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This episode was originally recorded as a DEI Community Call and features a conversation with Kathy West Evans, Director of Business Relations for CSAVR (Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation), and Danielle Biddick, Senior Advisor, Diversity Talent Acquisition at Dell Technologies as they discuss strategies for recruiting and hiring neurodiverse talent. Discover details and statistics about this incredibly diverse and intersectional talent pool and the opportunities to increase our collective awareness, understanding, and fluency in neurodiversity, in both society and the workplace.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
DANIELLE BIDDICK: An 85% unemployed or underemployed rate for autistic adults right now is an incredibly disheartening statistic, and it shows that we’re largely missing out on this untapped or rather undertapped talent pool. There’s a lot that we can leverage there if we just think about doing it in a different way than we have.
So I think really celebrating and recognizing neurodiversity is important, especially in the workplace because diversity drives innovation, and when you bring different perspectives and different ways of thinking to the table, true problem solving and idea sharing and learning occurs.
DOUG FORESTA: The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author, and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She’s a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and, therefore, more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to fortune 500 companies, she and her team advised top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty, and now, onto the episode.
Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. Today’s episode was originally recorded as a community call and features a conversation with Kathy West-Evans, Director of Business Relations for CSAVR or the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, as well as Danielle Biddick, Senior Advisor for Diversity Talent Acquisition at Dell Technologies.
The conversation focuses on inclusive strategies and practices for recruiting and hiring neurodiverse talent. There’s some pretty staggering statistics. Neuro divergent people make up about 20% of the population, but face an unemployment rate of around 85%. 85% of college graduates on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed.
So in this conversation, you’ll hear about how to develop inclusive strategies and practices for recruiting and hiring neurodiverse talent that deliver on results and payoff with regards to gains and productivity, innovation, and engagement, all this and more, and now, onto the episode.
JENNIFER BROWN: Now, I get to introduce Danielle and Kathy, and this topic. So I just want to share a couple things about how I look at when I teach from the iceberg, some of you know I teach this iceberg model, and 10% of what’s visible and 90% that’s not visible in ourselves and in our organizations, and I added neurodiversity over the last couple of years, and I get a lot of questions in when I present on what is that, what does that mean.
So I know what’s so important is to meet learners where they’re at, and it’s really a helpful reminder to be mindful of the fact that folks do not understand and may have no exposure that they know of to the topic and also to neurodivergent individuals and also the awareness of their perhaps own neurodivergence.
So I want to share and remind us that at least 20% of the adult population identifies as neurodiverse and that it cuts across race, gender, and orientation. So any conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion needs to be intersectional and, therefore, needs to include neurodiversity as well. So a really important reminder for us as we speak about the different identities that we are meant to be addressing. The more that we can bring this up, the more stories we can share, the more statistics we can share, the more complete the discussion will be that we’re having, and the more learning we can create.
I really, just I love thinking about the learning differences simply that defining neurodiversity is the recognition that we interact with and experience the world in different ways. There’s no one right way of thinking, learning, and communicating, and that these differences are not deficits. They are differences, and there are differences that can be leveraged, which is what’s so exciting about the conversation we’re going to have today because we’re going to hear actual examples of workforce initiatives that are having great success in identifying, and then specifically in Dell’s case, focus on autistic talent and the success there, and also the way that I want this community to help each other and support each other’s initiatives.
That can mean we share best practices that means coming to together in discussions, and Danielle will share a little bit more about where these discussions are happening, but I would really consider if you are a part of a workforce that isn’t talking about this and doesn’t have an initiative going, this is going to be tremendously helpful for you to onboard you, but also following up after this and getting more information will be critical.
If it’s nowhere on your radar screen, what a wonderful way to get your feet wet to start to really immerse yourself in this conversation and know that these resources are available to you as you go forward. If you’re an aspiring practitioner, this needs to be part of your toolkit, part of your language, part of your knowledge base. So wherever you are, I hope there’s so something really useful here today.
