Series Fourteen, Episode Three – Focus on neurodiversity: From awareness to acceptance

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In this second conversation, which forms part of a two-part special episode celebrating and understanding neurodiversity, host Julia Streets is joined by Dan Harris, CEO of Neurodiversity in Business.  Dan shares how it is important to welcome, maintain and retain neurodivergent talent.  They discuss the realities of self-disclosure through the recruitment process and the role of Human Resources and employee networks.  Dan explains how practical changes can be made within the workplace and how awareness is not the end goal, instead it’s about creating a culture of acceptance.

Dan Harris

Dan is the CEO of Neurodiversity in Business, which is focussed on supporting UK businesses to implement Neuroinclusive workplaces.

Series Fourteen, Episode Three Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets, and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about equity, inclusion, and diversity in financial services. On the podcast, we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus, and offer lots of ideas to help drive change. A very warm welcome to the second in our two part special all about understanding and celebrating neurodiversity.

As avid listeners will know, in our last episode, we welcomed Lou Anderson, a Senior Sales Development representative at the firm Connector as we discussed her lived experiences. This two part special is designed to give us more time, because we want to seek advice about how best to welcome, motivate, and retain neurodivergent talent. In the second in this special series, I welcome Dan Harris, CEO of Neurodiversity in Business. Before we get started today, I just want to take a moment to thank our friends at CityAM for their continued support of DiverCity Podcast. They have a dedicated page on their website that publish and promotes both our episodes and our supporting blog series, so their readers can stay at the very top of the very latest diversity, equity, and inclusion debate. Now, you may wish to check out their own podcast called The City View for all the latest news and opinion from the city, because we at DiverCity Podcast are huge fans.

Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Dan Harris. Dan is the CEO of Neurodiversity in Business, which is focused on supporting global businesses to implement neuro-inclusive workplaces, I can’t wait to hear what he has to say. Dan, thanks for your time today. Thanks for being with us.

Dan: Thanks Julia. I must say I’m honoured to be on your podcast. I’ve seen and heard a number of them, and I’m in really great company. First of all, congratulations on all the amazing work you do on D&I across the sector.

Julia: You’re very kind. We won’t be talking about me. I’m really keen to hear what you’ve been up to, but I will take that into my day. Thank you Dan. What are you focused on right now?

Dan: We’re relatively early on in our journey, actually, at Neurodiversity in Business, Julia. We launched in Parliament back in March 2022, so we’ve had the last three or four months, really, to start developing out our membership proposition and how we’re actually going to help organisations and corporates change society through showing, actually, if corporates can lead on embracing and supporting neurodiversity.

Julia: Let’s get into that a little bit more, because I mentioned in the opening remarks that you are working with global organisations as well. I’m very keen to take a bit of a step back, because clearly you have a strong sense, to the point you’ve actually gone out and actively done something about it, that neurodivergent talents can really make a difference within organisations. Really keen to hear in what way, and if you could skew your remarks towards the world of financial services and technology, that would be really helpful for our listeners.

Dan: Yes, happy to. NIB’s mantra is that, actually, there’s a significant amount of underutilised human capital out there, and it’s not those neurodivergent employees that need to change, it’s society that needs to change. It’s the corporates that need to change in order to bring that talent in. Why we think it’s such good timing at the moment, as you know Julia in financial services, there is such a massive war for talent out there. That war for talent, I’ve been working in this space for 21 years, I’ve never seen anything like it, in terms of the number of people who are able to up sticks and move to a new organisation for a new opportunity. But, possibly more importantly, just those unfilled resource gaps in big organisations that they’re really struggling to fill.

What we are doing across industry, and particularly financial service, is highlighting that, actually, neurodiversity does not need to sit in the “too hard to deal with” bucket. Depending on who you speak to, and I know you are very close to one of these topics, we’ve made great or good strides in sexuality, gender balance, we’ve done stuff on ethnicity, starting on socioeconomic, but neurodiversity has unfortunately sat in that “too hard to deal with bucket” that, whilst there may be some great executive level support on this topic and there may be public pronouncements, actually those fundamental changes that need to happen haven’t always been implemented at the speed or the rigour or the completeness that the neurodivergent employee has asked for.

