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How to Optimize Job Descriptions for Neurodivergent Job Seekers


A sign that says help wanted on the door of a restaurant.


​Research shows that close to 20 percent of all Americans are "neurodivergent," a term encompassing a range of natural brain variations in people with conditions like autism, ADHD and dyslexia. The term reflects a growing effort to reframe neurological differences in a more positive and constructive way. Yet, over half of the autistic adults in the U.S. are unemployed.

Reasons for this disconnect vary, but many neurodivergent candidates find it difficult to navigate job descriptions, which are typically the first point of contact people have with employers. 

There has been an encouraging trend among employers to announce their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion within job descriptions. While articulating this commitment is important, optimizing job descriptions to attract neurodiverse talent is a vital next step.

Here are seven simple ways to make job descriptions more accessible:

1. Clearly state how candidates can request accommodations in the hiring process.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for qualified candidates with disabilities upon request, unless doing so would create an undue hardship. Accommodation statements and contact information should be included with all job descriptions, application forms and careers websites. Ideally, multiple contact options (e.g., e-mail, phone and text) should be provided to assist candidates with communication-related needs when requesting accommodations. The Job Accommodation Network offers additional best practices for hiring accommodations

2. Use clear, plain language and remove jargon and "business speak."

Complex job descriptions are more difficult for everyone to navigate, but reading and understanding these job posts can be even more challenging for neurodivergent candidates. Write in plain language wherever possible and use an easy-to-read sans serif font such as Arial, Verdana, Tahoma or Trebuchet MS. In addition, your jobs site should include video clips, written text and a feature to have the text read aloud. 

Be mindful when posting acronyms, technical terms and abstract concepts. These words may be off-putting to neurodivergent job seekers who otherwise meet the job's qualifications. Consider using more conversational terms or writing out important acronyms and including their abbreviations in parentheses. Also, focus on what work needs to be done instead of how the work is traditionally executed.

3. Only list requirements you truly need.

Many companies cast a wide net in their job descriptions with lengthy skill requirements that could apply to many settings. Neurodivergent candidates may read these requirements literally, realize they don't meet all of them precisely as stated and decide not to apply. Be careful to use specific wording and give examples where possible. Common phrases like "strong interpersonal skills" and "ability to work in a team" can deter some candidates due to their ambiguity. Lengthy job descriptions can also be overwhelming for candidates.

Job descriptions should only require skills and experience that are actually needed for the specific job. This may mean pushing back on qualifications created by hiring managers. For instance, you may ask: "Do we really need this person to have seven years of paid social media experience? Or is there a sufficient combination of paid social media experience, other marketing experience and education?" If transferrable skills would suffice, this should be clearly explained. 

Also, decide whether candidates need experience using specific software and tools. If these can be learned easily on the job, don't require prior experience. Group qualifications into categories like "required" and "preferred."

4. Use pronouns that make descriptions more personal.

Make ample use of personal and collective pronouns such as "you," "we" and "us," rather than "the candidate" and "the company." This language goes a long way in conveying a collaborative and supportive workplace culture. For example, when listing the job's responsibilities, write "you will …" instead of "he/she/they/the candidate will …"

5. Write with nongendered language as much as possible.

There is growing research about how our brains make unconscious assumptions when reading job descriptions, which often send a subtle message about who belongs at the company. Linguists have classified words as masculine-coded, feminine-coded and neutral. For example:

 

Examples of gendered language
Masculine-codedLead, drive, determine, challenge, compete
Feminine-codedCollaborate, understand, connect, help, share

 

To be clear, all genders can exhibit traits from these lists. However, a job description with predominantly masculine-coded words can send a message that the company is male-dominated and that other genders are less welcome. These job descriptions have been found to yield an applicant pool that consists mostly of cisgender men. Interestingly, job descriptions with mostly feminine-coded words do not necessarily reduce the number of male applicants. Nonetheless, to best appeal to candidates of all genders, including those who are nonbinary, job descriptions should maximize the use of neutral, nongendered terms both in job titles and descriptions.

Given the intersections between gender and neurodivergence, writing gender-neutral job descriptions is an important part of a neurodivergent-friendly hiring strategy. And avoiding gendered language (or using a balance of words) will not only help engage neurodivergent job seekers, but also appeal to a more diverse candidate base overall.

6. Highlight your company's support for employees, organizational values and professional development opportunities.

The job description is an opportunity to showcase why your company is a fantastic place for people to contribute and grow, so include a section at the bottom about employee benefits (e.g., flexible working policy, paid child care, onsite gym, or tuition reimbursement). Let candidates know if your organization offers volunteer opportunities such as National Day of Service, partnerships with nonprofits such as Black Girls Code, employee resource groups or a mentorship program. Candidates want to know they will be welcomed by their future colleagues before they apply. 

7. Iterate!

Job descriptions are often written by recruiters, hiring managers or both. Because hiring managers typically have the most knowledge about the job being created, it's often advantageous for them to create the first draft. HR should give managers templates and guidelines to help them write thoughtful, targeted descriptions, then HR can edit them before they're published. Be ready to push back on suboptimal job descriptions until they are ready to post. 

Better engagement of neurodivergent talent starts with writing strategic, inclusive job descriptions. Implementing these simple solutions can lead to a higher-quality applicant pool that is also larger and more diverse.

Michael Leopold, SHRM-SCP, is a New York-based career coach, HR consultant and public speaker. He helps job seekers by elevating their strengths, experiences and goals, and he speaks professionally about hiring, employee engagement, neurodiversity and the future of work. He leverages his lived experience as a neurodivergent professional with Tourette syndrome and ADHD.

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