So if I can, I’m going to just quickly reorient us to Kathy and Danielle. So Kathy, you all have met Kathy before on our podcast, and I think community calls as well, but she’s Director of Business Relations for CSARV, which is the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, CSAVR, and she deeply knows the federal and community-based space and how to guide and support companies through the process of developing more inclusive hiring practices. So Kathy’s involved with something called the NET, and there are concrete collaborations that have happened with big employers to jumpstart their initiatives that Kathy has been very much on the ground with, and that’s how she and Danielle know each other, actually.
So Danielle is Senior Advisor for Diversity Talent Acquisition at Dell. So Danielle’s going to provide insights on those best practices for recruiting and hiring neurodiverse talent and the results that they have witnessed at Dell.
So let me just jump off right there. Kathy, I shared some statistics just now, but what would you like to add about this important talent tool, and tell us a little bit more about the NET and how you work with companies and what you help them to do?
KATHY WEST-EVANS: Well, thank you, Jennifer. I want to just give a shout out to you and your team and a special thanks to Karen because I think as we discussed DEI, we’re seeing a lot of companies and federal agencies shift to adding the A, so diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, and I think that’s always a key piece. I know that you included that in your book right upfront. You’ve always included disability as part of that look.
I think that’s an important thing because in this country, they’ve identified at least 61 million people ages 18 or older with a disability. This is not something that you see asked on the census. There’s a lot of assumptions around statistics here. So my gut feeling, and I think probably Danielle would say that most likely, there’s a lot more representation of this community, and that it cuts across all diversity. So that intersectionality is such a key discussion. So thank you and thank you for the iceberg model. I think that it’s just an awesome display of what this means on so many levels.
I think it’s also important to understand that disability is just part of the normal human condition. It’s something that can happen to any of us at any time. This is a community that any one of us could join. I think after our experience with COVID, we’re seeing that. People with long COVID have joined this community because they’re doing things differently than they used to.
I think understanding that and not making assumptions about people because we have a medical label, and that medical label helps in one part of our life, but we’re not defined by our medical label. So understanding that, and I think with the neurodiversity community, and I know that Danielle’s going to hit more on this, there’s a whole movement looking at neurodiversity as being a viewpoint that brain differences are normal. They’re not deficits.
When I look at people across the spectrum of disability, when you’ve met one person with a disability, you’ve met one person with a disability, and they bring great assets. I’ve shared with you that my husband is deaf. Talk about detailed work, he’s on it. He can fix things. He sees things I don’t see. So there are real assets that people bring, and with neurodiversity, I think that they’re really hitting upon that point and understanding not to make assumptions because of the label.
So thank you for always supporting that, Jennifer. Danielle, she’s like a sister. She used to live here in Seattle with me. Now, she’s moved to Austin. So I have to connect with her on video, but she has had such great experience in this space, and in terms of a partner on so many levels, this takes a team, and I think the important thing about the NET, the National Employment Team, is we’re here to support you. This is not about catching people doing something wrong. This is helping people look at how you set up a program, a system, a strategy that helps people be successful, whether it’s the individual or the business, because that’s where we really use all of our talent, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Kathy. Yup. Yeah. This is one of those next frontiers. I won’t say new because neurodiversity is not new, but I’m experiencing it as a new focus and conversation and much education is needed, and under that water line of that iceberg model, it is hiding down there, but it is pervasive, it’s common, and yet another exciting dimension of diversity to be inclusive of and to bring to the fore.
So I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can be having a lot of different conversations, and particularly the intersectional conversation about what is visible and invisible about us and what we realize carry some stigma through a lack of understanding and stereotypes, and that we are so many things at once, and we’re constantly making choices about what we disclose in our workplace, and all of that leads to that fatigue that I think breaks our, sometimes can even break our spirit in terms of not feeling seen and heard in the organizations that we so much want to thrive in.
So how can we then on this call as folks who set the terms of these discussions? We have so much influence to make sure that we have that discipline of being inclusive of all communities whenever possible. I think our organizations will come around to it, but we have to be shining that light all the time. Both of you just do that so beautifully.