Importantly, it’s also about saying, who’s not in the room here? Who are we excluding? That’s the neurodivergent potential employee. It’s those people who are neurodivergent, but haven’t had access, perhaps the early diagnosis or support through education, and definitely not those access into employment. It’s those people that we are desperately trying to reach as well.

Julia: What’s wonderful about what you’ve set out so far is that there’s a gaping hole that needs to be filled. There’s an incredible talent pool that is ready to work, let’s put it that way, and it’s organisations that need to change. When you are talking to leaders, what practical changes do you recommend they make?

Dan: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head around that practicality, because this isn’t necessarily about rushing out to the marketplace and committing that we are going to hire X percent of talent from the neurodiverse spectrum. 15-20% of our population, and thus the workforce, are on the neurodiverse spectrum. That’s a significant number of people. I think in the UK alone, that equates to 13 million people. For the benefit of people listening, just for clarity, we’re talking about topics around dyslexia, autism spectrum condition, ADHD, dyspraxia, dyscalculia. There are a few others, but these are topics which actually touch a lot of people, either through direct association that they are associated with that condition, or within their family.

One of the earliest things that we’re trying to encourage is around awareness not really being the end goal. We’ve all spent a lot of our careers working on awareness and trying to raise corporate’s understanding of this topic. Where this needs to ultimately lead to is acceptance. Acceptance of the fact that the reasonable adjustments that a lot of neurodivergent talent actually need aren’t that significant. They’re not costly, they’re not overly complicated. Also, that you get this right for your neurodivergent talent, you get that right for the entire firm. That’s really powerful about some of the changes we’re seeing in big corporates, is the changes that we are asking for in order to realise the talent and the skills for the neurodivergent workforce, actually, it’s just good practise. What we want to do is we want to remove the raison d’etre for Neurodiversity in Business. We would love not to exist in 10 years time.

Rather than organisations asking you as a rather basic dropdown box, “Are you disabled, are you neuro-divergent? Which condition?” What we want to do is flip the narrative here. We want organisations to be asking a very simple question, “How do we as corporations get the best out of you as an employee? How do we enable you to thrive rather than just survive?” Just changing that narrative is incredibly powerful, because self-disclosure rates, are really low in this space. That’s because individuals are very nervous about what this means for their career, for their chances of advancement. Disappointingly, a lot of these individuals end up in either dispute with the organisation or potentially in employment tribunal later on because some of the fundamentals haven’t been actioned which would’ve enabled them, as I said earlier, to thrive in their workplace.

We’re really delighted at the progress that’s being made, but equally, things are running too slow, they’re not being implemented systemically. The great Dr. Nancy Doyle, who’s far more of an expert than I am on this and she talks about universal design. I won’t premise or prejudice her conceptions here, but I think what she’s saying is actually let’s design our working practises, so actually we’ll build inclusion in at the design stage, and we’re aiming for systemic inclusion, rather than tactical effort towards inclusion.

Julia: We were delighted to have her on the show, actually, just before lockdown, and she was extraordinary how she was explaining some of those practises. I would encourage our listeners to go back and listen to Dr. Nancy Doyle. There were a couple of things from your remarks that particularly bubbled up for me. One of them was about changing the narrative, and the second is very much about you design this into working practises that are good for everybody as much as they are good for your neurodivergent talent as well. Can you just give us a couple of really practical examples or tactical examples? I know you said it’s not about the tactics, but I’d love dear listeners to be able to go, “Yes we do or don’t to do that, so therefore tomorrow we must start doing things differently.”

Dan: There’s always a danger in me focusing on a couple of narrow examples, so with that caveat, I will be brave and give a couple.

Julia: Thank you.

Dan: First one is a systemic thing around actually creating that culture of acceptance of differences. We’ve spent a lot of time with our membership within Neurodiversity in Business supporting around the fact that, actually, these differences are incredibly powerful for delivery. What I mean by that is, in my experience in the corporate world, when you’ve got a client focused team, whether that be a project team or a business as usual team, diversity of thought absolutely delivers better outcomes. We’re seeing this from a regulatory focus now, aren’t we, in terms of the regulators across financial services probing and asking, what does that diversity of thought look like at the board level?

