Embrace different ways of thinking with neurodiversity

Collage of paper profiles one of which is colourful

The importance of diversity in the workplace has been a hot topic across all industries in recent years, including mining and natural resources. 

The benefits of a diverse workforce, described in an earlier blog (Think beyond mining to find fresh ideas) include greater innovation, improved financial performance, and the addition of bright and skilled people. 

For the mining industry, diversifying the pool of potential employees has the potential added benefit of remedying aspects of the industry’s looming skills shortage.

As with many industries, diversity in mining has primarily been examined through the lens of gender and, to some degree, ethnicity. While there is certainly increased awareness of the importance of diversity in these areas, and some improvements have been made, we are still some distance from establishing parity.

Besides, diversity of ethnicity and gender are just the first few steps that have been taken in the diversity journey. Addressing other areas of diversity and embracing different perspectives and skills must follow. 

Attracting and retaining more neurodivergent talent will be an essential way of bringing in creative individuals with the mindsets and skills to progress the industry’s technological capabilities and address some of the industry’s challenges.

The Neurodiversity Paradigm and the Workplace

The neurodiversity paradigm has been applied to a range of neurodevelopmental conditions, including ADHD, dyslexia, speech disorders, Tourette syndrome, and bipolarity, among others. 

The term and concept of neurodiversity, however, first stemmed from considerations of autism, which has been the focus of most corporate initiatives and discussions in the field. 

While neurodiversity remains relatively uncharted territory for most companies, several industries have recognised the valuable skills, abilities and approaches that autistic people can bring to their business. 

For example, the ability to examine large data sets, identify patterns and anomalies, and repeatedly do this to a high standard, has been attractive to the tech, banking, security and defence industries. Companies such as Microsoft, JP Morgan and SAP as well as organisations such as MI5 and MI6, among others, have successfully developed programmes and facilitated recruitment for roles that play to the strengths of those on the autistic spectrum.[1]

Within the mining and other heavy industries, developments in areas such as Big Data, AI, and automation will require people with many of the skills often associated with some forms of autism.

Indeed a few mining companies have already started to look at this. 

BHP, for example, laid out the commercial case for having a neurodiverse workforce, built partnerships with different organisations and developed programmes to recruit neurodivergent interns. These interns then transitioned into full-time roles in the company.[2]

The company has been able to support opportunities in data science, software development and testing, engineering and environmental safety – areas that are often associated with the strengths of those with autism.[3]

Certainly establishing the frameworks and processes for supporting autistic people in these technology-focussed roles is a step in the right direction. It is, however, essential that we avoid limiting opportunities to these areas, potentially bowing to stereotypes that fail to represent the broader range of creative abilities, skills and interests of those with autism.

Furthermore, we need to start developing programmes that make more opportunities accessible to neurodivergent individuals. As BHP noted on their website, ‘neurodiversity means looking beyond just technology-focussed roles’.[4]

I am very aware myself, as I write this blog, that reinforcing stereotypes can be unhelpful. As Christian Jarret of the British Psychological Society wrote in his article, Autism – myth and reality“Not everyone with autism is a genius… and autistic people can be friendly and caring”.

In essence, there are several areas in which the mining industry would benefit from neurodiverse talent. The challenge for mining companies will be in recruiting autistic people and creating appropriate environments in which they can work.

Attraction, Application and Assessment

While the benefits of recruiting more neurodivergent people are clear, real shifts will need to be made in recruitment, onboarding and management processes if we are to attract and retain them.

A number of consultancies have emerged to help employers do that. Daniel Aherne of Adjust Consulting provides training courses and consultancy for companies looking to improve staff awareness of neurodiversity, re-evaluate their recruitment processes and improve their work environments, among other areas. In his experience, the major challenges in recruiting neurodivergent people fall into three categories:

  • Attraction
  • Application
  • Assessment

Starting at the very beginning of the recruitment process, attracting candidates to look for roles in an organisation can be challenging. 

As Daniel pointed out, without neurodivergent role models on websites or contact with neurodivergent people working for an organisation, autistic people may not feel comfortable with or be aware of opportunities at different companies.

The first hurdle is increasing awareness of neurodiversity more broadly. This will encourage neurodivergent people to pursue opportunities while contributing to greater comfort, acceptance and promotion of neurodiversity within established workplaces. 

Even once attracted to a role, the application process is often discriminatory and off-putting for this audience. For autistic people who often have a great capacity to focus but who may struggle with social interactions, listing qualities such as ‘good team player’ and ‘multitasker’ is unappealing. Moreover, those are often not necessary qualities for the jobs for which they are applying.

Traditional interviews and assessments present continued challenges, such as: 

  • Being tasked with assessments that are not relevant to the role
  • Unwelcome social interaction
  • Being judged by appearance
  • Difficulty remembering parts of questions
  • Responding to prompts and questions in a way that might not be expected by interviewers. 

These all make it more difficult for neurodivergent people to succeed in the recruitment processes that are so often used by employers.

If a neurodivergent person is offered a role, companies will then need to consider their working environment, the company culture, and how managers and teams can best work with people who think and work differently.  

Changing our ways

Given that many companies and individuals are currently re-evaluating their approaches to the workplace and hiring, there is perhaps no better time to consider, develop and implement new strategies which better accommodate neurodivergent individuals.

Daniel Aherne noted that companies who have successfully recruited neurodivergent people have ‘ripped up the rulebooks’ when it comes to approaches to recruitment. Changes to the processes may include:

  • Identifying a single recruitment contact
  • Providing clear detail on the environments, tasks and people involved in the interview process to ensure that individuals know what to expect
  • Not labelling interviews as ‘interviews’
  • Providing training to staff and managers
  • Adapting or eliminating assessments, making them more relevant to the role at hand
  • Reconsidering company culture to implement policies that ensure all employees feel comfortable being themselves
  • Re-evaluating working conditions, taking into consideration lighting, noise, special arrangement, etc.

These are just a few examples of areas that we need to reconsider to facilitate greater diversity of thought in the workplace.

While adapting procedures and policies is a vital way to make employment more accessible for the neurodiverse population, it can benefit everyone. 

Creating less-discriminatory processes, highlighting the strengths of individuals, only testing skills relevant to the job at hand and ensuring that company culture is approachable by everyone can only benefit morale and the quality of the work undertaken.

Dr Emily Goetsch, Senior Associate – Research, and Janet Bewsey, Director – Diversity & Inclusion

Image (c) Shutterstock |  Lightspring

[1] https://www.cio.com/article/3013221/how-sap-is-hiring-autistic-adults-for-tech-jobs.html

[2] https://www.bhp.com/media-and-insights/prospects/2018/08/how-technology-is-enabling-different-kinds-of-diversity-at-bhp/

[3] https://www.bhp.com/community/community-news/2019/08/neurodiversity-through-our-teams-eyes/

[4] https://www.bhp.com/community/community-news/2019/08/neurodiversity-through-our-teams-eyes/