Danielle, I’d love to have you talk about the role you’ve played, and tell me how you and Kathy met as well because I think that’s so relevant to how juicy this conversation is because you’ve both been working on this so in parallel and together.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Yeah, definitely. Well, first, I just also want to add on Kathy’s sentiment. Thank you so much for having me here. I’m so grateful to be able to have this conversation with you also. Again, thank you for you and your team and everyone on the call today, but wow. Yeah. So I’ve known Kathy for I think it’s been, what? Five, six years? The way that we met was, previously, before I was working at Dell, I worked for a nonprofit organization in Seattle called Provail. At Provail, I supported individuals with disabilities in finding meaningful employment opportunities. That was really the mission of the organization.
While I was there, I had the opportunity to support the Microsoft Autism Hiring Program. They’ve now shifted the name to their Neurodiversity Hiring Program, and they were one of the first to really get started in this industry. So I had the opportunity to work with the individuals that they were hiring on. I think that’s been so beneficial in getting me to where I am now because I’ve essentially seen both sides of the table, if you will.
So at the time when I was at Provail, I was working one-on-one with folks that were working at Microsoft that we brought through their program, and I was learning about what their day-to-day was like, and I was supporting both them and their managers through that experience. So I learned about some of their interpersonal challenges that they experienced at work, some necessary accommodations that really helped them be more successful in their roles, but on the flip side, I was also learning of what great work they were doing from the managers. I heard incredible feedback.
So that really positioned me to be able to talk to other companies about what Microsoft was doing and offer my support and expertise in this space to be able to help them launch something. So again, Kathy approached me with the opportunity to work with HP and help them get started with their Spectrum Success Program.
After that, I was sought after by Dell to go and work for them, and now I’m on the employer side, I’m on the business side of the table, which is a weird experience to go to this area, but it’s been really valuable to have known what’s needed from the community to be able to launch and facilitate a program at a company of this size.
So that’s what my pathway was like to get me to where I am today. I fell into this type of work because I’m dyslexic. So from a young age, I was really fascinated by just different ways of thinking and learning and experiencing the world when you have a different learning style, and that drew me to getting my degree in speech pathology and then ended up at Provail when I was taking a quick break before getting my master’s, and the rest was history. So anyway, that’s a little bit about my background, but thank you again for having me. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. Thanks, Danielle. Thank you for sharing your story with us, too. I’m curious, the disclosure journey for you about your dyslexia quickly, could you just share how did that process go and what did it teach you about the difficulty of counting population sometimes, and I know in the LGBTQ community we struggle with this as well, but can you tell us just a teeny bit about what that journey was like and what you learned from it and what you would recommend?
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Yeah, definitely. I consider myself very lucky because my mother is a teacher. So I learned very early on that I had a learning disability and that it needed to be addressed. So I was given the skills at a young age to just tell my teachers, tell my employers what my needs were in that space. So I really found that to be empowering, but it’s challenging, and I think it’s a different story for everyone when it comes to disclosure because there’s a neurologic component in expressing that you have a different way of thinking or learning, and there are different things that you need to get your needs met, but at the same time, there’s also a social-emotional component of that.
The way that that shows up in people’s lives looks very different for everyone and has different implications. So I always say you don’t necessarily have to disclose if you’re not comfortable with it. There are different ways that you can express what works best for you in order to get your needs met, and that goes down that road of accommodations and things like that, but I find that the more people do disclose, especially in an organization like Dell, it creates more awareness, and that in turn creates a more inclusive environment.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Yes. We do need to speak up. It can be scary. It requires a lot of courage, but the impact is not always what we think it will be. Honestly, the transformation that’s possible both for us and how we carry our story and our truth, but also the impact on others is something that we just can’t predict. For coming out about any of our diversity dimensions, I think it’s getting comfortable being uncomfortable and then recognizing that this does not go in a predictable way.
Often, there are many pleasant surprises, there are exciting results that we just can’t foresee, but if we’re driven by our fear and not trusting others with our truth, then I think we do deprive ourselves of, first of all, getting over that to the other side, but also the potential witnessing of our story that our organizations have to. I mean, they have to see this. They have to not only deal with it, but recognize and maximize it. So in order to do that, we have to bring our stories to the fore.
