Do’s and don'ts on supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

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Genevieve Koolen, HR director at SAP Africa, shares how SAP is navigating the workplace journey with neurodiverse employees.

Genevieve Koolen, HR director at SAP Africa, says companies need to be more inclusive towards neurodiverse employees and this can be done through support, transparency and empathy.

The term “neurodivergent” describes people whose brain differences affect how their brain works.

Genevieve explains that the significance of bringing awareness to neurodiversity in the workplace is to show that everyone has a diverse perspective.

“Employees have innovative problem-solving skills and talents that truly stand out, contributing to a more inclusive and creative work environment. In the workplace, neurodiverse employees have neurological differences that include autism, ADHD, or dyslexia,” she says.

According to the Harvard Business Review, autistic professionals can be up to 140 percent more productive than a typical employee if they are properly matched to their job.

SAP’s workforce, says Genevieve, has 215 colleagues diagnosed with autism across 15 countries, who all contribute to the success of the business.

“We have a programme that embraces neurodiversity, which enables us to find great talent. In 2013 SAP launched an Autism at Work Program to support candidates who fall into the various neurodiverse categories. We continuously encourage candidates to apply to open roles of interest for which they are qualified.”

She says this is in line with the organisation’s ambition to be the most inclusive and to be an employer of choice for people who are neurodiverse.

Getting it right

Genevieve says companies seeking to build more inclusive workplaces where neurodiverse employees can thrive should focus efforts on two key areas.

Firstly, companies should train every employee – from top management to juniors – to understand and accept individual differences.

“Where managers employ neurodiverse individuals, it is expected that the managers understand, get trained in and manage employees with diverse needs differently and in alignment with their employees’ individual requirements. This sometimes means that managers must undertake specialised coaching by our third-party experts; sometimes we need to provide support for managers who need to contemplate accommodations and adjustments for their neurodiverse team member.

“At other times we may need to contemplate establishing a working style profile that accommodates the neurodiverse employee. Managers also have to help to create opportunities to build community engagement and participation in social activities for employees on the spectrum. We encourage discourse and collaboration from both neurodiverse employees and managers as we learn and grow this component of our diversity.”

Secondly, companies need to relook their hiring practices to remove some of the pressure that neurodiverse candidates experience during typical recruitment processes.

“Companies should relook at their hiring practices to remove some of the pressure that neurodiverse candidates experience during typical recruitment processes. The traditional interview process can introduce immense stress to neurodiverse candidates and undermine their ability to convey their unique skills, competencies, and aptitudes. By finding ways to relieve stressful situations, companies can easily allow neurodiverse candidates to display their full potential during the hiring process.”

Genevieve concludes that SAP has allowed HR to make reasonable accommodations for neurodiverse individuals by supporting their needs for greater flexibility, “We afford employees the ability to work from home and even provide employees with quiet workspaces and noise cancelling headphones,” she says. “In the Czech Republic, we’ve just launched a sensory relaxation room, which is a peaceful oasis, shielded from the noise and stress of daily work. It is designed to provide a space for individuals to refresh their physical and mental state, find tranquillity and solitude, and take a moment to pause from their activities when needed.”

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