Employers are increasingly emphasizing their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts as they recognize the value of creating a workforce that reflects the customers they serve. However, when many organizations talk about DE&I, they overlook neurodiversity as well as the education and conflict resolution processes, like mediation, that are critical for creating safe spaces and productive environments for neurodivergent employees and managers. In addition, by overlooking this aspect of diversity, employers may lose out on the strengths that neurodiverse employees can bring to the workforce.
In this article, we will explore why it is important for employers to include neurodiversity in their DE&I strategies and how using internal workplace mediation programs to address challenges concerning neurodivergent employees is a best practice.
Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, invented the term "neurodiversity" in the late 1990s to oppose the conventional medical model of disability, which pathologizes disorders including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and Tourette’s syndrome.[i] Singer maintained that we should acknowledge these conditions as normal components of the diversity of the human brain rather than as illnesses or impairments.[ii]
Neurodiversity is commonly used as an umbrella term[iii] to describe the natural variations in human cognitive brain function and development. However, neurodiversity is frequently undetectable, making diagnosis and identification more difficult. Accepting that neurodiversity may not always be a disorder or a disability but rather a natural variation in cognitive functioning is essential to understanding the full scope of human diversity. Indeed, studies have shown that approximately 15% to 20% of the population is neurodivergent.[iv]
Phrases like "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" are sometimes used to characterize people with neurodivergent behaviors or diagnoses, but these can be stigmatizing and overlook the richness of each person's abilities. Well-known neurodivergents such as Elon Musk and Greta Thunberg often attribute their success to their neurodivergence.[v]
By moving away from these labels, we can broaden how we perceive neurological variations and shift the debate from deficit-based paradigms to a strengths-based understanding.
Inclusion in the DEI Canon
Employers are missing out on the abilities of a sizeable number of workers when they ignore neurodiverse capabilities in their DEI plans. Organizations that go above and beyond to discover, retain and develop neurodivergent employees may gain a competitive advantage through increased diversity in skills, mental processes and problem-solving techniques. According to studies, people who are neurodivergent frequently bring fresh viewpoints and innovative problem-solving skills to the table.[vi]
Employers’ DEI strategies should seek ways to celebrate neurodiversity and make it a part of the company culture. This could involve highlighting the strengths of neurodivergent employees and recognizing that various neurotypes have various advantages as well as difficulties.
Inclusion of neurodiversity in an employer’s DEI strategy should not center solely on a discussion of accommodations. Although providing accommodations for neurodivergent employees (like flexible work arrangements, assistive technology and communication support) is critical, employers should make sure their DE&I strategy establishes company-specific frameworks for hiring, screening and retaining neurodivergent employees.[vii]
It is also imortant to make sure that employers provide educational opportunities for all staff about neurodiversity. This includes training on different types of neurodivergence and how to support neurodivergent employees in the workplace.
Research suggests that neurodivergence can often be mistaken for a lackluster attitude or poor motivation, particularly when it comes to communication styles and completing tasks in the workplace. Employers should establish internal conflict management solutions to address any such misunderstandings.
Internal Workplace Mediation Programs
While neurodivergence can provide unique strengths and perspectives in the workplace, it can also lead to miscommunication and conflict. Managing these conflicts can be difficult, since neurodivergent employees may have different communication, social and conflict resolution behaviors that can cause misunderstandings.
Because of the lack of knowledge and understanding of neurodivergence, many employers run the risk of alienating neurodivergent employees and fostering stigma and negative assumptions.
For managers and employees who are neurodivergent or who experience workplace conflict with neurodivergent employees, mediation can be an effective tool to resolve these disputes.
Below are 10 ways that mediation can help employers address interpersonal workplace conflicts between neurotypical and neurodivergent employees, as well as reduce the risk of litigation and support neuroinclusive DE&I efforts:
- Addressing conflicts in a neutral environment: Mediation provides a neutral environment where the parties can express their concerns without fear of retaliation or judgment.
- Fostering open communication: Employees who are neurodivergent may find it difficult to discuss issues and problems as well as comprehend others’ viewpoints due to varied communication styles. Employees can express themselves freely during mediation with the support of a third-party neutral who can bridge communication gaps.
- Promoting better understanding: Mediation provides an opportunity to discuss each other's needs and perspectives, which leads to better understanding between the parties. Mediation also offers the chance to educate neurotypicals about the difficulties that neurodivergents may encounter.
- Creating solutions that work for everyone: Because both parties must agree to any resolution, mediation ensures that everyone's needs and concerns are addressed. This is particularly important when dealing with neurodivergent employees, as they may require specific accommodations to perform their jobs effectively.
- Building relationships: When parties work together to find a solution, they develop a sense of trust and respect for each other. This will improve ongoing working relationships.
