How strengths-based recruitment can help civil services attract neurodiverse talent

By on 10/03/2021 | Updated on 10/03/2021
When considering neurominorities to balance talent in teams, consider characteristics on an individual level and recruit for the strengths. Credit: SplitShire/173 images/pixabay

When considering how to build balanced teams, it can be more beneficial to recruit based on individual characteristics rather than focusing on diagnoses, write chartered psychologist Dr Nancy Doyle and business psychologist Uzma Waseem

It is now widely known that where differences are embraced, greater organisational performance and creativity follow. This is particularly important for civil services: officials must bring together a wide range of backgrounds, knowledge, skills and abilities to ensure they represent the communities they serve.

The concept of diversity is developing over time and now widely refers to both physically visible characteristics and compatible invisible differences such as knowledge, skills, lived experience and culture. The term neurodiversity, as coined by sociologist Judy Singer, is another element of team diversity whereby all humans vary in terms of their neurocognitive ability. Current definitions, broadly accepted by advocates and stakeholders, refer to neurodiversity as comprising the whole of humanity, akin to ethnic diversity.

The UK civil service has already advanced neurodiversity within its workforce. For example, The Autism Exchange Programme offers people with autism aged 18 years and older work experience opportunities. Meanwhile, the Public Sector Neurodiversity Network and the Civil Service Dyslexia and Dyspraxia Network offer support and learning opportunities and each have been encouragingly embraced by many.

From labels to strengths

There is, however, a danger that by targeting groups with a specific diagnostic label, such as Autism, we fail to acknowledge many of the strengths that result from overlapping traits commonly seen in neurocognitive profiles. Indeed, recruiting based on a diagnosis may not fully embrace neurodiversity: it is a crude way to selectively recruit and misses the crucial point that many people may not have a correct diagnosis, or any diagnosis at all. There is a “diagnosis deficit” whereby factors such as race, gender, socio economic background can affect access to a diagnosis.

Differences in neurodiversity are better understood at the symptom level, rather than a diagnostic label. For instance, some individuals may only have a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Dyspraxia, but have traits and would be highly suited to a role that is otherwise only advertised for people with Autism. So it’s time to move on from the label-based pilots and ask what we have learned from them, so that we can begin changing our hiring practices for all, not just making segregated entrances.

Strengths-based recruitment

We use “neurominority” as an umbrella term for ADHD, Autism, Dyscalculia, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Tourettes. It is sometimes also widened to include mental health diagnoses like anxiety, brain injury or illness and intellectual disabilities.

When considering neurominorities to balance talent in teams, consider characteristics at an individual level and recruit for the strengths, not the identity label. This figure can help you assess what strengths are typical from neurodiverse people, but also the extensive overlap:

Figure credit: Created by Dr Nancy Doyle based on the work of Mary Colley/Genius Within

This has some practical implications. When reviewing your talent management processes, it can be helpful to consider:

  • What skills do you need in a particular team? What kind of work does the team do? What strengths do you already have and what are the gaps you need to fill?
  • Do you need to flip the narrative? Many of the characteristics that have conventionally been viewed as deficits have compensatory strengths. Focus on these. For example, memory and concentration difficulties can bring hyper-focus and fine-detail processing skills. Meanwhile, those who struggle with listening also tend to be brilliant visual thinkers with 3D mechanical skills.
  • How can you draw out people’s strengths in your selection criteria and job descriptions? Focus on the unusual, the creative and the strategic so that you can move towards a more balanced, dynamic team. Rather than formulating a selection criterion based on diagnostic labels, focus on cognitive strengths, abilities and thinking styles that are highly characteristic of neurominorities (see figure 1).
  • How might you change your selection process? Systemic inclusion is when our workplaces match our communities, and we have a blend of specialist and generalist roles in each team. When it comes to selection and recruitment efforts, why make everyone go through the same system if they are good at different things? Can you adapt your processes to allow for individual strengths?

Dr Nancy Doyle and Business Psychologist Uzma Waseem are both part of Genius Within CIC

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