But, what we also see at the operational level is that, if you bring neurodivergent talent into project teams, you’ll see innovative solutions, you’ll see creative ways of solving complicated problems, and also what we are seeing is that there will be an increased focus on that level of detail that potentially is missed by other members of the team. Whilst we never want to be prescriptive around setting quotas, it needs to be organic and grassroots driven, if you are aiming for diversity of thought within your project teams, you absolutely are delivering better outcomes for clients, and that’s what corporates are here for. They’re here for bringing the inputs, doing the process, and delivering a meaningful output, generating profit along the way. That was one very tactical example.

Another would be, we talked earlier about the recruitment piece. Now, recruitment practises and interviews are still based in quite a legacy, heritage way of thinking, which doesn’t tap into the talent particularly of neurodivergent people. What I mean by that is that, often, the people who excel in interviews are the ones who can sell themselves really well. It’s very difficult, and I know this from doing interviews, it’s very difficult to know what your individual contribution is, as against what the contribution was of the project team of which you were hopefully a key part.

Certain people on the neurodiverse spectrum are incredibly honest, very loyal, but talk very bluntly. To the point, that’s a real asset in business. But, equally in interviews, you may self diminish your own input into a process or the value that you created as part of the project team. It’s important that the interview process isn’t the traditional competency based interview, but actually what we think is more powerful is moving to actually work trials or job trials, showing actually how would that individual perform given a task which is representative of what they’ll be doing day to day. The old fashioned interview, sitting by the fireplace and having a chat, it doesn’t always tend to let neurodivergent talent demonstrate their excellence.

Julia: I love that. We’ve got everything from the corporate narrative, corporate culture and the culture of inclusion, and into a really specific sense of, when you are interviewing people, give them a task that is emblematic or an example of the work they’re going to be doing.

Dan: Right.

Julia: Then you can read and see people shine in that. That’s wonderful, because we can talk very notionally about needing to be open, but we know that organisations need very, very specific changes to be made, so that’s really helpful. Thank you Dan.

Dan: If I may, I’d like to also circle back to a point I made earlier, which is get this right for neurodivergent talent, you get this right for your business as a whole. We could draw an interesting analogy there for job descriptions when they go out to market. We still fall into this terrible hole of putting job descriptions out there which say I need a great team player, someone who’s enthusiastic. There are some very vague terms which are hard for people to get their hands around. Actually, sometimes you exclude people by asking for certain things, and if you’re not confident enough or have that holistic appreciation of your own worth, that will discourage people from even applying. 

I would encourage businesses there to be a bit more specific, a bit more realistic, and quantify things, qualify things in a bit more detail so that you’re not using vague terms which may actually discourage people from applying in the first place. If you’re not getting people knocking on the door, you’re definitely not getting them through the door and into your business.

Julia: That’s really helpful, thank you very much indeed. I can’t help but think if we look along the talent pipeline journey a little further, so you’ve been successful in welcoming this talent into your organisation. We know that in our work that the role of networks really matters. I’m very curious, actually, to get your view on whether it’s helpful or not to have neurodivergent network groups within organisations, or whether you think that actually becomes too siloed given your intention to make everybody feel very welcome, very included, and then also to drive systemic change for everybody.

Dan: It’s a really good question, and I’m glad you put me on the spot there because it’s one that definitely deserves good attention. I think the answer is, it’s horses for courses. Organisations are going to be at different stages of their journey, and if we look across, we’ve got about over 300 members now within Neurodiversity in Business, and I look across that spectrum and I would say that perhaps 5-10 are at the maturity level of two to three, so it’s a very small number of organisations. Most are in that kind of 0.51 level on a zero to five maturity curve scale. I would say that, and I don’t want this to be controversial, I actually do support the establishment of these groups. I think, ideally, longer term would the need for them to exist would disappear. But, right now where we are in that journey, I think it’s incredibly powerful to have neurodivergent voices being heard, with that mantra “nothing about us without us”.

Because, the danger is that there’s that executive level support, there may be some public pronouncements on neurodiversity, which then get rolled out to an HR function who maybe are stretched, they’re being pulled in lots of different directions. The diversity and inclusion agenda is multifaceted across lots of different areas of intersectionality. You’ll then find that they may be implementing things which aren’t necessarily optimal for the neurodivergent talent. It’s important that those employee resource groups actually are vocal, that they are respective, and that they are listened to as part of that two way consultation with HR. Where I’ve seen the best within Neurodiversity in Business’ membership is where there is a close and collaborative relationship between HR, who are implementing those programmatic changes, and the employee resource group who actually tell us what the effect is at the ground level.

