How to Upgrade Onboarding with Neurodiversity in Mind

👉Fun Fact: Teams with neurodiverse team members are proven to perform 30% better than teams that consist of only neurotypical team members—and many CEOs are finally taking notice.

Microsoft, SAP, and JP MorganChase are just a few of the legacy businesses that have seen fantastic results from their neurodiversity hiring programs—but if your organization needs to start smaller, focusing on making your general onboarding process more inclusive is a valuable first step.

Read on for some basic tips for creating and implementing an onboarding system that leaves no one behind!

What is Neurodiversity?

A good place to start is by fully understanding what it means to be a neurodiverse individual and the philosophy behind the concept of neurodiversity. 

Neurodiverse people are those who have certain neurological challenges, and therefore, an equally unique and inherent set of strengths. People who are on the autism spectrum, or have ADHD or dyslexia, are all considered neurodiverse. That includes me! 👋

dog on americas got talent gif
America’s Got Talent via GIPHY

Neurodiversity is a somewhat fluid concept; some people in the movement wish to do away with calling things like Autism Spectrum Disorder a “disorder” altogether, while others believe that the point is to destigmatize the fact that they are disorders. Still, they are not what defines us, our capacity for success, or our value.

No matter what you personally think about neurodiversity, the overarching goal—at least in the workplace—is to include and accommodate anybody who is qualified, skilled, and valuable to a team, even if they have certain challenges that the “typical” candidate may not present.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind before we begin:

  • Neurodiversity can range from simple issues concentrating to being non-verbal and “in one’s own world.” Determining whether or not someone’s challenges will hurt their job performance isn’t the hiring manager’s job—their job is to consider the person’s experience, skills, track record, and potential
  • With autism, there’s a saying: “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” Remember that flexibility is everything
  • Not everyone will have disclosed that they are neurodiverse in their application; some may be fearful of being stigmatized, some might have never been officially diagnosed—whatever the reason is, you aren’t meant to go into this viewing neurodiverse employees as an “other.” Think of this as a way to make sure everyone is supported

Phase 1: The First Day

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Menswear Dog via GIPHY

So all of your fresh-faced new hires accepted their offers and are officially on the team—yay! 

Making a great first impression as a company is key with any onboarding process, and that means being prepared to offer every new employee a system that is structured, flexible, and easy to navigate.

It’s really pretty simple: everyone enjoys when things are all set up for them when entering a new arena, but neurodivergent people especially can perform better when structure is provided. This includes clear due dates, set-in-stone meetings planned well in advance, and knowing who they should reach out to for what.

One of the best things you can do for onboarding—especially for those who may be neurodiverse—is to break the first day into parts. For neurotypical new hires, this provides a digestible way to absorb all the new information and culture, and for neurodiverse folks, having clearly defined sections of the day lets them know what exactly they will be doing and for how long. This alleviates some of the anxiety they may have in a new environment with new people.

For those who have disclosed that they may require reasonable accommodation, make it a priority to have someone from HR reach out to them personally to set up time to go over their needs. Make sure these needs are privately communicated to their managers before they begin actual work.

🧠 TL;DR: Break the first day out into structured sections and square away any reasonable accommodation paperwork.

Phase 2: Orientation

dog next to a computer gif
collin via GIPHY

Ah, orientation: the most fertile of breeding grounds for awkwardness. But it doesn’t have to be!

This part of the onboarding process is where employees learn the basics about the company and key policies. While going over the ethos and culture of the business, onboarding managers should always touch on how diversity in all forms is valued here. This is a small but impactful thing for neurodiverse people to hear, but you’d be surprised how seldom an orientation will mention celebrating the different minds that make up a company.

Next up: introductions and icebreakers. This is where simple strategy is everything.

Consider that one or more people in the group may be very uncomfortable with verbally communicating to a new group, so choose icebreakers that can be answered in just a few words—or many! Example: “Tell us your name, what you do at [the company], and whether or not you like scary movies!”

