June 23, 2023

Navigating the Fine Line Between Performance Management and Accommodation as a Neurodivergent Tech Employee

Evolve Vocational Services LLC
In the technology industry, diversity and inclusion have become important values, highlighting the need for equitable workspaces that cater to individuals with different abilities and backgrounds . However, neurodivergent employees, including those with conditions such as autism, ADHD, or dyslexia, often face unique challenges in balancing performance management and accommodation. From struggles with disclosure to facing ableism, micro-aggressions, navigating the accommodation process, and inadequate onboarding, there are numerous obstacles that neurodivergent employees encounter in their quest for a fair and supportive work environment.

One of the primary challenges neurodivergent employees face is the decision of whether to disclose their condition to their managers and teammates. While disclosure can lead to better understanding and tailored support, it also carries the risk of potential bias and stigma. Many neurodivergent individuals fear that disclosing their condition may lead to negative judgments, limited career advancement opportunities, or even discrimination. Consequently, they may choose to conceal their differences, which can ultimately hinder their ability to receive the necessary accommodations and support they need to thrive in their roles. Often employees are left with no option but to disclose when all their compensatory strategies fail and are close to being placed, or are already placed, on a performance plan.

Ableism, which refers to the discrimination and prejudice against individuals with disabilities, is another significant challenge faced by neurodivergent employees. Despite the industry’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, ableism can persist in subtle or overt ways, contributing to an unwelcoming and unsupportive work environment. Micro-aggressions, such as dismissive comments, jokes, or exclusionary behavior, can have a profound impact on neurodivergent employees, eroding their self- esteem and hindering their ability to perform at their best. Overcoming ableism requires a collective effort from both managers and teammates to foster a culture of empathy, respect, and inclusion. Given that conditions considered neurodivergent often go unnoticed or are not immediately apparent, it can be easy for an employee’s limitations to be misconstrued as a performance gap, laziness, or even a lack of suitability for their role. Mutual trust is quickly broken when the manager does not trust the employee and the employee also loses confidence with the manager and it spills over to the team.

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Inadequate onboarding and non-diverse team structure pose additional challenges for neurodivergent employees. The onboarding process plays a crucial role in setting new hires up for success, but when it falls short, it can leave neurodivergent individuals feeling overwhelmed and unprepared. The traditional buddy system, where a more experienced employee guides a new hire, often proves ineffective when the assigned buddy is already overburdened with other responsibilities. This lack of dedicated support can leave neurodivergent employees feeling isolated and struggling to navigate the complexities of their new role.

Furthermore, onboarding processes that heavily rely on self-service resources with limited instructor-led or kinesthetic learning opportunities can further hinder neurodivergent individuals’ ability to grasp and retain information effectively. This also creates a psychologically unsafe environment for the neurodivergent employee to ask for help or own up to their mistake to be supported. They may require more hands-on training, personalized guidance, or accommodations tailored to their learning styles to fully understand and integrate into their new roles. Recognizing and addressing these diverse learning needs can significantly improve the onboarding experience for neurodivergent individuals.

Communication challenges can also arise for neurodivergent employees, particularly when it comes to managing up. The ability to effectively communicate expectations, concerns, and ideas to superiors is crucial for career growth and success. However, for individuals who process information differently or struggle with social cues, this can be a daunting task. Managers and teammates should strive to create an environment where open communication is encouraged, and different communication styles are understood and accommodated. This can include providing clear instructions, allowing for written communication when necessary, and providing regular feedback and clarification.

To create an equitable workspace that embraces neurodiversity, companies must address these challenges head-on . They can start by implementing comprehensive diversity and inclusion policies that promote awareness, acceptance, and accommodation of neurodivergent individuals. This involves educating employees about different neurodivergent conditions, fostering a culture of empathy and respect, and providing training for managers and teammates on how to effectively support and collaborate with neurodivergent colleagues.

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In summary, organizations should consider the following strategies to create a more equitable workspace for neurodivergent employees:

1. Educate and raise awareness: Conduct training sessions and workshops to educate all employees about neurodiversity and different neurodivergent conditions. Foster an understanding of the strengths and challenges associated with these conditions to reduce stigma and promote empathy.

2. Establish clear policies and guidelines: Develop clear policies and guidelines that explicitly address accommodations for neurodivergent employees. Ensure that these policies are well-communicated and easily accessible to all employees.

3. Tailor onboarding and training programs: Revise onboarding processes and training programs to include a variety of learning approaches that cater to different neurodivergent learning styles. Incorporate instructor-led sessions, hands-on activities, and opportunities for personalized guidance.

4. Foster effective communication channels: Encourage open communication channels where employees feel comfortable expressing their needs, concerns, and ideas. Provide alternative communication methods, such as written or asynchronous communication, to accommodate different communication styles.

5. Train managers on neurodiversity and inclusion: Offer specialized training for managers to enhance their understanding of neurodivergent employees and equip them with the tools and strategies needed to provide effective support and accommodations. This training should focus on fostering rapport, providing constructive feedback, and creating an inclusive work environment.

6. Implement performance management systems with flexibility: Rethink performance management systems to incorporate flexibility and personalized approaches that consider the unique strengths and challenges of neurodivergent employees. Provide regular feedback and support to help neurodivergent employees succeed and grow.

7. Offer neurodiverse strategy coaching: Consider providing neurodiverse strategy coaching as an accommodation for neurodivergent employees. This specialized coaching can help employees identify their individual barriers and develop effective strategies to overcome them, promoting their professional growth and success. Research shows that neurodiverse strategy coaching saves the employer a ton of money and increases productivity.

By prioritizing neurodiversity and investing in comprehensive training on diversity, equity, and inclusion, organizations can create an inclusive environment where neurodivergent employees can thrive. This not only benefits the individual employees but also contributes to a more innovative and successful tech industry. It is essential to recognize the unique strengths and perspectives that neurodivergent individuals bring to the table and provide them with the necessary accommodations and support to succeed. Creating an equitable workspace for neurodivergent employees requires a proactive and holistic approach that promotes understanding, empathy, and equal opportunities for all.

By: Michael Asaku-Yeboah, MS, CRC, LCADC
Evolve Vocational Services LLC

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