Julia: I love your reference to “nothing about us without us.” That is why these groups really, really matter. A lot of people talk about the power of intersectionality. Love to hear your point of view on that.

Dan: I think neurodiversity is pretty unique in that perspective, because what we’re finding is, number one, you could have face value a fantastically diverse group of people in the room around sexuality, gender, ethnicity. But, what you may be missing is diversity of thought, because if all of those people have graduated from Harvard and have gone through exactly the same route, etc, you’re missing out. What we like to say in the ND community as well is that neurodiversity, it actually covers all of those intersectionalities. We’re acutely conscious as well is that there is some significant disadvantages to females in the neurodiversity ecosystem, because they will have probably most likely been underdiagnosed, misdiagnosed, undersupported through education, so we need to pay particular attention to that intersection. For example, a young Black boy in an inner city school will get more than often misdiagnosed as being naughty or disruptive rather than the accurate description, which may be that person associates with ADHD.

There are various elements of intersectionality which are just incredibly important, but we have to keep asking ourselves, who’s not in the room? That lady that I just referenced who may have got misdiagnosed instead of being on the autistic spectrum, but went through her teenage years and was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, for example, that person may not then have the sufficient support through education to even think about employment. Again, with that young Black boy in the inner city school, put the right support around these people and they can absolutely flourish. We need to move away from that medical model into the social model, whereby we’re not asking what is wrong with that neurodivergent individual, we’re asking how can society adapt to enable that person to absolutely thrive and deliver their best potential.

Julia: That’s wonderful. That’s great, Dan. I read somewhere that there was also an event called Autistic Pride Day as well, and for me as an outsider looking in, I just think this is a wonderful moment, where a segment of our neurodivergent talent is standing up and being very proud to have autistic diagnoses. I love the way you described it, moving away from the medical to the social, and this is firmly placing pride of being autistic in a social context as well. Love your thoughts on that, and any context you can give us around that.

Dan: First of all, I want to reference the people who have come before me and are doing greater things than I do, and I’d like to also credit Siena Castellon who’s an amazing young lady, teenager, who started the Neurodiversity Celebration Week, and that is, within our ecosystem, that’s where we coalesce across the year. Last year, it was in March. We’re just awaiting for the dates to be announced for 2023. But, I think the whole idea here is that we need to celebrate difference, and difference in all forms and all kinds. Rather than having that stigma attached to certain conditions and what are the deficits, et cetera, what we’re trying to say is, actually, there are unique strengths across this spectrum.

Businesses in particular are waking up to the fact that neurodiversity is absolutely a competitive advantage, so certain job roles and certain skill sets which are massively in demand in our workplace right now, which are going unfulfilled, there are some unique skills out there within the neurodivergent talent force, which we’re just not tapping into. We’re not tapping into those because some of the things we’ve discussed earlier. This kind of celebration around neurodiversity is trying to highlight to society that, actually, there is a massive amount that we can contribute and we should be contributing, just open up the doors and let us walk through those doors.

Julia: Can you just expand on that a little bit more in terms of some of those very specific areas where the attributes of the talent can really make that competitive difference?

Dan: I’ll draw on an example that one of our members gave me last month, actually, when we were having a one-to-one, and I won’t reference that organisation. The lady who was the head of the neurodiversity at work programme at this large financial services institution based in Canary Wharf, I won’t go any further.

Julia: That’ll do, Canary Wharf will do.

Dan: There’s enough of them. She got called by HR actually and said, “Did you help this person?” It was an autistic guy coming in for a software testing role. “Did you help them on the test?” She was a bit taken back and she said, “No, sitting next to me. There was an independent person in the room as well. They were on video, they were doing everything independently.” They said, “Well, we’ve been running this test since the late 1990s, and this is the first person who’s got near to a hundred percent.” That was just amazing. They were saying that normally the results is that a pass rate is about 60 and a fast track is about 70% through this test. This person just absolutely killed it.

