Neurodiversity in the Workplace – Part 3: Accessible Interviews

By this part of the series, we have covered how to open the job market up to a wider talent pool and have looked into how to make Job Specs inclusive, the next step is to look at how we can make the interview process more accessible for all candidates, not just those classed as neurodivergent.

For someone with a neurodiverse condition, the idea of having to communicate and sell themselves to strangers could be akin to torture, this is partly why a lot of neurodiverse candidates will avoid disclosing their condition. They will feel like it will be held against them, rather than being supported and allow for the interview to be adapted for them.

Interviews don’t give a true reflection of whether someone could do a job anyway, but for a neurodiverse candidate, they may be more than capable of doing the job well, but will not get a chance to prove that because they hadn’t found a way to talk about it in the way the interviewees want them to talk about it. Something doesn’t add up here, but the interview process is probably here to stay for a long time yet.

What Can We Do to Make It Less Torturous?

Everything should be done to make all candidates feel as relaxed and informed of the process as possible. without this, any Neurodiverse candidate will instantly feel completely overwhelmed with the lack of knowing what to expect. This alone could cause someone with Autism to become very anxious and either end up not attending the interview or being visibly not at their best during the session.

The first step to help with this, would be to make contact with the candidate beforehand and ask them some simple questions around what environment they would be most comfortable being interviewed in. Given that the point of the interview is to find out about as much about each other as possible, working out whether you are a good fit, why not find an environment which everyone can be at ease? This may be outside in an open space or it may just be in a room which has been set up a lot more informally (no desk and panel interview format maybe?). It’s also a chance to discuss any sensory needs which may be distracting for the candidate (bright lights, loud noise or strong smells). Merely having this kind of conversation with the candidate, shows empathy and care for them and will immediately make them feel valued.

Along with having this discussion, ensure that the format of the interview is documented, and the schedule is sent to the candidate. Again, like the job spec, remove any ambiguous content and make it as clear as possible. Putting times in it may or may not be a good thing, as if there is any deviation to schedule because of delays on the day, this could also lead to anxiety from the candidate.

What are the Tests Proving?

Really assess whether any practical tests need to be timed/pressured. In the working environment, you won’t be in many situations where you have an hour to write a piece of code or perform a task, so why put additional pressure on a candidate who will already be putting additional pressure on themselves? It really becomes a test of processing speed rather than quality of output.

With any tests that are devised, think about how they can be made accesible. Look into whether they are compatible with assistive technology tools. Again, this will be something which will make the candidate feel like they are valued and that you are keen for them to do their best.

Think About Your Questions

One thing that will benefit all candidates, not just the ones who are neurodiverse, is for interview questions to be more carefully planned and prepared. Think about how your questions could be answered.

Do you have any prepared questions which could be percieved as closed questions? For someone with a neurodiverse condition, something along the lines of “Can you tell me about your current job?” could simply be answered with a “Yes I can”. Or something like “What can you bring to this role?” could get an answer along the lines of “my laptop, my rucksack and my lunch”. It’s crucial to find a way to articulate your questions in a way that both sides understand the type of answer expected.

Try to avoid hypothetical questions, someone with Autism or ADHD may struggle to understand the logic of why the answer would be important. Or questions where you get them to compare themselves to the other candidates (when they know nothing about them), this could throw the candidate off and the answers may come across as blunt.

Because of the nature of how some neurodivergents brains work, questions that come across vague will cause confusion, try and ensure these are as clear as possible and don’t be afraid to discuss expectations of what you’re asking about, in order to keep them focused.

Check Your First Impressions at the Door

In the heightened stress of an interview situation, you may find that a neurodiverse candidates eye contact is not what you would usually expect. They may spend a lot of time looking away or looking down, this doesn’t mean they aren’t focused, it may just be a coping mechanism to get them through the session.

Think again about what you are really assessing the candidate on, the problem with interviews are that they often became and exercise in social interaction. And while a lot of interviews are also about how well the person fits in the current team, it’s also important to understand how you can adapt the team setup to enable a neurodiverse team member to excel. So if you think they have the capability to do the job, think about what else you could do to help them fit in.

Next Time…

In part 4, we will look into the induction/onboarding process and how it can be made as inclusive as possible when considering Neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity in the Workplace – Part 2: Inclusive Job Specs

Following on from Part 1, the next step of the process is to look at how we can all make the hiring process more inclusive for Neurodiverse talent. We will look at the job advert in this part, looking at how to make them as inclusive as possible.

The Job Spec is a Window into the Role, how clean is your window?

How many job specs have you seen which are clearly just a regurgitated template which has been used over and over again without being updated for a while? Have you seen jobs with huge long lists of “must have skills”? Are all of these really “must have”? This can exclude neurodiverse talent, because they may feel there is one they don’t match and maybe they see the world in such a black and white way that this will prevent them from applying, even if they are excellent at all the other must have skills.

