Neurodiversity in the workplace

Why and how to attract neurodiverse employees to the workforce in accounting

Accounting firms can greatly benefit from attracting and retaining neurodiverse employees, but must develop new cultures and support mechanisms to do so. Kris Cooper reports.

That was the takeaway for the industry from a recent webinar led by PMAC Training Director Hayley Broughton-McKinna and Talos360’s Tim Clifford. The session delved into neurodivergence in the world of work more broadly, explaining how neurodivergent employees, supported effectively, can benefit the workforce, outlining challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals in the workplace and dispelling common myths.

There has been recent interest about how accountancy firms can attract neurodiverse individuals to fill the persistent talent shortage in the industry. The number of candidates for accountancy roles has fallen according to the ICAEW, while Avalara found that 84% of CFOs surveyed in the US and the UK face a significant talent shortage. 

Neurodivergence refers to how an individual's brain functions, processes or learns differently to what is considered typical, such as is the case with autism, ADHD and dyslexia among other conditions. Roughly 15% of the UK population is neurodivergent – with 1-2% having autism and 8% ADHD.  

Autism impacts an individual's sensory and communicative experience of the world. Autistic individuals can experience sensory overwhelm as well as difficulty with auditory processing and navigating the unwritten social norms that govern social interactions. They often have specialist subjects in which they are interested and can excel with exceptional attention to detail. 

ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder which means individuals can have difficulties with memory, impulsivity, and routine. They can experience time blindness and rejection-sensitive dysphoria as well as periods of ‘hyper-focus’ on certain tasks.  

One study found that neurodiverse individuals could be up to 90-140% more productive than neurotypical employees in a job that fits their skills and interests. Despite that, unemployment or underemployment of neurodiverse individuals is a persistent trend. Only 21.7% of adults with autism in the UK are in employment, and 65% of neurodivergent employees fear disclosure could lead to discrimination. 

During the webinar, Broughton-McKinna highlighted that, while autistic individuals face significant barriers to getting a job, those with ADHD tend to face more negative bias within the workplace.  

Outdated understandings of neurodivergent behaviours have typically focussed on the impact of disruptive behaviour on others, rather than the difficulty a neurodiverse individual faces within a given situation. 

Accountancy firms must be considerate of this to attract and retain neurodiverse employees.

Hayley Broughton-McKinna, PMAC Training Director

Accommodating neurodiverse accounting job applicants

Accountancy firms can make a variety of accommodations in the application process for neurodiverse individuals. Some may reconsider the traditional written CV and allow candidates to submit videos where they explain their relevant experience. Broughton-McKinna also highlighted that firms should not penalise spelling mistakes in job applications as those with dyslexia or ADHD may be more prone to these. 

She added: “It's often seen as carelessness or again, like lack of attention, but that doesn't necessarily translate to when somebody is working on a project that they're really interested in.” 

In interview processes, firms should offer thorough and effective communication of the process stating the questions in advance and the length of the interview to allow neurodiverse candidates to give better answers and be better prepared to perform tasks. To take into account auditory processing difficulties neurodiverse individuals may face, interviewers should also avoid asking too many questions at once, or not interpret pauses before answering as a candidate not having answers. 

When it comes to specific questions, Broughton-McKinna emphasised that questions should be as literal or specific as possible, avoiding open prompts like the common: “Tell me about yourself.”  

Firms should consider what information they want from potential employees and ask directly for this, whether it be their qualifications, experience using certain systems, or particular projects on which they’ve worked. Employers can also offer work sample tests instead of interviews to ascertain skills in a practical manner.

Accommodating neurodivergent accounting employees

Retaining neurodivergent individuals once they are part of the workforce can require consideration about the working environment. As autistic people can experience sensory issues, there can be requirements around the amount of light and heat in an office, the texture of chairs and proximity to loud noises or smells from break rooms. Firms should remember it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, what worked for one neurodiverse individual may not work for another. 

Employers should also have specific channels of communication for feedback, providing individuals a clear means of raising issues. 

Broughton-McKinna highlighted her experience at PMAC of having more colourful interfaces to engage with, colleagues to remind her of certain things and a standing desk. She also highlighted how many firms champion flexibility, with start times and breaks, but should be transparent in how flexible they can actually be.

EY’s neurodiversity pilot

In the accounting industry, EY has made a particular effort to recruit and employ neurodiverse individuals via an initiative launched in the US in 2015. Through the programme, EY collaborated with specialist sourcing organisations, job coaches and community partners. 

EY's process included a ‘hang out’ of group activities and short informal interviews over the phone, followed by orientation and training weeks. Once in a job, neurodiverse individuals were assigned office buddies and counsellors to support them throughout. 

EY found that neurodiverse employees ”excelled at innovation”, learning how to automate processes much more quickly than neurotypical accounting professionals. Its reflections on this pilot also emphasised the importance of specific and concise communication and avoiding abstract language, especially with autistic individuals, as well as managers ensuring greater patience and understanding. 

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