Just I want to acknowledge that it’s scary and important for all sorts of reasons that we do disclose because we have this window now in organizations where there is openness to change, and I think challenging the way that we thought about things, I think that that has been open in a new way in the last couple of years, and we’ve got to really keep it open. We got to keep our foot in the door. As I often say, do not let the door close. Right now, two years after the pandemic started and George Floyd, that door I feel like wants to close on us, right? We got to keep our foot in that door, and these are some of the ways that we can continue to just show up, be powerful, be loud, make some noise, use compelling information.
We are mindful every day of what the future holds and it’s not even the future, it’s today’s workforce. It’s today’s talent, let alone how the world is going to continue to change. So such an important business case, and speaking of business cases, either one of you, there’s so many business cases for the inclusion of neurodivergent individuals and talent and initiatives that harness that. What are some things you would share that are most powerful that you have found as arguments or rationale or data for why this matters, why it’s worthy of organizational focus and resources, and either one of you can take that.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: That’s a great question. I think it might be helpful if I just start off by maybe defining what neurodiversity is because it’s a newer term that’s been coined over the past 10 years or so. So would that be helpful if I maybe just set the stage by defining it?
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Awesome. So neurodiversity, it’s an umbrella term, meaning that it touches on a variety of different experiences, diagnoses, and it’s defined as the neurologic functioning that diverges from the societally deemed “normal” neurotype, but I mean, what is normal these days, anyway? It accounts for different ways of thinking, learning, and socializing.
So some diagnoses that fall under that umbrella are autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia. With that being said, a majority of the people that we hire through Dell’s neurodiversity program identify as autistic. I’ll tell you a little bit more about the reason why we focus on that population, and that might even be a really great segue into the business case.
So I mean, we’ve talked about unemployment rates I think at the beginning, but again, an 85% unemployed or underemployment rate for autistic adults right now is an incredibly disheartening statistic, and it shows that we’re largely missing out on this untapped or rather undertapped talent pool. There’s a lot that we can leverage there if we just think about doing it in a different way than we have.
So I think really celebrating and recognizing neurodiversity is important, especially in the workplace because diversity drives innovation, and when you bring different perspectives and different ways of thinking to the table, true problem solving and idea sharing and learning occurs.
So I think if we don’t, again, consider different ways of bringing this type of talent into the door, then we’re really missing out on including these very skilled and qualified candidates into our workforce. So I think that’s one part of the business case, and I can tell you more about what that’s looked like at Dell since we’ve done that, but I’ll see if Kathy has anything to add.
KATHY WEST-EVANS: No. I’m going to second your comment about different perspectives of situations bring innovation, and that is particularly important for companies because when you’re on the forefront of creating new products and/or services, you want to know that those services and products are going to a community that’s very diverse, and it requires that perception and that perspective. So I think that the whole fact that diversity brings innovation cuts across so many diversity groups.
I do think one of the things that you hit upon, Danielle, is the underemployment, as well as the unemployment of this population. I think we have a challenge particularly to really focus on young people, and as people maybe in schools facing barrier, I know myself I had a hearing loss, and it was not diagnosed until way later. So my label was behavior disorder.
So it’s how people see you because they don’t understand what you’re experiencing, but early identification and much like Danielle, I did my under graduate work in pediatric audiology. So understanding from an early age and then helping young people understand, “You could be anything you want. There’s a future for you. You may do it differently, but your difference brings strength and it brings innovation,” and how do we start at a young age with that message instead of focusing from a medical perspective that says, “There’s something wrong with you so you can’t,” and I think that’s the discussion we had in your book. Let’s start looking at what people can do and how we build that as a strength for the future and how we bring that strength to the workplace because we have a culture in the workplace that recognizes that.
So I just want to add on, Danielle, we need to start young on this one, Jennifer and Danielle, because we have a lot of young talent that just … Danielle, how many people have we met where I remember there was one man with a degree in math, if I remember correctly, who was picking up shopping carts and packing them in a big box store?
DANIELLE BIDDICK: I have so many of those stories.
