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Where HR Is Still Getting It Wrong With Neurodivergent Workers


man helping neurodivergent man on computer

Companies have become more cognizant of the needs of neurodivergent workers as inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D) has ballooned in awareness. But according to one inclusion expert, organizations can do more to create a workplace where neurodivergent employees can fully contribute.

Maureen Dunne is a neurodiversity expert, global keynote speaker and business leader.
Maureen Dunne

Maureen Dunne is a neurodiversity expert, global keynote speaker and business leader with over two decades of experience helping organizations build thriving cultures. A member of the neurodiversity community, she is also an author and contributor on neurodiversity and the future of work.

Dunne spoke with SHRM Online about how HR should avoid “accommodation patches,” discussed “the Pyramid of Neuroinclusion” and outlined the many reasons to embrace neurodivergent talent.

SHRM Online: IE&D has become a polarizing subject in recent months, but many workplaces remain committed to inclusion for all employees. Are organizations doing enough to foster an environment where neurodivergent employees thrive?

Dunne: While organizations of all sizes are becoming increasingly aware that they likely already have neurodivergent employees—and beginning to appreciate the many reasons they should recruit even more of them—employers still need to be more proactive in how they cultivate a culture that empowers everyone to participate in and drive growth.

DE&I [diversity, equity and inclusion] programs are common. And many organizations should be focused on ensuring that the values they espouse on the bulletin board or codify in policy handbooks are in alignment with the day-to-day habits demonstrated by their teams.

My overarching goal when I collaborate and coach leaders is to help drive innovation and success by embedding a values-driven approach to inclusivity, separating them from the superficial “check the box” approach that has so strikingly failed organizations and neurodivergent job seekers in recent years. Neurodiversity is a strengths-based framework to understanding, supporting and valuing the rich tapestry of brain and learning differences.

In my book, The Neurodiversity Edge (Wiley, 2024), I introduce this dynamic as “the Three C’s,” where codification and conduct drive culture. When an organizational culture authentically embraces cognitive diversity as a core value, it permeates the entire organization—from the mailroom to the boardroom.

SHRM Online: What are companies getting wrong when it comes to inclusion for neurodivergent employees, and why is it critical to correct these mistakes?

Dunne: We all struggle with cognitive biases. I think there are a lot of well-intentioned executives still learning to fully appreciate how to embrace neurodiversity. They may understand why it’s important, and why it’s a huge asset, but still struggle to deploy a nuanced approach driven by a successful plan of action.

The most important point is that this issue must be addressed on a deep level in terms of organizational culture. You can’t simply provide “accommodation patches” and expect them to make a material difference. This isn’t cosmetic surgery. It’s gene therapy. Full commitment yields substantial value.

There are so many reasons to embrace neurodivergent talent:

  • As a core hedge against groupthink.
  • As a diversity asset driving a wider range of cognitive and experiential resources.
  • As an avenue to driving access to a broader talent pool.

But learning how to support neurodivergent people as they strive to reach their full potential is a major piece of that puzzle. This includes never overlooking neurodivergent team members when assessing advancement opportunities, including executive leadership and board roles. Broadly, authentic neuroinclusion is fundamentally about maximizing what any given individual can contribute within an organization and doing so in a way that appreciates and values diversity.

To create alignment with this ideal, every organization should start with an honest examination of its core values—not the core values written in the emails or on the bulletin board, but the core values exposed by a brutally honest analysis of the allocation of time, money, habitual practices, implicit rules and mindshare.

[SHRM Toolkit: Employing People with Cognitive Disabilities]

SHRM Online: How can organizations achieve their goals for neuroinclusion?

Dunne: I would ask a slightly different question: What should an organization do to manifest that value? In The Neurodiversity Edge, I elaborate on “The Pyramid of Neuroinclusion,” which forms the conceptual basis for an actionable framework to help formulate and achieve objectives aligned with this core value. The crux of the matter is that psychological safety and trust represents the bedrock of an inclusive and thriving organizational culture.

From there, teams can benefit from diversity and flourish with a focus on inspiring honest and transparent intraorganizational communication, accessible workplace supports based on universal design principles, and increased empathy to bridge gaps in shared experiences.

The Pyramid of Neuroinclusion represents a layered set of objectives that must all be cemented into place to bring about sustainable authentic neuroinclusion and its many benefits. An organization without a firm foundation of psychological safety and transparent communication protocols will fail this test even if it enacts superficial support solutions.

Access to noise-canceling headphones, flexible work protocols with a focus on results, and the ability to adjust lighting to accommodate for sensory differences are all important in fostering neuroinclusion. However, none of these efforts will matter if management turns a blind eye to bullying, where neurodivergent people are frequently targets.

Remember: A garden won’t grow, no matter how much sunlight and water it gets, if the soil is toxic.

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