A different perspective: supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

“We need to admit that there is no standard brain” Dr Thomas Armstrong

It is estimated that over 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum and awareness of the concept of ‘neurodiversity’ is rising. It recognises that autism, and other conditions that affect how people learn and process information – such as attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscalculia – are a form of neurological difference, rather than being assumed to be a disability.

However, there remains a significant employment gap – where people on the autistic spectrum are often willing and able to work, but struggle to find and maintain employment.

Employment rates for adults with autism are considerably lower than for other groups. For example, only 32% of adults with autism in the UK are in some kind of paid employment. This compares with about 80% for non-disabled people and 47% for disabled people as a whole.

There are also many people on the autistic spectrum who work, but are struggling to maintain employment or to progress their careers due to discrimination, lack of understanding and lack of effective support.

Barriers to employment

Many autistic people are simply brilliant people – highly educated, highly capable, detail-oriented, yet unemployed” James Mahoney, Executive Director and Head of Autism at Work for JPMorgan Chase.

A lack of awareness and understanding means that some employers are fearful of the behaviour traits of people with autism, and the effect of these on their business, resources and other employees. Hiring processes, management practices and workspaces also tend to unconsciously favour ‘neurotypical’ employees.

Research has shown that standard recruitment processes are a key barrier to employment for people on the autistic spectrum.  Processes such as writing a CV, completing an application form, attending an interview, or doing a work-place assessment all rely heavily on social and communication skills. It may be difficult for people on the autistic spectrum to respond to open questions, or to abstract, hypothetical situations. They may be prone to conversational tangents, be overly honest about their weaknesses, or have difficulties in understanding body language and maintaining appropriate eye contact.

‘Good communication skills’ and ‘ability to work as part of a team’ are commonly listed as essential criteria in job descriptions – even though in practice, these skills may not be essential to the role. Thus, those on the autistic spectrum may find themselves ‘screened out’ of selection processes.

The workplace itself can also be challenging for people on the autistic spectrum. Office etiquette, social interaction and the sensory environment (such as sounds, lights, smells, interruptions) may present difficulties. People on the autistic spectrum may also suffer from anxiety or low self-esteem, which can impact upon their working lives.

Thinking differently

“Asperger’s syndrome provides a plus – it makes people more creative. People with it are generally hyper-focused, very persistent workaholics who tend to see things from detail to global rather than looking at the bigger picture first and then working backwards, as most people do.”  Professor Michael Fitzgerald, Trinity College Dublin

Despite the challenges that they may face, research has shown that neurodivergent individuals also demonstrate a number of strengths of particular relevance to employment.

People on the autistic spectrum are often good problem solvers and innovative thinkers, with particular strengths in analytical thinking, memory, pattern recognition, and attention to detail. Some often have an exceptional ability to assimilate and retain detailed information, which can result in highly specific interests and technical abilities in specific areas of work.

Likewise, individuals with ADHD can have strong visual spatial reasoning and creative thinking abilities, and can be hyper-focused, passionate and courageous. Indeed, many of the world’s top entrepreneurs – including Sir Richard Branson – have ADHD.

As such, forward-thinking employers are beginning to recognise that they are missing out on a large pool of potential talent. Large-scale corporations like Microsoft, JPMorgan, EY, SAP and Ford have all recently instigated neurodiversity initiatives. There has also been an increase in the number of small companies that employ almost exclusively autistic people – such as IT and compliance consulting business Auticon – and specialist employment agencies – such as Specialisterne – that help match autistic candidates with employers looking for specialist technical skills.

What can employers do?

Traditional workplaces are built to suit “neurotypical” people. However, employees who fall slightly outside the range of what is considered typical often have valuable skills that employers need, such as lateral thinking or innovative problem-solving. It’s necessary to make adjustments for people on an individual basis to ensure they can perform their best in their role.” Ray Coyle, UK CEO of Auticon

There are a number of things that employers can do to help support employees with autism in the workplace. Many of these are low-cost and easy to implement, and have the potential to benefit all employees. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recently published guidance for employers on becoming ‘neurodiversity smart’ – covering areas such as recruitment, induction, management and provision of on-the-job support for neurodivergent employees.