The last part of orientation is the inevitable, veritable dump of information that new hires have to digest. Whether these are codes of conduct, information on benefits, or PTO policies, make sure it’s clear where all of this info is located (ideally it’s all in one place), but also consider adding visuals where applicable or linking out to video explainers along with the documents. Certain neurodiverse people (like those with dyslexia) or simply anyone who absorbs visual information better than written will be starting off on the strongest foot with a little accommodation here!

🧠 TL;DR: Remember that some new hires may not be as verbal or quick with reading swaths of information during the orientation phase.

Phase 3: Training

dog typing on a keyboard gif
Jiffpom via GIPHY

Every employee, whether they’re an intern or a new VP, needs ample training to learn the ropes of their new role within the company. For neurodiverse employees, incorporating certain soft skills into general onboarding training can be an excellent way to understand the company as they begin working within it. 

So…what kind of soft skills are we talking about? Think of skills that aren’t taught in school, but more so skills that young people naturally improve in and master as they develop and interact more with the world. Things like communication, teamwork, listening, and connecting with peers are all the exact types of soft skills that are key to include alongside job training.

And remember that brushing up on these essential workplace skills isn’t only beneficial to people who find them somewhat challenging—they’re a great baseline for any employee that has to interact with clients and team members!

Something small that helped me as a neurodiverse employee starting at ClickUp was having quick 1-on-1 Zoom meetings with people on my team that I’ll be working with, just to meet and say hi. I didn’t look forward to them at first because I get quite anxious at the idea of first impressions, but they ended up giving me a huge leg-up. I got a feel for how each person communicated, how they liked to work, and got a chance to introduce myself and my personality. It worked out wonderfully not because I happened to be instantly charmed by everyone on my team as an individual, but being able to just talk one on one helped me focus, relax, and ask the right questions.

🧠 TL;DR: Don’t sleep on soft skills and 1-on-1’s.

Phase 4: Performance 

So onboarding is officially done: It’s been at least a few months of helping employees learn and grow in their positions, monitoring their contributions, and evaluating their overall performance.

One of the tenants of the neurodiversity movement in the workplace is that every employee—regardless of their neurotype or challenges—is expected to hit all their targets and fulfill all their duties. Something that’s paramount to accommodating neurodiverse employees in their evaluation period is the training provided to their managers. 

Leadership should be aware of the common things that neurodiverse people may have a tough time with when starting a new role so they can more quickly identify patterns in the employee, then offer tailored solutions.

For example: Are they making the same types of mistakes over and over? Do they seem stressed when their schedule changes abruptly? Are they forgetful? Picking up on patterns like this and communicating it as soon as possible is a great way to help the employee identify where they have room to grow and have your support in finding ways to improve, whether that’s implementing a new tool, process, or organizational method.

🧠 TL;DR: Observe individual patterns as well as individual performance.

Next steps

The ultimate goal of the onboarding process is to put every new hire in the position to feel equipped, empowered, and excited to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Once they’ve proven themselves a great fit for the role, career pathing is the next step.

Managers must take the time to identify and understand each employee’s biggest skills and interests as they help create a roadmap to what long-term success will look like for them within the company. One of the best things about many neurodiverse people is the incredible focus and passion they put into the things they are mentally stimulated by, so getting to know them as people as well as colleagues can be a wonderful tool for employee retention.

TL;DR: Everyone has different strengths, different challenges, different styles of working and learning. As long as they are getting the job done well, how they get there—and what they had to overcome to do it—shouldn’t matter. 

dogs fetching a ball from a pool gif
via GIPHY

Remember, certain challenges of a neurodiverse person may not seem challenging to a neurotypical person, but with unique challenges come unique strengths. Broadening your onboarding practices isn’t about special treatment or separating anyone, it’s simply about making sure that you’re listening to the data—and the people—when you welcome new hires.

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