Neurodiversity in the workplace: Building toward a more inclusive future of work
Neurodiversity in the workforce has recently moved out of the shadows and into the spotlight as employers begin to better understand this long under-recognized component of diversity and the value of neurodivergent talent in the workforce.
Surya Kolluri, managing director, Retirement Research & Insights at Bank of America, facilitated a conversation with other Bank of America and industry thought leaders about neurodiversity, why it matters, and steps employers can take to create a more inclusive workplace.
What is neurodiversity?
According to a recently published Bank of America-sponsored report prepared in collaboration with High Lantern Group, Neurodiversity in the workplace: Building toward a more inclusive future of work:
“Neurodiversity refers to the idea that it is perfectly normal for human brains to function differently at the individual level… it is another facet of human diversity that creates variation in how people think, act, learn, communicate, are motivated and relate to others in society and in the workplace.”1
Neurodivergent conditions include a range of developmental and learning disorders, as well as mental health conditions, the most well-known of which include dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
About one-third of American adults have a neurodivergent condition2, although that number could be higher due to those who are not aware of their condition or don’t report it.
“With such a significant proportion of people affected, it is important to recognize these differences and focus on cultivating and accommodating them for a stronger workforce where all individuals can reach their full potential,” says Katy Schneider Riddick, senior director at High Lantern Group.
Why is neurodiversity receiving so much attention now?
“The elevated interest in neurodiversity among employers coincides with three driving forces,” says Kai Walker, head of Inclusion Transformation, Bank of America. “The war for talent is probably one of the most significant drivers. As employers struggle to fill open positions in a tight labor market, they are turning to untapped pools of talent.
“The second factor contributing to the rise of workplace neurodiversity is the demand for creative, out-of-the-box thinking that can help companies innovate and gain a competitive advantage, especially in fast-paced and complex technology fields. Hiring neurodivergent individuals offers employers a range of thinking that can help companies problem-solve differently to satisfy client needs and accomplish their business objectives,” Walker says.
“And underlying both of these drivers,” Walker adds, “is an already heightened corporate focus on D&I. A growing body of research shows that diverse and inclusive workplaces can bring about greater good for both individuals and the organization. It’s a win-win all the way around.”
Susan Daly, a long-time advocate of neurodiversity at Bank of America, and who serves as senior vice president for Global Banking & Global Markets AML Operations, adds, “Neurodiversity in the workplace is not just the right thing to do, it is imperative for company performance and growth. In support of this, we established neurodiversity as a focus area at the enterprise level through our Disability Action Network, which is one of our fastest growing employee resource groups. This group comes together to define and execute on the strategy to drive internal and external awareness and education, and ultimately the culture we create together.”
What are other advantages of a neurodiversity-inclusive workplace?
In addition to providing a much needed and valuable strategy for recruiting new employees, workforce neurodiversity is also gaining momentum due to its impact on employee retention. Creating a supportive culture for neurodivergent employees can help them thrive and contribute to the collective success of the company, which can result in an increased sense of satisfaction and loyalty.
Companies can no longer afford to miss out on new neurodivergent talent—or the neurodivergent talent in their current workforce who could perform even better in a workplace more sensitive to their needs.1”
Neurodiversity and the D&I values it represents can also enhance a company’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) position. Research shows that both consumers and employees are motivated by their values, with almost 60% of consumers reporting that they factor a company’s purpose and values into their purchasing decisions3, and 86% of employees saying they prefer to support or work for companies that align with the issues that matter to them.4
How can employers support neurodiversity in the workplace?
While many might think creating a more neurodiverse workplace is a simple matter of hiring more neurodivergent individuals, experts say it will take a cultural and systemic transformation focusing on key areas across the company, including manager skills, work policies, employee benefits and the environment.
“You have to be careful not to allow your approach to be bound by traditional models and norms,” says Riddick. “For example, interpersonal interactions such as the customary firm handshake, or eye contact during a face-to-face interview, have been considered a standard in assessing a candidate’s aptitude for the job. However, hiring managers have to ask themselves if these are indeed critical qualities or just what we’re used to. Are these social skills necessary, for example, to write code? Hiring practices need to be thought through and norms challenged—or employers could miss out on hiring qualified and dedicated candidates.”
A systemic and cultural shift to a more neurodiverse workplace means changing the traditional approach from making everybody fit into one box to embracing the differences that allow each employee to reach their full potential.”
“Much of the responsibility for the required paradigm shift will rest on the shoulders of frontline managers,” says Daly. “We have to take special care to educate and support managers. Their role is critical as they work directly with employees—and they need the resources and knowledge to make accommodations that will set neurodivergent employees up for success.”
What are some steps employers can take to get started on the path to a more neurodiversity-inclusive workplace?
“Start with simple things,” Daly says. “Accommodating neurodivergent employees doesn’t have to require a lot of time or cost. For example, providing noise cancelling headphones, using colored printer paper to make it easier for dyslexic individuals to read text, offering wellness breaks or even just space for individuals to pace or walk around are easy things you can do to create a more comfortable and productive environment for neurodivergent employees.”
Daly also encourages employers to find ways to start the conversation in their organizations to increase awareness of neurodiversity, educate themselves and others and make grassroot connections. Ideas include establishing employee networks, making neurodiversity a topic at a staff meeting or writing a blog.
To learn more about neurodiversity and five actions you can take now to begin creating a neurodiversity-inclusive workplace, download Neurodiversity in the workplace: Building toward a more inclusive future of work.
1 Neurodiversity in the workplace: Building toward a more inclusive future of work, Bank of America, April 2022.
2 Benefitspro.com, “What employees need to know about neurodiversity benefits,” Connie Donnelly, July 22, 2020.
3 PwC.com, “How can consumer-facing companies weave social justice into their DNA?”
4 PwC.com, “Beyond compliance: Consumers and employees want business to do more on ESG,” April 2021.