They recommend considering alternatives to recruitment interviews that focus on the ability to perform the job role to ensure that organisations are not unintentionally screening out neurodivergent individuals. These may include work trials, work samples, practical assessments, and mini apprenticeships. They also suggest providing candidates with detailed information about what to expect, being clear about the purpose of assessments and being aware of the bias of ‘first impressions’ and the limits of interviews to judge on-the-job performance.

In the workplace, suitable adaptations may include enabling employees who are disturbed by open-plan offices to wear earphones or face a wall, or to work from home where possible. Other adaptations may include the provision of formal or informal coaching or mentoring, regular breaks and access to flexitime, training and support for managers and colleagues, access to quiet spaces, flexibility regarding communication preferences, and clarification of any ‘unwritten’ organisational rules or office etiquette.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response. What is key is that the support provided is both personalised to suit the needs of the individual employee, and sustained over time. It is also important that a culture is fostered where it is easy for employees to disclose their condition, to be open to suggestions for adaptations that suit each individual’s needs, and to raise wider awareness and understanding of neurodiversity among employees.

Neurodiversity smart

Making reasonable adjustments is a cost-effective benefit to society; we also have a moral and ethical duty to act inclusively. We could view the pool of potential employees with neurodiverse conditions as untapped talent, rather than an employment burdenBritish Psychological Society, 2017

The UK government has also committed to halving the disability employment gap by 2020. In order to achieve this, the number of autistic people in employment will have to double. Employers also have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.

However, becoming ‘neurodiversity smart’ is not just a legal or moral obligation – it is also essential if organisations are to harness the skills of this significant pool of untapped talent.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our article on ‘Girls with autism‘.

How to tackle unconscious bias: Step 1 – read this!

What is unconscious bias?

Although levels of explicit prejudice are falling, discrimination continues to be a problem for many sections of society.  One reason for this may be ‘unconscious bias’.

Unconscious bias is “a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”

Everyone has some degree of unconscious bias.  Unconscious thoughts are often based on stereotypes and prejudices that we do not realise that we have.

From a survival point of view, these brain ‘shortcuts’ are a positive and necessary function – they help us to make snap decisions in dangerous situations, for example.  However, in everyday life, they can negatively effect rational decision-making.

Types of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias has different forms.  One common form is Affinity bias – the subconscious preference for people with similar characteristics to ourselves (sex, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, educational background etc.).  In 2015, the CIPD reported that recruiters were often affected by affinity bias, resulting in the tendency to hire ‘mini-mes’.

The Halo effect involves the tendency for an impression created in one area to influence opinion in another area.  For example, a disproportionate number of corporate CEOs are over six foot tall, suggesting that there is a perception that taller people make better leaders, or are more successful. Similar patterns have been observed in the military and even for Presidents of the United States.

The Horns effect is the opposite of the ‘Halo effect’ – where one characteristic clouds our opinions of other attributes.  For example, the perception that women are ‘less capable’ in certain occupations.  A review found that female psychologists and women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) departments were just as likely to discriminate against female candidates as their male counterparts.

The same qualities can also be perceived very differently in different people – for example, assertiveness in a man may be perceived more positively (‘strong leader’) than in a woman (‘bossy’).

Impact of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias not only influences our body language and the way we interact with people, it can also negatively influence a number of important decisions in the workplace, including:

  • Recruitment
  • Promotion
  • Staff appraisals
  • Workload allocations

As well as being unfair, decisions based on unconscious biases are unlikely to be optimal and can result in missed opportunities.  Where unconscious bias also effects a protected characteristic, it can also be discriminatory.

How to mitigate unconscious bias

So, now you know what unconscious bias is, what can you do about it?

The good news is that it is possible to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias. The first step is to become more aware of the potential of unconscious bias to influence your own decision-making. Large organisations such as Google and the NHS are already providing unconscious bias training to their staff.

You can take this awareness further by taking an Implicit Association Test, such as that provided by Harvard University.  This will help to identify and understand your own personal biases.

Other ways to help reduce the influence of unconscious bias include:

  • Taking time to make decisions
  • Ensuring decisions are justified by evidence and the reasons for decisions are recorded
  • Working with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals, such as different teams or colleagues based in a different location
  • Focusing on positive behaviours and not negative stereotypes

At the corporate level, ways that organisations can help to tackle unconscious bias include:

  • Implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences, including objective indicators, assessment and evaluation criteria and the use of structured interviews
  • Ensure that selection panels are diverse, containing both male and female selectors and a range other characteristics where possible (ethnicity, age, background etc.)
  • Promote counter-stereotypical images of underrepresented groups
  • Provide unconscious bias training workshops

Tackling unconscious bias is not just a moral obligation; it is essential if organisations are to be truly inclusive.  By making best use of the available talent, it can also help to make organisations be more efficient and competitive.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested in our other articles on management and organisational development.

