The New Purple — Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Hiring neurodivergent workers is more than just a matter of decency — there’s a strong business case too
In the 2016 BBC docu-series, Employable Me, Ashley gives viewers the grand tour of his Liverpool “bachelor pad.” The 29-year-old leads us into the living room, on which we can only focus once we unglue our eyes from his huge handlebar moustache — the sort that once decorated the stiff upper lips of Colonels and Generals at the height of the British Empire.
“One thing you might notice is that it’s completely purple…the colour of madness,” he says. “Purple and I have something in common: we’re unusual, rarely seen, and sadly misunderstood.”
Ashley, you see, has Asperger’s Syndrome. Like many on the autism spectrum, he’s highly intelligent but sadly unable to secure a job. Instead, he spends his days reading and writing about Victorian times — which could account for the fabulous tache.
A quick Google search suggests that purple no longer represents madness. We’ve managed to flip the script, and today, it’s positively associated with disability, symbolising:
“a new positive narrative about the contribution of disabled people in the workforce and the wider community.”
However, I’ll tell you something that does represent madness: refusing to employ autistic folks, or those with any other neurodivergent condition, simply because their brains operate differently than others.
Autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette syndrome: these “hidden disabilities” should influence hiring — only in a positive rather than negative way. Instead of discouraging organizations from employing willing workers, these conditions and the unique skills that come with them should actively encourage firms to throw open their doors.
Thanks to wonderful humans like Ashley appearing on series like Employable Me, there’s now a conversation around this issue, and companies are finally coming to understand that neurodivergent jobseekers are among the most employable in the world.
Companies smart enough to establish adapted interview processes (involving less eye contact, for example) and the right working environments (such as quieter spaces with fewer distractions), will usually win top-tier employees. And it’s likely those employees will not only match their neurotypical peers but surpass them too!
EY knows this! On World Autism Awareness Day, the professional services firm did its part to promote neurodiversity in the workplace, demonstrating some of the ways it can help us create a better working world — EY’s overarching mission. The programme built on an earlier panel discussion I joined alongside colleagues Alison Kay and Hiren Shukla at this year’s Autism at Work Summit, where we sought to spread awareness of the untapped potential offered by neurodivergent individuals.
Aside from the most obvious morality-based reasons (acceptance, respect, recognition, fairness, and so on), why exactly should firms also look beyond neurotypicals to fill some of their desks? What can a neurodiverse workplace (one composed of both neurodivergent and neurotypical workers) do for business? A fair bit, to be honest.
In neurodivergent folks, companies will usually find curious, loyal employees keen to stick around and learn as much as possible. On top of that, they’ll get hard workers, many of whom are gifted with unusual levels of creativity. This means they’re capable of looking at things in unique ways to come up with innovative solutions to tricky problems. And because their minds function, learn, and process information differently from neurotypicals, neurodivergent people are often great with numbers too — ideal in roles involving a lot of data.
In a recent conversation with Kathleen Davis at Fast Company about laying the groundwork for a neurodiverse workforce, EY’s Hiren Shukla made a similar point. He asks:
“Would you like 92% retention of your workforce in data science, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity? Because if you would, making this investment upfront is easy. You will get a 10–20 times return on that investment, because 92% retention, as far as I know, is best in class.”
And he’s right — you just can’t argue with those numbers. We find ourselves at a very exciting moment in history, where organizations have the chance to help craft a truly inclusive working world while simultaneously gaining a competitive advantage. They can hop on board or get left behind — those are really the only two choices at a time when more and more firms are realising how foolish it is to dismiss neurodivergent jobseekers as misfits.
So, for everyone’s sake, let’s all get to the point where Ashley might consider repainting his home a happier shade of purple — perhaps a nice lavender, another colour we the inclusive adore!