Q&A with Kate Chandler, Senior Consultant in UX & Service Design

While there’s no question that the tech sector has far to go in balancing the scales, the last decade has seen increasing awareness of the benefits and social significance of diversity in the workplace. Yet, when it comes to neurodiversity and embracing the differences in cognitive styles, many employers remain uncertain as to how to improve accessibility in their hiring strategies and workplace design.

As a relatively new term, there is a lot of learning to be done about neurodiversity in the workplace. Even the term itself is unfamiliar to many employers, but taking steps to spread awareness and increase support can be hugely beneficial to businesses of any size or sector. According to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), being neuro divergent means that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently. Neurodivergence includes Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia.

To get a better understanding of where the issue lies and what employers can do to tackle this, we spoke with Kate Chandler, one of our Senior Consultants specialising in UX and service design. Having studied graphic communication and typography at degree level, Kate brings to her work a keen interest in the psychology of design and is passionate about breaking down the barriers to entry in the creative industries for candidates who may have a-typical cognitive styles.

 

How can businesses benefit from neurodiversity in the workforce?

Especially in the creative industries, taking advantage of unique perspectives is key in building brilliant experiences for the end-user. From an accessibility perspective, you’re a lot less likely to be building a product that will alienate a huge portion of the population if they are engaged in its development. Rather than seeing neurodiversity as a tick-box, we should see the gathering of different perspectives and brain types as a critical component in competing effectively.

 

How can an organisation champion neurodiversity as part of its employer brand?

When we talk about neurodiversity in the workplace, it typically tends to come under the banner of recruitment. However, the truth is that there are already a number of people in the workforce who fall into this category who could undoubtedly do with having more measures in place to support them.

I was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child and whilst I have learnt lots of coping mechanisms, I have thrived in my career thanks to supportive employers. It may not seem like much, but by creating an environment in which I feel comfortable asking for anything I need, I don’t feel like I’m at a disadvantage – and that makes such a difference. This comes back to the key point that if you hire someone to tick the diversity box, but don’t offer them the appropriate support it will never have a positive outcome.

If you are hiring someone with an atypical cognitive style, it’s really important that this is factored into the onboarding process. If your aim is to unlock the unique potential they bring to the table, you should ensure the right set up is in place from day one – it could be a coloured filter for their screen, a quiet environment for them to work or even just a spellchecking software. Thinking about these elements ahead of time is absolutely paramount to creating this inclusive environment in which everyone – no matter their cognitive style – feels supported and empowered to produce their best work.

 

Are there steps that employers can take to improve accessibility within the hiring process to encourage neurodiversity in its workforce?

According to a study carried out by the Westminster ‘AchieveAbility’ commission for dyslexia and neurodiversity, 88% of neuro-atypical candidates felt discouraged from applying for a job. It’s a worrying figure, but one we can hope to reduce by making simple changes to the process that will inevitably improve it for everyone.

From a UX perspective, there are a few quick wins that employers can enact right away to encourage a broader range of applicants with differing cognitive styles – one of these is not forcing people to enter the same information multiple times into separate boxes and instead allowing auto-upload for pdfs and word docs. Again, this would likely encourage more applicants in general as it is less repetitive and time-consuming.

Companies should also be allowing candidates to apply in different ways. For instance, there should be more options available in an application than just a written submission. A lot of these suggestions come from my own personal experiences, but for candidates who find writing a CV to be a challenge due to their cognitive style, the option should be there for them to present a video or audio file.

 

What would you say makes for an accessible job description?

Anything that makes a job spec rigid can be off-putting to a range of candidates, whether it’s the language or the way it’s displayed.

Fortunately, there are number of tools that can scan for language that might dissuade certain candidates, e.g. aggressive words that can put women off from applying. When it comes to cognition, hiring managers should be extremely cautious of using language that is unnecessarily complex and technical, as this could signal to candidates that the internal processes within the company are the same which creates a barrier.

Similarly, if the way the job spec is presented is inaccessible, candidates will assume the same of the working environment. For instance, using a serif typeface in either a very high or low contrast can cause visual stress to many people. Using a clear solid typeface and short lines of text can help.

 

What about the interview process?

Given that an estimated 15% of the UK population are neuro divergent, employers should be wary of not blocking off a considerable portion of potential candidates by opting for a restrictive interview process. For candidates with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, understanding the application process ahead of time can really make such a difference.

When engaging with any candidate regardless of their cognitive style, employers should try to build flexibility into the process. For instance, saying up front that you can adapt the interview process if need be gives the applicant time and confidence to suggest alternatives. Presentations of case studies typically feature as part of UX interviews, as do tasks within the interview itself. Being told about these tasks in advance and having guidance as to which case studies to present will give candidates the best chance of impressing a hiring manager.

In collaboration with an accessibility think tank, Universal Music Group actually created a playbook on ways in which you can incorporate methods for improving conditions for neurodiverse employees; one of the key suggestions offered here is the involvement of a neurodiversity champion (i.e. someone in the business who self-identifies as neurodiverse) when candidates of atypical cognitive styles are being interviewed and onboarded.

The teachings they can provide to senior leaders can then be passed on; awareness can spread of the elements that most may not even recognise as inaccessible until pointed out.

 

In summary, there are three top takeaways for employers in increasing accessibility and championing neurodiversity as part of its employer brand:

  1. Make it clear you value diversity in all forms
  2. Be adaptable – from application, to onboarding, to in the job
  3. When we design inclusive systems, it improves things for everyone

Since neurodivergence is so common, most workplaces are already ‘neurodiverse’. This in mind, it is not a necessarily question of increasing the volume of neurodivergent candidates but building an awareness about the barriers that currently prevent such employees from achieving their potential. The need for organisations to improve processes in order to ensure all staff feel valued and empowered to contribute is paramount in maximising the potential of the entire workforce.

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