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Reducing re-offending: rehabilitation and integration through employment

By Rebecca Jackson

Prisons in Britain have a poor record for reducing re-offending – 46% of adults are re-convicted within one year of release. And it’s estimated that each year, the financial cost to society of re-offending in Britain is £11bn.

In 2014, 68% of prisoners thought that ‘having a job’ was important in stopping re-offending.

However almost 50% of prisoners in the UK said that they had no qualifications, 40% needed help with education while in prison, and of these, 21% needed help with basic literacy and numeracy.

Government and academic research has supported the idea of employment post-sentence as being a key way to reduce re-offending and help integrate ex-offenders back into society. But opportunities within prison are often limited and once released, former offenders often find employers reluctant to hire them because their criminal record.

Roof Womens Prison Lincoln Castle, Creative Commons, rodtuk, July 2015.

Roof Womens Prison Lincoln Castle, rodtuk via Creative Commons, July 2015.

Building skills within prison

While in prison, inmates are given the opportunity to learn skills, trades and improve their basic literacy and numeracy ability. Some are allowed to do kitchen work within their prison; others work in offices alongside prison staff carrying out menial tasks in order to help strengthen their CV on their return to ‘normal life’.

However for many, there is little or no support, and the skills they learn are not sufficient to get them a job ‘on the outside’.

The prison service has introduced a number of schemes to attempt to improve this preparedness for work in the real world, but as the re-offending statistics show, success has been somewhat limited, with many struggling to stay in work or find work altogether.

Barriers to employment

While in some instances it is a lack of willingness or a lack of preparedness on the part of the former offender, another huge barrier to ex offender employment is the stigma associated with a criminal record and the reluctance of employers to consider people for roles who have served time in prison.

Efforts have been made by both government and independent employment and criminal justice organisations to reduce concern from employers.

Some firms have made a conscious effort, to deliver a series of very public and very successful ex offender training programmes, including companies such as National Grid, Timpsons, First Direct, Co-Op,Marks and Spencer, Virgin, Greggs and DHL.

And the Ban the box campaign, whcih aims to remove the tick box from application forms that asks about criminal convictions, hopes to reduce the impact of stigma even further by allowing ex offending applicants to reach the latter stages of an interview process, after it was found that many employers would automatically exclude someone who had checked this box on an application form.

Innovative offender employment projects

Creative Commons, Robert Fairchild, Cupcakes n sprinkles, 2011

Robert Fairchild via Creative Commons, 2011

The Freedom Bakery, based in Glasgow, is a social enterprise that employs ex-offenders, in the hope that employment will break the cycle of re-offending. The founder of the bakery said the aim of the scheme was to help encourage personal development as well as skills and integrate former offenders back into society. However he stressed that it is not about ‘pity employment‘ – people are given the chance to reform and develop, and the company hopes to make money.

Similarly Bad Boy’s Bakery, the brain child of TV chef Gordon Ramsay is now a well-established CIC (Community Interest Company) run by Working Links. Based at HMP Brixton in London, they sell goods to local Caffe Nero stores, as well as local sellers and within the prison canteen. Recruits are trained to industry standards in food quality and safety, including NVQ Levels 1 and 2 in Food Production, giving them skills in food preparation, baking, stock and time management, as well as knowledge of health and safety.

But it’s not just independent businesses who are engaging with ex- offenders. Well known high street chain Timpson’s also has one of the most successful and well established ex-offender employment schemes in the country. 16 of their shops in the UK are now managed by individuals who have spent time in prison and have come through their rehabilitation scheme.

The National Grid also offers offender training and employment programmes with people coming to the end of their sentences and provides training and a job on release for those selected. Over 2,000 prisoners have completed the scheme which has a re-offending rate of just 6%.

Our infographic breaks down some of the key facts.

Prisoners inforgraphic


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Graduating into a brighter future?

