond data and walking in the shoes of employees. It’s utilizing empathy and imagination, and then providing the needed resources. True inclusion done right examines how to make the workplace a quality place for every person, and figures out ways to do that. It moves beyond recruiting diverse talent, into how to keep and support and motivate that talent.

Getty photo by Monkey Business Images.

Originally published: August 10, 2020
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