It’s also common for lots of jargon and acronyms to be used. This can be off putting for any of us who don’t know the terms, but consider someone with Autism who has bucked up the courage to look for jobs, only to be faced with one full of words and phrases they don’t understand, it can not only put them off this job, but can knock their confidence completely that all jobs would be like that and there is nothing they can do. One way around this is for the first time a phrase is used, use the full term and then put the acronym in brackets such as “Test Driven Development (TDD)”, once this mapping has been made, it would be ok to use the acronym. But consider if there are too many specific phrases that could cause confusion. You should want to make the role accessible to all, so the language needs to be as clear and concise as possible.

Try to ensure the daily activities are called out as clearly as possible, avoiding vague statements such as “assisting your manager”, instead specify exactly what that means. The clearer you can be, the easier it will be for someone with a neurodiverse condition to work out whether it is something they can and want to do.

What will the place of work be like to work in?

One thing which is often missing, and it can be crucial for any neurodivergent candidate, would be a description of the working conditions. With the hybrid working world going forward post pandemic, being clear on the environment will be like both in the office and what support can be provided at home too. Be open, if there is a “busy, collaborative working space” in the office, mention it, also state whether there are quiet areas away from the bustle. It would also be good to mention anything which could lead to sensory issues for some neurodiverse candidates, things like lighting, access to windows, smells from the canteen drifting through the office etc. You of course want to sell the workplace, but make it an accurate description that the candidate can assess for themselves. Provide links to a virtual office tour if you can, this will help them get comfortable with their surroundings.

With the home environment, mention what support you will give around equipment setup, but don’t tie it down to just the tech. If there are special bits of equipment needed for a neurodiverse candidate (maybe an anti-glare screen as an example), be open to reasonable adjustment from the standard working setup and help them feel supported.

Feedback and Accreditation

It will also be important if you put a statement around any diversity programmes your company has, including feedback from others who have used it.

If your company has any accreditation from disability organisations or has been certified as something like an “Autism friendly workplace”, then this is hugely beneficial to be included in the spec.

If you’re unsure whether the spec for a role is inclusive of neurodiverse individuals, reach out to organisations such as the National Autistic Society who would be able to provide pointers

Next Time…

In the next part, I will discuss more on the interview process itself.

Please feedback on whether you are finding this series useful… 🙂

Neurodiversity in the Workplace – Part 1: Finding Work

As part of my journey in learning more about Neurodiversity and doing my bit in helping make the workplace accessible for all both now and in the future, I felt it was time to start putting my learnings to paper and hope that my tiny circle of influence can get something from my ramblings.

Not sure how many parts this will end up being as I haven’t done this kind of thing before, but let’s see how it goes…

As If It Wasn’t Hard Enough for Anyone to find Work Right Now!

Many Neurodivergents tend to leave school with less qualifications than their potential suggests they should’ve got. This would be due to the support not always being in place in schools to enable them to achieve their best, along with the difficulties of peers who seem them as “different” or “odd”. Schools are trying to change this and SEND is now starting to get more focus, but there is a long way to go.

It’s not just schools either, Higher Education and Vocational Qualification settings also have not been equipped with the ability to support such a wide range of neurodiverse conditions, so it’s no wonder that students with Autism/ADHD/Dyslexia etc may not get the grades or qualifications they wanted or needed.

Find an Ally, Find A Job!

Finding the right job is difficult for us all, but finding a job when you’re Neurodiverse can be 10 times harder. So how can organisations start to make jobs accessible to all and not mean that individuals feel they need to hide their condition as best they can to try and get in the door?

In the current job world, (especially in Tech and other M&A functions), a large proportion of roles are now not publicly advertised and instead come about due to networking and building personal reputations. For people who enjoy socialising and enjoy being an active part of an industry community, this works in their favour, but for someone with Autism who may not feel able to socialise, this can cause additional anxiety and debilitate an individual. This could increase a lack of confidence, self-doubt and cause someone to go back into their shell, meaning they wouldn’t find out about these hidden roles. In some markets, these roles equate to 80% of the market, so straight away the window of opportunity is reduced significantly.

So what can be done? This is a tricky one, because we can’t force people to socialise more in the industry they wish to grow in, but one suggestion might be to find allies. This could come from various sources, but could involve organisations and individuals advocating for Neurodiversity, building bridges with neurodiverse charities and organisations (eg. National Autistic Society) to open a channel with them, to enable jobs to be advertised through their connections.

It may also be an opportunity for some people within major companies to buddy up with neurodiverse talent too, maybe being someone to talk to, to mentor and coach, while also making them feel at ease with what the working world may be like

This would certainly help to open a slightly larger amount of jobs to a market that haven’t usually been given a chance to apply. The next challenge will be to make sure the jobs being advertised are accessible to Neurodiverse candidates and the interview process does not exclude them either.

Guess you’ll be coming back for part 2 for more on that!

Thinking Differently – Embracing Neurodiversity in Tech

Diversity has rightly become a big topic of discussion across many media and in the last few years there have been huge movements globally to try and correct imbalances in the workforce. These have included Race, Gender, LGBTQ, Age and Physical Disabilities. A lot of companies have worked really hard to close the gaps within some of these diverse areas, but for me, one which has been relatively quiet, especially within Testing or even the wider Tech industry is Neurodiversity.