Image from Flickr user Luftphilla, licensed under Creative Commons

by Stacey Dingwall

Post-recession, the employment situation for UK graduates has not been great. Following the economic crash, headlines and statistical releases alike screamed about how bad it was out there for the recently graduated. Graduates were portrayed as either unemployed or underemployed, i.e. forced to accept roles for which their qualifications were not required or unpaid internships. With the end of the recession however, has the situation improved?

The graduate job recession

In 2010, the number of graduates in full-time work, three months post-graduation was 51% – its second-lowest level since 2003 (57%). And in 2009 The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) was reporting that the number of graduate vacancies being advertised had fallen by up to a quarter since before the recession.

With record numbers of graduates now competing for each vacancy, and competing not only with their own graduating class but also with earlier cohorts, it could have been concluded that the era of the traditional graduate employment route was on its way out.

A return to form?

According to recent figures, however, things are looking up. Previewing the second 2015 update of its Graduate Recruitment survey, AGR describes the current graduate market as ‘buoyant’, and notes that the findings of the previous survey indicated an 11.9% increase in graduate vacancies on the previous year. These findings are backed up by the September 2014 edition of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit’s (HESCU’s) What do graduates do, which described the employment prospects for 2012/13 graduates as ‘dramatically improved’ compared to those of their immediate predecessors, with their unemployment rate six months after graduating down at 7.3% from the previous year’s 8.5%.

Additionally, the most recent release of the High Fliers graduate recruitment study suggests that those graduating in 2015 are doing so into the “most attractive graduate market in a decade”, and predicts 8% more vacancies than the previous year. It also notes that the class of 2015 are the first to graduate having paid tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year; this has led to the end of the image of students merely partying their way through their time at university, with the majority now focused on securing a promising career for themselves from as early as first year.

The new face of the graduate job

The prospect of graduating with tens of thousands of pounds of debt appears to be proving quite the motivation for today’s students. Rather than waiting until their final year to seek out internships and careers advice, High Fliers reports that firms are now taking on first year undergraduates in placement roles. Building up a relationship with a desired employer as early as possible is now the key way of securing a job post-graduation according to the report, with those with little or no work experience described as having “no chance” of receiving the offer of a place on a firm’s graduate programme.

AGR’s chief executive Stephen Isherwood has also pointed towards this trend, suggesting that graduate recruitment is being replaced with ‘student recruitment’, as those leaving university face competition from those still at university who have already been hired by employers for apprenticeships or have succeeded in finding an employer to sponsor them through the rest of their studies.

Another issue, as highlighted by Gerbrand Tholen, is the changing definition of what constitutes a graduate job. He notes that the previous understanding of what made a graduate occupation (those that combined expertise, strategic and managerial skills and interactive skills) has been abandoned in favour of defining the extent to which the role utilises specialist, orchestration or communication expertise.

This has led to a blurring between the lines of graduate and non-graduate roles, and also issues with compiling official statistics on the number of graduates employed in each arena. In 2014, the director of High Fliers, Martin Birchall, criticised the Office for National Statistics for not updating their definition of a graduate job since 2002, after they released data which suggested that 47% of recent graduates were not working in jobs which required a higher education qualification. This issue is further compounded by the issue of ‘over-education’ and ‘under-employment’, and the question of whether employers have been able to benefit from a more highly skilled workforce.

The graduate class problem

An important thing to keep in mind is that reporting on graduate labour market trends tends to focus primarily on the most general of findings – considering graduates as a homogenous group. This is particularly true in terms of the social backgrounds of graduates: research has found, and is continuing to find, significant differences in the labour market experience for graduates from working class backgrounds and their more socially privileged backgrounds. Until this much wider issue of a lack of social mobility within the graduate labour market can be addressed, it is perhaps too early to describe the situation as ‘buoyant’ – at least for everyone.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on education and employment trends; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading on the topics covered in this blog *

‘Graduate jobs’ in OECD countries: development and analysis of a modern skills-based indicator (LLAKES research paper 53)

What do graduates do? Employment review, IN Graduate Market Trends, Autumn 2014, pp12-14

Graduates’ experiences of non-graduate jobs: stop gaps, stepping stones, or dead ends?, IN Graduate Market Trends, Summer 2014, pp6-8

‘You have to be well spoken: students’ views on employability within the graduate labour market, IN Journal of Education and Work, Vol 27 No 2 Apr 2014, pp179-198

The gap between the proportion of young graduates from professional backgrounds who go on to a “graduate job” six months after graduating and young graduates from non-professional background

We need to talk about graduates: the changing nature of the UK graduate labour market

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Young people’s quest for work experience hampered … by lack of work experience

By Stacey Dingwall

The UK Commission for Education and Skills has released a new report, Catch 16-24: youth employment challenge, which suggests that today’s young people are facing a ‘postcode lottery’ when searching for work experience.

