Embracing the differences: Neurodiversity in the workplace

NEW YORK (Reuters) - America seems to have a chronic shortage of a certain type of employee: Programmers and coders who thrive in high-tech environments.

An undated photo of Kelly Grier, EY's U.S. Chair and Managing Partner and Americas Managing Partner. Courtesy EY/via REUTERS

Well, Kelly Grier has a tip: They are out there. You are just not looking in the right place.

The U.S. Chair and Americas managing partner for professional services and consulting company EY, Grier helps spearhead the firm’s development of “neurodiverse” teams. The aim is to tap employees who might think or act a little differently than most, but have incredible talents to offer.

Reuters sat down with Grier to talk about how a diverse workforce is helpful - not just in terms of gender or race - but in the very way we think.

Q: For folks who have not heard of the term “neurodiversity,” what exactly are we talking about?

A: We’re talking about individuals who have varying aspects of a neurodivergent background – like autism, Asperger’s, dyslexia and ADHD.

This is a group of people who are often unemployed or underemployed as a result of having those conditions in their lives. But they have tremendous talents and gifts to contribute, and that’s the work we’re doing.

Q: You have a personal connection to this issue?

A: When I was a young child, I had a foster brother, Richard, who was with us for many years.

He was on the spectrum, and so I experienced life alongside someone with a neurodivergent background. I saw how it affected him personally, and I became very clear on how society treated him as a result.

Q: How do these conditions tend to manifest in behavior?

A: It typically manifests in the way they communicate, and how they articulate thoughts.

There are some differences from typical societal norms, with things like eye contact. There also might be an impact from different sensory conditions, like light or noise.

It might seem a little out of step from the norm, but it doesn’t mean they’re not highly functioning.

Q: How did EY start focusing on developing a neurodiverse workforce?

A: A team in Philadelphia saw an opportunity to connect our diversity and inclusion agenda, with the underemployed workforce of neurodiverse individuals.

So, working with a local organization, they started creating employment connections for people on the spectrum. That was our first pilot “Neurodiversity Center of Excellence.” Now there are 150 employees across eight different centers.

We have a real appreciation for their skills, because people on the spectrum tend to have a strong attention to detail and excel at things like coding, and the use of technology and AI programming. Those kinds of capabilities are in very high demand right now.

Q: Can you give an example of how these employee groups have excelled?

A: When COVID-19 occurred, we were trying to think through what it meant for us, because different businesses in our portfolio were affected differently.

Our Neurodiversity Center of Excellence developed a COVID-19 tracker, to assess impact on a client-specific basis. It tracks experience against our initial expectation and runs scenarios about what impacts will be.

It’s been incredibly helpful, and we believe it has impacted the firm in the range of $300 million-$500 million.

Q: In terms of interviewing and onboarding, how has that process been tailored for neurodiverse applicants?

A: You have to recognize that the traditional recruiting process is just not appropriate here. It’s not applicable, and not a fair assessment of their capabilities. We adjusted and changed the whole paradigm of engagement.

People have been explicitly trained in interviewing and assessing candidates like these, in what to expect and how to engage.

Q: What advice do you have for other companies?

A: Suspend your traditional views on neurodiverse individuals. Don’t see the condition as a limitation, but as an extraordinary and unique talent that can be channeled in incredibly productive ways.

It not only creates gratifying life experiences for the individuals themselves, it has a very significant impact for companies - if you are willing to unshackle yourself from old points of view.

Reporting by Chris Taylor in New York; Editing by Lauren Young and Matthew Lewis