KATHY WEST-EVANS: Now, he’s an engineer at Microsoft because guess what? We thought about doing something differently in the way that he interviewed so he could demonstrate his talents.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Exactly. That’s a great point, Kathy, because if we adjust some of our workplace practices, even interview experiences, those are accommodations that, yes, they’re helpful for neurodivergent team members, but they’re also helpful for all team members. So I think some of these changes that most companies need to make to support neurodivergent team members help everyone on the team and help other people get into the organization.
So I think that’s another piece of that business case that this isn’t just supporting or targeting. This helps everyone. Things like providing meeting notes after meetings or using captioning, some small adjustments that we can make help other people who maybe English isn’t their first language or who have a hearing deficit. All of these different populations can benefit from some small changes that we can make through these types of initiatives.
JENNIFER BROWN: Let’s stay on the initiatives for a minute, Danielle, and talk about what does an initiative look like that’s trying to be inclusive. Oh, hello, kitty.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Sorry about that.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s okay. What does a neurodiverse inclusive hiring initiative look like and how is your work oriented on your team because I understand each of you own certain identity not to label, but sometimes labels are helpful in terms of making it a priority. So what does that look like and how do you each attend to the different communities who have experienced bias in the hiring process? There’s so many communities like you just started to enumerate, and there’s actually a question in chat related, which is that intersection between LGBTQ and neurodiverse, some in that intersection, too.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Oh, yeah. That’s a big one.
JENNIFER BROWN: So anyway, if you feel like addressing that, that would be great.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Definitely. Yeah. So I work on a diversity talent acquisition team at Dell, and we’re focused on diversity hiring across North America. So different people on my team have different “pillars”, if you will. I am the disability pillar. Whereas we have other folks on the team, someone that represents LGBTQ, another person that’s focused on ethnicity and hiring underrepresented minorities, another person does veteran hiring, so on and so forth. So we all have different programs or lead conferences and do different things to really focus on bringing in this diverse talent into our workforce. So I think that answers the first half of your question.
The second is just I’ll give you a high level overview of what our neurodiversity program at Dell looks like. Before I get into this, I will say that there’s no one size fits all model for this. A number of companies do have these types of programs or initiatives, and they look different depending on the company. So the way that Dell does it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how your company should do it, but it’s more just about embedding some of these best practices into our workforce.
So the way that we’ve done it at Dell is we’ve designed our neurodiversity program to provide both career readiness training and full-time career opportunities for neurodivergent job seekers. We started out really small and then grew in place. So we started in Boston, 2018, just hiring three people on, and then the next year, took our program to Austin where we had our other headquarters, and then we were faced with the pandemic in 2020, but we actually learned so much from that because it allowed us to start recruiting talent more nationally. We found that a lot of people really liked working from home and benefited from it.
So that aside, we recognized that the traditional interview process can be very limiting for some. We really wanted to provide opportunity for candidates to showcase their skills in a different way. We did that through or a skill-based hiring model. What that looks like is it cuts through bias by focusing solely on the candidate’s core competencies for the role. So essentially, we’re replacing the question with, “Does this person ‘fit’?” with “What does this person add? What can this person do?”
With that, we’ve developed multiple pathways to bring candidates through the door, regardless of whether they’re applying for an internship opportunity or a full-time opportunity. The alternative interview process is a key component of that, and through that process, we provide opportunity for candidate skill-based project that they would be given in their desired field, and through that, managers are able to assess the candidate’s learning style, the way that they naturally approach problems. They also get to see what it looks like as they code in-person.
So they get to sit side-by-side with them. I’m not technical. So when I speak about this, it’s a little bit challenging, but for example, the other day, a manager says, “I need someone who can code in Python.” So we actually have the candidate work on a program or on a project where they’re due doing that, and it gives the manager a really full picture of how they would show up on their team.
In addition to that skill-based project that we have them work on throughout the course of a week, we also offer a series of professional development workshops for candidates to attend prior to their interactions with managers, and those topics that we cover include things like workplace relationships or effective communication, organizing, prioritizing your work. We also have sessions on just working remotely. So we prepare candidates for what this corporate environment looks like.
The nice thing about that is it gives them something to take away even if they don’t end up getting a job at Dell through this experience. It allows them to be more prepared for future interview experiences or just an understanding of what roles in this industry look like.