According to the UK Commission’s analysis, most English regions are lagging behind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in terms of the number of employers offering work experience opportunities to young people. The Humber, with one of England’s highest youth unemployment rates, is identified as being a particular work experience ‘blackspot’, with only 29% of employers offering placements.

The new report comes a year on from the publication of another report from the UK Commission, Not just making tea: reinventing work experience. This outlined the vital importance of work experience not only for young people, but for employers themselves, and dispelled common myths that often deter employers from offering opportunities. Multiple case studies showed the benefits enjoyed by companies, large and small, when they invest in young people through work experience.

Why then, a year on, does the UK Commission’s latest research still indicate that only 20% of employers across the UK currently offer work experience to schools, and only 12% to colleges?

A barrier to social mobility

The report suggests that location is not the only factor hindering young people’s chances of obtaining work experience – personal contacts also play a significant role. The need to ensure that employment outcomes for young people are not constrained by their social or ethnic backgrounds (“it’s not what you know, but who you know”) has also been raised by both the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in the last year.

The Sutton Trust’s Internship or Indenture? briefing supports the UK Commission’s description of London as the “internship capital of the country” and places the total cost of undertaking a six-month unpaid internship in the capital at £6,081 (including transport costs) and £5,078 for doing so in Greater Manchester. The importance of undertaking internships and work experience placements in order to gain entrance to professions such as law and finance is highlighted, alongside the fact that only those from wealthy backgrounds are likely to be able to bear the costs of working for free for any significant period of time.

In order to tackle ‘elitist Britain’, the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recommended that both schools and employers should do more in order to ‘close the gap’ in the provision of work experience opportunities to pupils from less affluent backgrounds.

Employers want new recruits to have work experience

The ‘catch’ for young people in terms of work experience is laid bare in the UK Commision’s new report: 66% of employers rate experience as a ‘critical’ or ‘significant’ factor when it comes to recruitment decisions yet less than a third of this figure are currently prepared to offer opportunities.

The impact of this on the UK’s continuing high rate of youth unemployment is highlighted – the UK has “German levels of adult unemployment but Eurozone levels of youth unemployment”. The UK Commission has previously used case studies of the work experience systems of countries including Australia and the Netherlands to show the positive benefits of integrating work experience into education for youth employment rates.

So, what will it take for UK employers and educational institutions to adopt closer relationships in order to improve the work experience offer for young people?

Improved collaboration

Despite indications that the number of employers taking on apprentices is increasing, and encouraging examples of collaborations between schools and employers, Katerina Rüdiger of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) believes that the government should do more to facilitate employer-education relatationships. Reacting to the new UK Commission report, Rüdiger called for the government to “create a role in local authorities so they can work with the National Careers Service to provide resources and broker relationships between young people, schools and employers to generate routes into work”. The involvement of government in facilitating this type of collaboration has also been described as vital by the UK Commission.

The UK Commission has described the December 2014 announcement of a new careers and enterprise company for English schools (with the aim of encouraging employers to link directly to pupils throughout their education) as “promising”. This follows its previous call for the rest of the UK to follow the lead of the Scottish Government which, through its commission for developing Scotland’s young workforce, is aiming to achieve links with employers for each of the country’s secondary schools over the next three years.

Whether these initiatives will have the required impact on the UK’s work experience offer for young people remains, of course, to be seen in another year’s time.


Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on work experience and youth employment. Items of interest include:

Work experience: benefits and impact (Series briefing note 44)

Undergraduates’ memories of school-based work experience and the role of social class in placement choices in the UK

Making work experience work: top tips for employers

Work experience doesn’t work, says Wood Commission

The effects of work experience during higher education on labour market entry: learning by doing or an entry ticket?

Building STEM skills in the UK

Halten

The latest briefing from the Knowledge Exchange focuses on the provision of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in the UK. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange home page.

Despite indications that increased levels of skills acquisition in STEM fields is critical to the future of the UK economy, surveys of employers frequently reveal issues with the recruitment of employees with appropriate skills. Continue reading