How to Support and Retain Neurodivergent Employees – A Guide for Small Business Leaders
Supporting neurodiversity is an increasingly essential component of building an inclusive, ethical workplace culture. Neurodivergent refers to employees who think and process information differently due to conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia and more. These workers brin
g immense value through their unique skills and abilities, but often face extra challenges fitting into work environments not designed with their needs in mind.
As a small business leader, you have a great opportunity to implement strategies that enable neurodivergent staff to thrive. Building an environment where neurodiversity is welcomed and supported benefits your entire organization – increased innovation, better retention, reduced bias, and more diversity of thought across teams.
With the right attitude and strategies in place, you can create a new normal where neurodivergent employees are valued and empowered to meaningfully contribute their unique skills. Here are some key steps to take:
Educate Yourself and Your Staff on Neurodiversity
The first step is learning what it means to be neurodivergent. There are various conditions that fall under this umbrella term:
- Autism spectrum disorder.
- ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
- Sensory processing disorders.
- Tourette Syndrome.
- Auditory processing disorders.
- Nonverbal learning disabilities.
Each of these conditions comes with unique strengths as well as potential workplace challenges. For example, autistic individuals often excel at focused tasks but may struggle with overstimulation, communication norms, and forming social connections. People with ADHD can grasp concepts rapidly but frequently have difficulty sustaining focus on tasks, managing distractions, staying organized, and controlling impulses.
Understanding these various thinking and working styles helps you support employees more constructively. Providing thorough neurodiversity training for managers and staff is crucial, so set aside dedicated training time for this. It’s also a good idea to bring in outside experts and speakers to conduct engaging sessions. Reputable online courses can then reinforce and supplement the in-person workshops.
Create In-Depth Training Programs
Don’t just gloss over the topic of neurodiversity – create or utilize training programs that offer real depth and actionable strategies. Provide overviews of various conditions, making sure to highlight associated strengths and abilities. Include perspectives from real neurodivergent individuals on what they experience in the workplace.
In the training, cover best practices for making accommodations smoothly in all areas of the workplace. For example, provide guidelines on respectful language, reducing sensory stimulation, sending meeting agendas in advance, dividing large tasks into pieces, and allowing noise-canceling headphones. Ensure all employees recognize their role in cultivating inclusion.
Foster an Inclusive Culture
Formal training is just the first step. You also need to integrate neurodiversity into your workplace culture. Set the expectation that neurodivergent minds are welcomed and valued in tangible, meaningful ways. Include neurodiversity in your organization’s core values, policies, and mission statements.
Promote open discussion through:
- Hosting speaker panels to share diverse perspectives and experiences.
- Sharing educational resources like books, videos, and articles.
- Bringing neurodiversity into team talks and everyday conversations.
The main idea is to create opportunities for employees at all levels to engage in open dialogue about neurodiversity.
Update Your Hiring Practices to Attract Neurodiverse Applicants
Standardized hiring practices often unintentionally screen out qualified neurodivergent applicants. Rethinking some key aspects of your recruiting and onboarding process can go a long way toward building a neurodiverse talent pipeline.
Partner with Disability Advocacy Organizations
Connecting with disability advocacy nonprofits, schools, vocational programs, and other organizations provides access to qualified neurodivergent candidates. Develop partnerships for internships, mentorships, apprenticeships, training programs, or other pipelines that allow you to hire and support qualified individuals from these groups.
Rethink Traditional Interviews
Do away with standardized interviews focused on grilling applicants under pressure, which can disproportionately trip up neurodivergent candidates. Instead, allow applicants to demonstrate their skills and qualifications through:
- Interactive exercises or simulations.
- Video submissions showing their abilities.
- Work samples like past projects or writing.
- Alternatives to traditional question-and-answer style interviews.
In short, move away from standardized interviews focused on grilling applicants. Consider offering options for remote video interviews, sharing questions ahead of time, or providing written instructions. Look beyond academic credentials to ask about other relevant skills and experiences. The key is to remain flexible and open-minded throughout your hiring process.
Make Workplace Accommodations
Once neurodivergent employees are on board, taking steps to actively accommodate their needs is key for retention and unlocking their talents. Start by streamlining processes for staff to privately request adjustments and accommodations.
Leverage Assistive Technology
Provide or allow assistive devices that enable focusing, communicating, collaborating, and working more efficiently. Examples include noise-canceling headphones, smart pens, digital calendars, project management tools, captioning or transcription software, and more. Offer options like remote work that utilize technology for accessibility.
Create Spaces for Focus
Have low-sensory, quiet spaces or rooms available for times when employees need a retreat from too much stimulation. Allow use of noise-canceling headphones or devices as needed. Permit flexible remote or hybrid work options to support productivity and focus.
Update Policies and Procedures
Evaluate your current policies with neurodiversity in mind. Can employees work flexible hours or shift schedules? Is the use of noise-canceling devices allowed? Is there flexibility around sick time or mental health days? Look for small tweaks that can make a big difference.
Check in regularly about workloads and burnout. Be open to adjusting expectations around things like social events or last-minute changes. Offer flexible breaks so staff can recharge. Even a 10-minute sensory break can really boost energy and productivity.
Encourage Ongoing Communication and Feedback
Maintain open channels so employees can share needs as they arise. Send out anonymous surveys to identify problem areas and maintain an open door policy.
Provide Mentorship Programs
Match neurodivergent staff members with mentors or coaches to help navigate organizational culture, social nuances, professional development, and work towards leadership opportunities. A mentor can provide guidance tailored to the individual.
Check In Regularly
Managers should connect one-on-one with employees to discuss workloads, challenges, successes, and ways to better offer support. Provide regular feedback in a compassionate yet direct manner. If performance issues arise, focus on mentoring and support before discipline. Checking in routinely is key for retention and growth.
Building an Inclusive Culture Unlocks Potential
Even small steps toward these strategies will set you on a path to becoming a more neurodiversity-inclusive workplace. You’ll likely see positive ripple effects in innovation, problem solving, productivity, and teamwork. However, truly embracing neurodiversity requires evolving your mindset as much as your policies.
When you recognize that neurodivergent minds are assets, with the potential to accomplish incredible things given the right environment, you unlock their potential. With understanding, structural changes, and the inclusive culture you build, your small business can flourish as neurodiversity becomes your new normal.