Insights & Expertise

How Companies Can Encourage Neurodiversity at the Job Search Stage

There’s a lot that can be done to eliminate the barriers that neurodiverse job seekers face – and many of those strategies would make the job search process better for everyone, say experts from Saint Joseph’s Haub School of Business and Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support.

Two women talk during a job interview.

by Rachel Kipp

The New Year is often a season of fresh starts, including for your career. But as more companies decentralize recruitment and hiring responsibilities within their organizations, it increases chances for inconsistent and sometimes difference-unfriendly practices.

This is particularly true for job seekers who are on the autism spectrum. Although studies have shown that neurodiversity is an asset for companies, candidates with autism often struggle to get a foot in the door.

According to 2016 estimates from the National Autistic Society, the unemployment rate for individuals with autism is 85 percent, including 80 percent of people who are considered to have high functioning autism.

But experts at Saint Joseph’s say there is a lot companies and individuals can do at the job search stage to overcome some of the barriers that neurodiverse candidates face – and many of those strategies would make the process better for all job seekers.

“Most of the problems that companies have with the hiring process in general is that … they’re getting distracted by lots of things that don’t have anything to do with making a successful hire,” says Eric Patton, Ph.D., chair and professor of management. “It’s becoming more of a question of, ‘Do I like you; do you like me, do we have this rapport?’ which is usually totally irrelevant to the task at hand, and can create a serious barrier for people on the spectrum.”

In a recent research paper, Patton found that many techniques that managers use to build teams and develop strong bonds with their employees likely won’t work for people on the autism spectrum because they often run counter to behaviors that are common among that group. The paper, “Autism, Attributions and Accommodations: Overcoming Barriers and Integrating a Neurodiverse Workforce,” was published in the journal Personnel Review.

For example, emotional intelligence, or the ability to understand your and others’ emotions and use them strategically, has become a highly valued workplace skill. But many people on the autism spectrum struggle to understand the moods and needs of others, and also may find it difficult to make eye contact or small talk.

“So many of those soft skills come into play with the job search process – your handshake, your eye contact, your ability to banter,” Patton says. “Employers view this as icebreaking, as a way to get everyone relaxed and then get into the more substantive questions. But this can be a real stressor and a real barrier for people on the spectrum.”

“So many of those soft skills come into play with the job search process – your handshake, your eye contact, your ability to banter.... This can be a real stressor and a real barrier for people on the spectrum.”

Eric Patton, Ph.D.

Chair and Associate Professor, Management

For job seekers who are on the spectrum, one major question becomes how, or whether, to disclose that they have a difference. Autism is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but people on the high functioning end of the spectrum in particular may fear that disclosure will lead to potential discrimination, Patton says.

“As an employer you cannot ask somebody about their disability; the onus is totally on the candidate or the employee to disclose,” Patton says. “There is a line of thought that disclosing neurodiversity earlier will give you the full protection of the law and maybe snap the interviewer out of questions about why is this person acting in a way that might seem different.”

He notes that one change employers can make that would benefit all job candidates, but would be of particular help to job seekers on the autism spectrum, is to have a very clear view of the core functions of the open position and to write a clear, concise job description that is free of jargon and fully transparent about what the person who gets the job would actually be doing.

“This is something that would be good for everyone, but especially essential for someone on the spectrum in terms of understanding the nature of the job and figuring out if they will be happy there,” Patton says.

Similarly, all job candidates would also benefit from a more structured approach to interviewing, Patton says. Eliminating “wild, esoteric” questions designed to throw people off their game is particularly useful for evaluating neurodiverse candidates.

“Even though the unemployment rate for individuals with autism is very high, there’s a lot of research showing that once they’re in an employment setting, their performance is excellent, their attendance is excellent, their turnover is extremely low,” Patton says. “There’s a great business case for hiring individuals who are neurodiverse; this isn’t a charity thing; it’s really wasted talent that is often running into a barrier right at the initial point of contact.”

“There’s a great business case for hiring individuals who are neurodiverse; this isn’t a charity thing; it’s really wasted talent that is often running into a barrier right at the initial point of contact.”

Eric Patton, Ph.D.

Chair and Associate Professor, Management

Hiring used to be solely the job of human resources departments. But as it’s become gradually decentralized, with frontline managers put in charge of writing descriptions, interviewing and selecting the right candidate, the process has become a lot less structured, which can be detrimental to cultivating any kind of diversity in the office, Patton says.

“I don’t necessarily see HR clawing back the whole interviewing and selection process, but HR can become a really important partner for managers when they want to hire somebody,” he says. “Neurodiversity is an example where HR professionals could really support hiring managers by becoming a center of best practices and ensuring that managers are not eliminating potentially excellent hires.”

Patton and Saint Joseph’s Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support have proposed a new interdisciplinary minor aimed at training neurotypical managers, in HR and beyond, who can promote inclusion and put policies in place to support neurodiverse workers. If accepted, the proposed minor (which is currently being studied through the university governance process) would include courses offered at the Erivan K. Haub School of Business , the new School of Health Studies and Education, and the College of Arts & Science.

Part of the inspiration for the minor came from conversations with industry partners, including those who worked with the Kinney Center on an internship program for students who are part of Kinney’s ASPIRE program, which offers programming and support to Saint Joseph’s students who are on the autism spectrum.

When students interviewed for that program over the summer, Kinney staff recommended that they bring work samples that showcased their skills, such as a paper they wrote or a project, “so they would be able to talk about that instead of having to just answer open-ended questions,” says Theresa McFalls, Kinney’s director of college support.

She says that some groups have also started to hold virtual career fairs, where job candidates talk with potential employers online, or “reverse” career fairs where companies move from candidate to candidate, rather than the opposite, as ways to alleviate some of the social anxieties experienced by many people on the autism spectrum.

Kinney connects its clients with placement services that specifically serve neurodiverse candidates, and also keeps a resource list of companies that have made comprehensive efforts to create a work environment that is welcoming to employees on the autism spectrum.

“The biggest thing we want to do is to help them figure out a way to showcase their skills on lots of different platforms,” McFalls says. “They make online profiles, choose writing samples or anything to show a little bit more about themselves than what you would see on a typical resume.”

Students in the ASPIRE program begin taking career readiness classes in their sophomore year, McFalls says, which includes building a resume and cover letter and participating in mock interviews and workplace etiquette scenarios.

“The biggest thing for them is learning to elaborate on their responses,” McFall says. “People with autism are good at creating scripts and memorizing so we work with them to create scripted responses to common interview questions.”

Patton writes in his paper that neurodiversity in the workplace is a “demand-side,” problem, meaning there is no shortage of qualified workers, but that organizations need to actively put practices in place to hire neurodiverse employees and then accept and include them in the workplace.

“The goal should be to have people who are neurodiverse to engage fully in competitive, real jobs where their talents are going to be used to the fullest,” Patton says. “That takes deliberate steps on the part of organizations to make sure their typical practices are not shutting the door on day one.”

He also notes that “a lot of the very best companies that are doing great work and getting this right have support that comes from the highest level of the organization – the CEO and the vice presidents. That seems to be the most important factor for companies to really take this seriously.”