Navigating Neurodiversity in Employee Performance Reviews: Warning Signs and Solutions

I usually navigate job interviews successfully and secure employment. However, during the onboarding process, I invest significant time in learning about the job, my employer or manager, and my colleagues’ personalities. Throughout this period, I engage in behind-the-scenes masking and overcompensate for my neurodivergence and executive function challenges. Eventually, cracks begin to show: my work ethic is judged, my confidence wanes, and I experience disrespect and mistreatment. Then comes the employee performance review, which becomes a critical juncture where I must decide whether to disclose my neurodivergence, explain my challenges, and request the support I need, all while hoping to avoid termination.

What I’ve described is a reality experienced by numerous neurodivergent individuals. For many of us, the employee performance review is a pivotal moment that can either make or break our careers. This issue has recently been highlighted in a Financial Times article titled “Workplace Neurodiversity Claims Spur Companies to Seek Legal Help,” where businesses are increasingly seeking legal assistance and consulting services from neurodiversity consultants to navigate these sensitive disclosures.

Why Neurodivergence Refrain from Disclosing to Employers

Before delving into some key points from the article, let’s address a couple of aspects not discussed by the author. Firstly, why do many neurodivergent individuals refrain from disclosing their neurodivergence earlier? There could be various reasons, including fear of losing job opportunities, stigma, pressure to fit in, or simply because the workplace culture does not emphasize inclusivity, which may not have been communicated during the recruitment process. In essence, businesses need to not only communicate but also demonstrate their commitment to inclusivity within their company culture.

Additionally, it’s crucial to understand the difficulties neurodivergent individuals face in everyday work situations. From an executive function perspective, challenges may arise in organization, information processing, following instructions, time management, task persistence, and navigating communication between manager and colleagues. Mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, feeling overwhelmed, low self-esteem, and even burnout often co-occur. Moreover, environmental conditions that overstimulate their senses can further exacerbate their challenges. Each of these factors significantly impacts a neurodivergent employee’s overall performance and well-being.

Employee Performance Reviews Are Warning Signs

These points paint a clear picture of why and how employee performance reviews have become warning signals regarding the inclusivity of workplaces lacking awareness, understanding, skills, and resources to support neurodivergent talent.

Upon examining the article, several noteworthy aspects come to light. Firstly, businesses are increasingly “Are being pushed to make more accommodations to help neurodiverse people better manage their workloads and careers.” It’s essential to highlight that the majority of society is neurotypical, meaning that current systems often overlook other neurotypes, resulting in neurodivergence being at a disadvantage. This situation brings to mind a quote by Nobel Prize Winner Angus Denton:

“If it was your group that set the rules, then when you win the game, you need to believe that you did it through your own brilliance. Once you frame it like that, you don’t only justify your own position as being fair and right and reached solely through your own talent, but all that needs to happen is that the minorities get better at whatever role they are doing and at how to play the game; that way they’ll catch up.”

Accommodations Should Not Be Seen Negatively

Rather, they should be understood as an investment, particularly when statistical research from JAN found that 49% of accommodations cost nothing, and another 43% incurred a one-time cost averaging €300. Moreover, other studies have shown that the more diverse the team, the better the return on investment in terms of productivity, innovation, competitiveness, and profitability. Thus, providing accommodations simply makes good business sense.

Another key aspect that caught my attention is the “main tension between, on the one hand, the need and desire to accommodate neurodivergence and, on the other hand, the conventional norms around how people behave at work.” While professional behavior is essential, the question arises: what does professionalism look like for each person? Moreover, why is an accommodation not accepted as part of the norms of work? It’s crucial not only to redefine normal work behavior as multi-normal work behaviour but also to adapt to a more universal design approach and view. When businesses incorporate universal design principles, accommodations become integrated into the work culture, making them unquestionably normal work behaviour. Additionally, the universal design fosters such acceptance that these accommodations can be made available to everyone because what is helpful to a neurodivergent individual can be equally useful to a neurotypical individual, thereby normalizing workplace behaviour for all.

The Diagnosis Barrier

We now come to the section of the article discussing a barrier that needs to be removed. “According to Dr. Deborah Leveroy, head of consultancy and research at Neurobox, the misplaced emphasis companies put on employees needing a diagnosis” is indeed a pertinent issue. From a legal standpoint, this emphasis varies depending on the country. In the EU and here in Malta, there is no legal requirement for a diagnosis, and in fact, it is considered discrimination not to provide reasonable accommodations.

Now, let’s examine the barriers to obtaining a diagnosis. There are several. Most tests are age-specific and geared toward children. Many practitioners do not conduct adult diagnoses, and in the public sector, there are extensive waiting lists to receive a diagnosis. Additionally, one must consider whether they can financially afford a private diagnosis, which can range from hundreds to thousands of euros. Lastly, we need to address the topic of self-diagnosis. There is adequate research, such as one published in PubMed, which has shown self-diagnosis to be equivalent to a medical professional’s diagnosis, as long as it is from a reliable source.

With all of that said, employers need to ask themselves what the better option is: to retain talent or to lose it. I would argue that it is in the business’s best interest to remove any and all barriers that impede an employee’s ability to work. After all, isn’t productivity what truly matters? Employers want employees to be productive and produce, and ironically, that is what the neurodivergent employee wants as well. So, doesn’t it just make sense to provide accommodations so they can be productive?

Increasing Number of Tribunal Cases and Workplace Complaints

The last item that caught my attention is the increasing number of tribunal cases. This is information that I have been following for quite some time now. According to the author, in the UK, there were “278 judgments issued by the employment tribunals in England, Wales, and Scotland in 2023 that relate to disability discrimination and reference autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, or dyslexia, according to an analysis by the UK law firm Lewis Silkin. This compared with 193 in 2022 and just three in 2016.” This is quite a significant increase. In comparison, according to Malta’s Commission for Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD), complaints have been on the raise.

What does this tell us? Neurodivergent employees are becoming more aware of their rights. This highlights the lack of Neurodivergent policies, inadequate HR training, and insufficient support strategies in businesses. Managers and staff need to be trained, barriers need to be removed, and effective strategies must be implemented to support Neurodivergent employees.

My Final Thoughts:

I mentioned earlier that employee performance reviews serve as early warning signs, but in truth, the signs have been present long before the performance review itself. Employers, HR departments, and managers are currently ill-equipped, as outlined in this post and the referenced article.

So, what can businesses do? It starts with being proactive rather than reactive. Initiate conversations about neurodiversity within your organization. Foster a safe workplace where employees feel comfortable discussing their experiences. Don’t wait until the performance review for intervention or acknowledgement; recognize the signs much earlier and implement coaching and support strategies without explicitly mentioning neurodiversity. Establish Neurodivergent Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) where Neurodivergents can gather and seek support. Lastly, consult with a neurodivergent professional who can guide you in these steps and others. By taking these proactive measures, you can elevate neurodivergent employees and propel your business to new heights.

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Reference: Financial Times Article: Workplace Neurodiversity Claims Spur Companies to Seek Legal Help,” 
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