Job Design for a Neurodiverse Workforce

Broken brown mask with top of head missing outside in a field of flowers.

It is a tough job market out there. Companies are struggling to find and retain the talent they need, making many take a second look at both their hiring procedures and how they treat their employees. One under-utilized pool of talent are neurodiverse individuals whose way of processing information and thinking are a bit different. Such individuals are often believed to make poor employees due to skill deficits and thus not hired. However, with a little flexibility in the design of jobs, neurodiverse individuals can make great employees. In other words, you can expand your talent pool through job design for a neurodiverse workforce.

What Is Neurodiversity?

 Neurodiversity recognizes that people vary in how they think and experience the world around them. People who are considered neurodiverse include those with ADHD, are on the autism spectrum, or have dyslexia and dyspraxia. From a neurodiversity perspective, a key idea is that these differences should not be considered deficits, but rather viewed through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is estimated that between 15-20%  of the population is neurodiverse. This is a large pool of underutilized talent as organizations routinely screen them out because they are not seen as having all the skills needed for a job.

Matching Jobs and People

The main goal when hiring new employees is to match employees’ talents with the requirements of a job. To do this, employers do their best to match employees’ capabilities and the requirements of a particular job. Employers commonly measure employees’ knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics, often referred to as KSAOs. They first determine KSAO requirements for jobs, and then use applicant KSAO assessments to match people to those jobs.

There have been numerous efforts to integrate neurodiverse individuals into the workforce, particularly in the technology industry. Unfortunately, many of these attempts have not been successful. One reason is that most jobs in today’s organizations are multifaceted, requiring a wide range of employee KSAO’s. However, many neurodiverse individuals possess a narrow set of job skills, are often high in some but have deficits in others. This can result in neurodiverse individuals performing some job tasks exceedingly well, while lacking the skills to successful perform other job tasks.

Job Design for a Neurodiverse Workforce

A better way to direct organizations’ neurodiversity integration efforts is where possible to design (or redesign) jobs to have fewer skill demands. This approach has been used successfully by the Israeli Intelligence Corps (IIC). They designed a security job that fits the skill set pattern of individuals with ASD (autistic spectrum disorder). Such individuals often excel at hyper focusing and paying attention to minute detail while engaging in repetitive tasks. On the other hand, they can have skill deficits when it comes to interpersonal tasks. The IIC redesigned jobs to fit neurodiverse employees by eliminating most of the tasks that required interpersonal skills.

This ICC approach can be used with other types of jobs in which neurodiverse individuals might have skills to accomplish critical tasks but not others. This could also take a form of organizational job crafting in which jobs can be customized to accommodate a neurodiverse employee. Tasks for which they have skills are retained while tasks for which they have skill deficits are deleted. Retained tasks, for example, might require close attention to detail with repetitive tasks that can be monotonous for most people. Such tasks are important in different jobs such as software quality assurance, electronics, technicians, aerial photo deciphering, and media specialists.

Skill Redesign Is Not Just for the Neurodiverse

The idea of redesigning jobs for the neurodiverse can be applied for many jobs in a wide variety of organizations. This approach is a good way to expand the talent pool for an organization by increasing the number of people who can successfully perform a job. It requires flexibility in assigning tasks to jobs so that the skills required can accommodate the talents of employees. But this flexible approach to accommodating the skill profiles of employees should not be limited to individuals who are neurodiverse. It makes good sense to take this approach with all employees who might have a high level of skill in important areas, but deficits in others. Shifting tasks, even temporarily until the person acquires skills, is a good way to manage talent. Doing so can provide a competitive advantage to organizations that make the most of their talent.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

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