What struck me was that we then found out that person, for the last three years, each year had been denied the generalist interview stage, because that person didn’t necessarily, through sending in their CV and then having a one-to-one like we are having now, didn’t necessarily demonstrate their capabilities. But, you put them in front of the task that they need to do day to day and they absolutely killed it. Their strengths which were just hidden, and that’s the really important thing, is that, how can we as leaders in business allow people to demonstrate their strengths and their unique talents, which often are hidden? When we say hidden, that’s not through want of trying, but that’s probably because those systemic barriers are in place that we’re not able to get below the hood and see those amazing strengths.

Julia: Dan, if that is not a compelling reason for change, I cannot think of a better one. Thank you for the example. I imagine every listener is thinking, “How many times have we discounted people through our application process and on our onboarding process?” Thank you for that. I would love just to, as we close out the show, just to talk about a couple of things. One of them is, first of all, the role of mentors, and actually once the talent comes into the organisation, the role of the power of mentors and sponsors to help their career journeys. Then we’re going to close out with the classic question I ask everybody, which is why this absolutely must remain high on the corporate board agenda priority list, particularly as we navigate these extraordinary times. Let’s start with mentors and sponsors.

Dan: I’m glad you brought this up, because some of the businesses we’ve seen within neurodiversity who are improving their maturity on their journey towards building neuro-inclusive workplaces have absolutely early focused on the fact that, if we want talent who are coming into the business to self disclose and to feel accepted to work their way through that 20 year career journey, hopefully, within the business, we need role models within our organisation. A big focus has been on, number one, moving away from that awareness piece to acceptance, but then also encouraging where they feel comfortable, senior leaders in the organisation to say, “Actually, I’m ADHD. I’ve excelled within my career, and look at me, I’m up at the COO of my organisation.”

That’s incredibly powerful, because if people can see, actually, that we have people who have succeeded, and that they have probably dealt with suboptimal organisational structure, that then empowers them to self disclose. It’s just a beautiful reinforcing circle once we get into that position. I genuinely think that we’ve turned the tide there. I genuinely think that leaders in business are now rapidly dispelling those myths around neurodiversity, and I’m just hugely encouraged. It gives me a lot of energy for what we are trying to do within the Neurodiversity in Business.

Julia: They and their peers will be sitting around senior tables of influence, navigating organisations through these tough pathways ahead. See us out, if you would, Dan, with your compelling reason why this absolutely must stay on the agenda of those meetings as we look ahead, and to make sure it doesn’t fall down the agenda.

Dan: I’ll make the case really simply, because often it’s most powerful when you do so. If you don’t get the best out of your neurodivergent talent, your competitors are going to. I see that day in, day out at the moment, in that organisations are actively dealing with this topic and actively promoting it are gaining significant benefits through increased staff, improved staff retention, through better productivity from their talent, but also they are becoming increasingly the neurodiverse employer of choice. What I mean by that is that, actually, if organisations are in this war for talent, and we both think that they are, being known as that neurodivergent employer of choice actually just gives you a big first mover advantage, because that top quality talent, which is out there, are going to be naturally gravitating to you as an organisation. The final point I’d raise is that, get this right for your neurodivergent talent and you get this right across the business. It really is a no brainer. Neurodiversity is a competitive advantage.

Julia: Dan Harris, it’s been wonderful to have you on the show. Thank you so much for all your thoughts. Not only at the highest level, but also in terms of bringing it down to very practical, tactical things that organisations can do. I’m very encouraged that there are enlightened leaders out there who are not only recognising their own personal attributes, but also encouraging others into their organisation, and that is ultimately what’s going to give them that winning advantage. Dan, thank you for your time today.

Dan: I’ve really enjoyed it Julia, and thank you for everyone listening today as well.

Julia: Well, I hope everybody’s enjoyed it as much as I have. I’ve been Julia Streets. As always, thank you to everybody for listening.

Cynthia: This episode of DiverCity podcast was produced by Roshanne Roberts on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. You can find out more about the guests from this week’s show on our website. That’s www.DiverCitypodcast.com. That’s diversity with a C and not an S. Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates. All our episodes are available in Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app. If you enjoy DiverCity podcast, remember to share on social media and give us a rating or review. Finally, our Twitter handle is @DiverCitypod. Thanks for listening.