Before I dive further into this, what do we mean by Neurodiversity? (Quote taken from ACAS website  –

Neurodiversity refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information. It highlights that people naturally think about things differently. We have different interests and motivations, and are naturally better at some things and poorer at others.

Most people are neurotypical, meaning that the brain functions and processes information in the way society expects.

However it is estimated that around 1 in 7 people (more than 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently.

To be classed as Neurodivergent, it usually means conditions such as Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia or ADHD. There may be people within your teams that have one of these conditions and you may not even have ever been aware.

I have certainly worked with high-functioning neurodivergent engineers on both a peer-to-peer level and also manager-employee level. And I’m not just saying this for the sake of this article, but I have been awe-struck at time with how they have solved a problem or asked those questions that no-one else dare ask.

Certainly within Testing, it is not a role which requires uniformity or everyone fitting within the same box, we need out of the box thinkers and actually I found that one of my team was an incredible Exploratory tester, as his attention to detail was incredible but he had lots of ideas of pathways through the software which others would never have thought about. Indeed, a lot of the skills we look for in testing such as “Critical Thinking”, “Attention to detail”, “Seeing the bigger picture” are all things potentially in abundance within Neurodivergents. Although, maybe communication skills and stakeholder management may not be, but it comes to a point where we assess what we really need and can we work around the gaps in other ways?

I grew up with an Autistic sister, so for all of my life which I can remember, Autism has been something I have been very familiar with. This was added to, when I decided to fall in love with my wife, who for years has worked as a teacher in a Special Educational Needs (SEN) school, so I have learned a lot around Neurodiversity without really knowing what i was.

I do also think it is something that, the more I think about it, I have “quirks” which could be seen as “Neurodivergency”. I can relate a lot to my friend and fellow Testing Peer Chris’ blog post about his own self-discovery into ADHD, it could easily have been me who wrote that about myself. Maybe that is why it is an area which has peaked my interest so much?

In the workplace, I don’t feel enough is being done on multiple levels to ever really close the gap for potential Neurodivergent employees to be given a fair chance. 1 in 7 in the UK may be classed as Neurodivergent, but according to research done by Helen Needham for her recent TED Talk, they are 3 times more likely to be rejected for roles…

While I fundamentally believe that we should always hire the best candidate for any given role, are we even aware of untapped talent which we may have not even considered could fit the roles?

On an episode of the Super Testing Bros podcast last year, Lee Hawkins and Paul Seaman discussed their Neurodiversity project where they were teaching testing to autistic students. This was a fantastic listen and a great idea to reach out to a group not usually considered for roles within our industry. But it raises a lot of questions like the following:

  1. How can we raise the awareness of roles within our industry to more Neurodivergent candidates?
  2. How can we make our roles and our industry appealing?
  3. How could we change our hiring process to make these candidates feel able to participate?
  4. What could we do to make our work environment a place in which these potential employees would feel able to do there best work? Or what provisions could we put in place to ensure we supported them and helped them to be successful?

Raising the Awareness of Roles/Skills

As mentioned in the podcast above, Lee and Paul reached out to local organisations and had an Autistic charity take them up on teaching testing to students. So, I guess, in the same way some of us in the industry have started talking in schools and universities, another option would be to reach out to charities who are trying to help get people with Autism careers and working with local organisations to offer trainings of the necessary skills to get into testing or tech generally.

Making our Industry Appealing

As an industry, job adverts can be very varied in quality and detail. These can obviously be interpreted differently by different people, but think to yourself, would you role or company be appealing to a Neurodivergent candidate? Maybe they meet all the required skills to do the role, but don’t like doing presentations or talking to customers, would you be able to accomodate them and find other ways to complete the puzzle? We should see these candidates as a chance to see things differently, would they add something different to the team and make the team better? How can we therefore make these candidates want to work with us?

Making the Hiring Process Accessible

How do we feel our current hiring process would work with a Neurodivergent candidate? Is there any chance it could feel confrontational? How could you make it more accessible? Could interviews be carried out somewhere the candidate feels at ease? Could it be set as more of a chat, rather than an interview? If you know you have an Autistic candidate coming in, read up on Autism and learn about some of the triggers and things an autistic person may find difficult. A site worth browsing to learn more here would be – a site with experience reports and articles from neurodiverse employees and how they work…

Find a way to ensure you get all you need from the interview process but also ensure you’re not putting so much effort into the neurodivergent candidates, that you are neglecting any neurotypical candidates.

Enable Them to Be Successful

Ok, so you have hired them, but now, how do you ensure they fit within the team and the ways of working? Work with them to find a way for them to be successful. You may find the open plan office is a pain point for them, maybe they need a set of noise cancelling headphones to enable them to work in silence? Are there quiet areas where they can take themselves off to work? You may find they have some habits which seem odd to others, but will probably be partly a way of them self-regulating and keeping themselves calm. Make allowances for this and support them to ensure the team as a whole allow for this too. Ultimately, as with any employee, you want to help make them the best version of themselves they can be at work, doing all you can to nurture the talent will go a long way with that.

It really isn’t however about putting a label on these people, a lot are working perfectly fine within the tech industry already, but it is about considering them equally with other talent going for a role and learning a bit about how to get the most out of them, if you do decide to hire.