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As a CEO, I’m embracing neurodiversity at work, starting with my son

The executive emphasizes that neurodiversity can be a competitive advantage, lifting up individuals and the company as a whole.

As a CEO, I’m embracing neurodiversity at work, starting with my son
[Source photo: Chris_Tefme/iStock]
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I’m fortunate to have a lot of amazing employees to brag about, but there’s one in particular who stands out to me. His name is Brett. He spends hours on end with his head down assembling parts for our systems. It’s a job that would destroy my patience within the first hour, but Brett never complains and always gets it done. In fact, he loves it. I don’t think there’s anyone at my company more proud of the work they do than this young man.

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Brett has autism. His peers at work understand the challenges he faces and genuinely value the contributions he makes. In the right setting, his neurodivergence is an advantage, and one that’s made him a valuable part of our company.

There’s something else about Brett that makes his story so meaningful to me. He’s also my son.

It’s no secret that the best companies mirror society as a whole. We place such a huge emphasis on hiring diverse talent in terms of race and gender, but I suspect neurodiversity may not be as widely considered. It shouldn’t be overlooked.

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I’ve seen firsthand from working with my son that hiring people with a wide range of interests and abilities is not just a nice thing to do. It’s a competitive advantage that can lift up the individuals involved and the company as a whole.

Each and every one of us is unique in how we think. This is the easiest way to describe neurodiversity and neurodivergence without touching on more technical and medical aspects like autism or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). The terms neurodiveristy and neurodivergence were coined by a sociologist, Judy Singer (who is on the autism spectrum herself). She wanted a phrase to change public perception and emphasize there is nothing wrong with people with these conditions. It’s just a variation of how the brain works.

There are so many forms of neurodivergence, and I can really talk only about my own experience. But I remember when Brett was just a small child, we knew his brain worked in its own unique way. He didn’t speak much, and he didn’t look us in the eye. He was formally diagnosed with autism when he was about 4 years old, and as a parent, there are so many things you instantly begin to worry about. As he grew older, one of my biggest concerns was that he would never be able to find meaningful work.

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When Brett was a child, I realized I had to be a part of the solution, and so the company I was running at the time set out to be a more inclusive employer. The road toward inclusion led me to some conclusions that set my mind at ease as a father, and lit a fire under me as a CEO. Here are some of the lessons I gathered.

Find the right role for the right person

At my previous company, we had a problem. We had positions that were challenging to fill, and when we did find candidates they wouldn’t last long before leaving for another role. We were trying to put round pegs in square holes. Armed with this new perspective on diverse hiring, we started trying to match jobs to candidates.

We found that people with certain exceptional qualities jumped at the chance to hold down a steady job and were genuinely happy to do consistent tasks day in and day out. Wherever there were hiccups, we did our best to find accommodations to keep everyone happy. It solved our retention problem.

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Adjust your hiring process

Studies show that as many as 80% of neurodivergent people are unemployed (and it’s important to note that this number also includes people with more limiting conditions), and even those with impressive degrees and experience find it hard to land a job. So what can we do?

For starters, be cognizant of what’s in your job advertisements. When you’re placing an emphasis on communication skills or emotional intelligence, it’s immediately ruling out a huge chunk of talented people. Then, job interviews need to be conducted with the understanding that not everyone handles social situations the same way.

Pilot programs undertaken by major companies like HP and SAP have found that neurodiverse people tend to score lower on interviews. How many brilliant minds have been rejected because they didn’t fit the “normal” view of social skills? To avoid all these problems, it would help to have someone with an understanding of neurodiversity directly involved in the hiring process.

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Give people a chance

Neurodiverse hiring programs across the world have shown that these initiatives really work. JPMorgan Chase has an Autism at Work program that boasted a 99% retention rate among its first 150 participants in eight countries. The results were nothing short of jaw-dropping: Employees in the program performed their duties 48% faster than neurotypical workers and were up to 92% more productive.

When we considered neurodiversity at my previous company, we saw a noticeable spread of empathy and compassion. Further, we saw a reduction in turnover and an increase in morale. This is proof for me that it’s not just the right thing to do to hire for neurodiversity, but also a smart business decision.

When I joined my current company, my son was old enough to go to work. A formal neurodiversity hiring policy is still in the works, but I knew I wanted to bring Brett on board. Was I nervous? Sure. But what I saw blew me away. He has a sense of purpose and pride. He wears his company shirts all the time—in fact, I think I’m going to have to order more as it’s all he wants to wear. He is so proud to be part of a team. We’re setting aside outdated notions of normalcy and recognizing people, and their talents, on their own terms.

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When I look at Brett, he’s not just my son—he’s also one of my company’s secret weapons. And as a father, there’s no better feeling than to see my son succeeding in a world where he isn’t pressured to be “normal” but rather accepted for who he is and what he is good at.


Dave Dinesen is the CEO of CubicFarms, a local-chain agtech company specializing in automated, commercial-scale indoor farming technology.