Is Unconscious Bias Stopping You from Hiring a Neurodiverse Team?

Written by Susan Fitzell

How do you overcome unconscious bias when interviewing to hire a neurodiverse team?
Difficulty recruiting and hiring neurodiverse talent is a common scenario. It happens because hiring practices favor neurotypical people. A talk of mine about the unconscious bias surrounding neurodivergence was recently nominated for a Virtual Speaker’s Hall of Fame Award. It got me thinking a bit more about how unconscious bias keeps neurodiverse people from being hired, even when a company is motivated to employ neurodiverse people.

What Is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias is preconceived notions about what people may be like based on a single attribute. It is often made up of stereotypes, experiences, and things we have heard. Even if we consider ourselves open-minded, we can still have unconscious bias.

I have spent 30 years working with neurodivergent people, and I’m neurodivergent myself. A few years ago, I was asked to give a keynote address to the Down Syndrome Guild of Dallas. Usually, when I give talks like this, I share vignettes of famous people who are neurodivergent. You’d be surprised at how many celebrities there are with OCD, autism, ADHD, dyslexia, etc. It got me wondering if there are any celebrities with Down Syndrome.

I did a Google search, and I’m ashamed to admit that I wasn’t expecting to find any results for famous people with Down Syndrome. Imagine my surprise when Google returned results for famous artists, famous musicians, famous models, and famous actors with Down Syndrome!

Unconscious bias caused me to underestimate the abilities of people with Down Syndrome. If I can fall victim to unconscious bias after decades of working with neurodivergence, then It’s understandable that unconscious bias may impact people involved in the hiring process. We all have preconceptions of which we are unaware.

How Does Unconscious Bias Affect the Hiring Process?
Unconscious bias doesn’t just affect how we view someone when we know they have a neurodivergence. It can affect the way we see their neurodivergent behaviors.

Let’s say you’re interviewing someone who barely makes eye contact throughout the job interview. Your impression of this behavior might be that they lack confidence or are socially awkward, traits that would knock them out of the running for the position. The interviewer might even feel uncomfortable with the lack of eye contact and decide not to move forward with the candidate. But the candidate may not lack confidence or be unfit for the job. Instead, they could be autistic and struggle with eye contact. Do they have the skills to do the job for which they are being interviewed? Unless the job they are applying for is customer or vendor-facing, does eye contact matter?

Many companies use Artificial intelligence (AI) technology to screen resumes so they can create a short list to make the hiring process more efficient. The AI is programmed to reject resumes based on a set of rules which would automatically rule out some groups of neurodivergent people. For example, someone with dyslexia may be ruled out due to spelling errors in their resume.

During the pandemic, many companies asked candidates to complete assessments and online tests while being recorded by AI to prevent cheating. People with ADHD or dyslexia are often ruled out during these assessments because of how their eyes move around the screen. Autistic candidates may also be ruled out during this process due to facial expressions or behavior that falls outside expected norms. While AI makes the hiring process more efficient, it also makes your hiring practices less inclusive, forcing candidates to disclose their neurodivergence and seek accommodations.

Unconscious biases could prevent you from hiring fantastic employees and bringing fresh perspectives when you are trying to build a neurodiverse team. Next time you hear a little voice in your head assuming something, I challenge you to question it.

I presented this topic at a virtual keynote. If you’d like to watch the clip, you’ll find it here.

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