- Reducing the likelihood of future conflict: Mediation helps to identify and address root causes of conflict, reducing the likelihood of future conflict.
- Mitigating legal risk: Employers can reduce the risk of litigation by resolving disputes quickly and internally.
- Encouraging DEI: Employers can demonstrate their commitment to fostering an inclusive workplace where everyone feels valued and respected by proactively addressing disputes affecting neurodivergent personnel.
- Promoting employee well-being: By addressing conflicts through mediation, employers can help improve employee well-being by reducing stress and creating a more positive work environment.
- Demonstrating leadership: As employees increasingly seek out organizations that promote diversity and inclusion, organizational leaders can demonstrate their commitment to neurodiversity by establishing internal conflict resolution processes like mediation to support a culture of understanding and “neuro-belonging” for all employees.
It is important that neurodiversity be included in DE&I initiatives for employers to build an inclusive workforce. A strengths-based approach that celebrates the contributions of employees who are neurodivergent should replace the current paradigm of neurodiversity's deficits.
Employers can benefit from the outside-the-box viewpoints and creative abilities of neurodivergents by establishing safe places to resolve conflict, emphasizing talents and designing company-specific frameworks to support these efforts. Creating internal conflict resolution systems and providing education about neurodiversity will help effectively engage and support neurodivergent employees. In the 21st century, a workforce that embraces neurodiversity’s advantages will be key to progress and innovation.
Maurice Q. Robinson, Esq., PHR is currently a JAMS Diversity Fellow and is the assistant director of workforce diversity and equal employment opportunity compliance for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Mr. Robinson has served as an approved mediator for the New York Peace Institute and the Manhattan Civil Court, Housing Court and Small Claims Court.
Robin H. Gise, Esq. has handled virtually every type of labor and employment dispute, including discrimination claims (age, gender, race, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), hostile work environment, sexual harassment, wrongful termination and retaliation, whistleblower claims, non-compete agreements, executive compensation, and FLSA/wage and hour claims, as well as class and collective actions. She is also a member of the JAMS Title IX panel.
[i] For a more in-depth overview of the definition and paradigms of neurodiversity see, Singer J. What does NeuroDiversity mean? NeuroDiversity 2.0; (n.d.). https://neurodiversity2.blogspot.com/p/what.html
[ii] Singer J. “Why can’t you be normal for once in your life?” From a problem with no name to the emergence of a new category of difference In: Corker M, French S (eds.). Disability Discourse. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 1999,59–67 [Google Scholar]. https://neurodiversity2.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html
[iii]There is debate concerning the terminology used to discuss neurodiversity. While some theorists and advocates prefer the term "neurodiverse," others prefer "neurodivergent" or “neuro-minority” to describe people with neurological differences. Academics also suggest a difference between “Neurodiversity”, the “Neurodiversity Paradigm”, and the “Neurodiversity Movement”. See also, Walker N. Neurodiversity: Some basic terms and definitions. Neurocosmopolitanism: Dr. Nick Walker's Notes on neurodiversity, autism, and cognitive liberty. Neurocosmopolitanism; (2014). https://neuroqueer.com/neurodiversity-terms-and-definitions/
[iv] DCEG. (2022, March 8). Neurodiversity. National Cancer Institute - Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics. https://dceg.cancer.gov/about/diversity-inclusion/inclusivity-minute/2022/neurodiversity
[v]See for example, Smith, J. (2021, May 17). Elon Musk Opened Up About Autism. Here’s What We Learned. Psych Central.https://psychcentral.com/autism/elon-musk-opened-up-about-autism-heres-what-we-learned#response-to-musk. See also, Adam, D. (2019, September 2). Greta Thunberg responds to Asperger's critics: 'It's a superpower'. The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/02/greta-thunberg-responds-to-aspergers-critics-its-a-superpower
[vi] Frost, S. (2021, August 5). Dyslexia can future-proof your business. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/sfrost/2021/08/05/dyslexia-can-future-proof-your-business/?sh=520df4cbfdf6 . See also, LeFevre-Levy, R., Melson-Silimon, A., Harmata, R., Hulett, A. L., & Carter, N. T. (2023). Neurodiversity in the workplace: Considering neuroatypicality as a form of diversity. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 16(1), 1-19.
[vii] See, Deloitte. (2019). Neurodiversity in the workplace: The benefits, challenges, and opportunities of engaging and employing individuals with disabilities. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/talent/neurodiversity-in-the-workplace.html
[viii] Doyle N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British medical bulletin, 135(1), 108–125. https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldaa021. See also, Nicolaidis, C. (2021, February 2). Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About Neurodiversity. Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/clearing-up-some-misconceptions-about-neurodiversity/
[ix] Figure 1: The Overlapping Skills and Strengths of Neurodiversity Credit: Created by Nancy Doyle, based on work by Mary Colley.
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