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04/05

Dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia: the gains for employers

Why ‘neurodiversity’ helps make a better team

John Levell, an executive director at EY in London, has a reputation among his fellow consultants as a creative thinker and problem solver. But though he can visualise a product in 3D before it has been built, and spot when colleagues might believe they are in agreement but are really at cross-purposes, there is another side to his abilities.

Acronyms baffle him. Being in the right place at the right time requires considerable effort and names escape him — even those of people he knows well.

In fact, his scorecard of abilities — reflecting how his dyslexic brain processes information — has such extreme highs and lows that Mr Levell, 50, who began his career making tea in a recording studio, questions whether even today he would pass muster before a conventional graduate selection panel in a professional services firm.

“The things that I’m good at, I’m really good at. But, the stuff I’m worst at means I’m never going to fit a standard competency framework,” he says.

As industries adjust to shocks dealt by the automation of jobs, the rise of political populism and economic protectionism, businesses are in need of bold thinking to guide strategies and innovation. Could harnessing the brainpower of people whose minds are wired differently be part of the solution?

Dyslexia is estimated to affect about 8-10 per cent of people, according to bodies such as the European Dyslexia Association and the British Dyslexia Association. It is a condition from a family of specific learning difficulties that includes dyspraxia, dyscalculia and attention deficit disorder. Dyscalculia is characterised by basic problems with maths, while dyspraxia affects co-ordination and movement.

Employers: how to benefit from neurodiversity

EU rules require employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers. Depending on the severity, this can cover conditions such as autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia. However, some employers seek to turn neurodiversity to their advantage. Here are some ways in which they do so:

Introducing hiring practices to suit different brain types and thinking styles. Possibilities include: offering practical challenges and work tryouts as an alternative to conventional interviews

Building teams that mix people creatively. Pairing someone who struggles with organising themselves with a super-organised buddy or manager can sometimes work well

Inclusion Recruitment websites, offices and online training courses that suit people with learning differences generally work for everyone. But they must be well designed — which means choosing disability-aware suppliers

Educating. To benefit from diversity of thought, teammates need to value each other’s perspectives. Ways to foster mutual understanding include: consulting disability charities and encouraging reverse-mentoring

Having a specific learning difficulty has no bearing on a person’s intelligence, experts say. But it may affect how people perceive the world and interact with others. Such conditions can also make accomplishing work-related tasks difficult — for example, processing information, writing well and being organised. Yet they may confer abilities in skills such as lateral thinking, creativity and visual-spatial capability.

Research by Cass Business School suggests significantly higher than average proportions of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic.

Autism, another life-long condition, can also result in performance highs and lows. Autistic people often struggle socially and with filtering sensory information, such as noise and bright lights. Yet they may also excel in logic and spotting patterns, and in mastering topics that interest them.

 

As scientists learn more about how the brain works, employers are looking to turn “neurodiversity” — a neologism that holds that neurological differences are a normal and valuable expression of human diversity — to their advantage.

Procter & Gamble and the National Autistic Society in the UK recently organised a day of engineering and technology challenges at the Gillette Innovation Centre to select two autistic job seekers or students for work experience. P&G was following the lead of employers, such as SAP and Microsoft, that have autism hiring programmes.The results so impressed the company, says Helen Tucker, global diversity and inclusion director at P&G, that it decided to offer a third candidate an internship.

Tackling the autism employment gap may require more than special recruitment channels, however. While many on the autistic spectrum have average or above average IQ, only 16 per cent of all autistic people are in full-time work, according to National Autistic Society research.

Some recruiters, such as Nicola Whiting, the chief operating officer at Titania, a UK-based cyber security company, are sceptical. Learning about autism as an employer prompted her to take an online test and she is now seeking a professional diagnosis herself. She questions the value of bespoke programmes.

“As soon as you ringfence people, you’re saying this person is different,” she says.

Rather than special recruitment drives, Ms Whiting recommends making workplaces inclusive. At Titania, this has meant rewording job advertisements, and asking new recruits to describe workplace preferences — for example, whether they prefer to sit quietly rather than working with others, or whether they prefer to avoid bright lights.

Sue Warman, senior HR director at SAS, an analytics business, created a UK autism internship scheme in 2015. She will now apply its lessons to the company’s mainstream hiring practices.

For example, recruiters routinely specify that candidates must be “team-players” and “confident communicators” even when such skills are unnecessary, and this can deter applicants who do not see themselves in such terms, she says.

Other recommendations include scrapping online application forms that “time out” if the applicant takes too long to complete them — stressful for everyone, but especially for autistic people and dyslexics — and giving candidates opportunities to demonstrate rather than talk about their abilities. For jobs that could be done remotely, why not offer a choice of responding verbally or via a keyboard?

Finding employment is only one of many challenges for people with highly skewed abilities. Once hired, advancing can be tricky. Are they underperformers because of their weaknesses or high-potentials because of their strengths?

Isabel Hathaway beat 200 graduates to join Dynamo PR, yet a year later she was on a final warning. “We had multiple instances of work not being completed, team members being let down — yet with journalists and clients, Izzy was the star-performer,” recalls Paul Cockerton, the London-based agency’s co-CEO.

It was only when he googled dyspraxia that he understood why. Ms Hathaway had mentioned that she had dyspraxia to explain her clumsiness. However, the condition can also create difficulties with prioritising, planning and being organised — those areas in which she was failing.

Though Mr Cockerton wishes that he had asked questions earlier and that Ms Hathaway had been more frank — she had downplayed how dyspraxia affected her — the solution proved simple. Recrafting her role allowed her to focus on securing media coverage, at which she excels, and developing her teammates’ skills. And now, she also has a manager who helps her prioritise her to-do list, which she describes “as a weight off my shoulders”.

But does shaping the role around the person pay back? That depends on your business model says Frank Lampen, co-founder of Independents United, a London-based innovation agency that prides itself on building cognitively diverse teams. “Because we’re inventing new things, having a diverse range of thinking is important,” he says. “If the work was routine, the skillset would be, too.”

Diversity of thought does not guarantee innovation, however. To benefit, teammates must take each other’s perspectives, otherwise the end result may be friction.

For Arran Linton-Smith, a senior consultant at Interserve Construction, disclosing his autism in his mid-50s meant finally feeling valued for his different way of thinking. His colleagues used to brush aside his awkwardly presented ideas (though those ideas often worked). Now that he has explained his condition to them, relations are better. “Being understood for who I am, and how I am, has made life easier.”

Stu Shader, a dyslexic sales executive at Microsoft in the US, agrees that for diversity of thought to thrive, people must value differences. The 52-year-old says that he has wasted countless hours on electronic sales training designed without thought for how dyslexic brains work.

But, he has also had bosses who have backed his ambition to make neurodiversity an asset and encouraged him to organise conferences for like-minded employers. “If you can design a product that helps someone with a learning difference, you help everyone,” he says.

Assisted by time-management apps and mind-mapping software to help structure his ideas, Mr Levell says that he is better able than ever to capitalise on the abilities for which EY hired him.

If your highs dwarf your lows, failing to tick a few boxes need not be a career block: “You just need to ensure that the things you do are the things you’re really good at,” he says.

This article was originally published under the headline: Dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia: the gains for employers

FT Alicia Clegg May 3, 2017

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