With that, as far as the hiring process goes, that’s really what the bread and butter of the program looks like for interviews. Then outside of that, we also offer an ecosystem of supports to individuals once they’re in the door working with us. I can go into more information of about what those supports look like, but one of them being a career coach or a life coach, if you will. That’s the role that I had when I was supporting the Microsoft program. So they get to work with individuals one-on -one and then also collaborate with their managers. We provide training to any manager who participates in the program, also mentors that come through our employee resource group that’s focused on disability. So there are a number of different supports that we offer to people once they’re in the door to ensure that they’re set up for success.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think I read a statistic that retention is actually extremely high.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Yes, definitely. We actually have a 100% retention rate. The program started in 2018. So it’s been a while, but over the past four or five years, 100% is pretty great.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s incredible. I mean, to me, this speaks to the importance of inclusive environments that have done their work to prepare for the candidate, and it’s why sometimes when people say, “Well, what order should we put the letters in?” sometimes I say, “Well, you could think of this as the I precedes the D because what’s the point of bringing in all this diversity of talent if that person’s not set up or supported to succeed and stay?” I mean, really, that’s the metric and the measurement of, I think, a successful program.
So we want to be prepared, and we don’t want people to come and leave. If you get people, can you keep them, but that has been the mentality, though, of the check the box exercises around a lot of different diversity dimensions historically. We really have to prepare the ground first. We have to have that organizational discipline to enable the thriving of talent once we bring it in, and this applies to all kinds of talent that’s underrepresented because we struggle. We come in and we struggle with a system that we did not build, that we were not consulted around what we needed to succeed. So I love how you’re anticipating that and setting it up and you have the numbers to prove it. So that’s fabulous. Congratulations.
I think talking about universal design, I think we all struggle to understand the strange thing that many of us stumble into and say, “Gee, I don’t feel seen and heard here. I don’t see anyone that looks like me, shares my story.” There seems to be fear or lack of discussion or silence around certain things. A lot of us, I think, can relate to these endeavoring to shine in a system that’s not really set up to really understand us or enable us, and you’re getting a ton of really good questions at chat that are very, very granular and important. I’m really loving them. So everybody, we’ll get these, and let me just keep moving through my questions for Danielle and Kathy, and then we promise we’ll get to your questions in a moment.
So challenges, Danielle, I was so curious because you know organizations don’t love change. I feel like sometimes I present my iceberg model with literally now we have 40 or 50 diversity dimensions that are under the water line that aren’t either visible or disclosed because of stigma and a lot of other things, and I feel like people are so overwhelmed. They’re like, “How can I possibly learn all these diversity dimensions and do them justice?” I know it’s something that everybody struggles with, right? It’s hard to be deep and wide on everything.
I’m curious, did you meet resistance on this program, and specifically on the part of hiring managers, on the part of leadership or was it really smooth sailing? I guess, why? Was it in how you set it up and how you messaged it or the demographic changes, and what might you recommend for those of us on this call who are just trying to get this dialogue going about it and maybe meeting with resistance, whether it’s overwhelm or, “Oh, we don’t have time for that,” or “It’s not a priority,” or “I don’t see the benefit,” what would you counsel us?
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Yeah. That’s a great question. I was fortunate, Dell was fortunate in that we have really incredible executive sponsorship for this program, and that was really how it launched and got started, and that comes from the reporting straight to Michael Dell level, and even Michael Dell himself has said, “We do this because it makes business sense. We don’t do this because it’s a feel good thing. We do it because we’re bringing incredible talent into our organization. While it may feel good, that’s not the reason we’re doing it.”
So to have that type of leadership from the top is incredibly influential, but other things like employee resource groups, ERGs, if you’re in a bigger corporation, that can go along way and having advocates across the community and the company who really understand the needs and are advocating for how they can jump in to support.
So I think when you’re trying to get a program like this started, understanding if there is executive presence out there that can promote you along that way, but also education is the number that I would … Making sure that there is more education and awareness of the skills that this talent pool can bring because there’s a lot of stereotypes that need to be demystified to get this started. So just providing training to managers goes a really long way and helping them, but feel more prepared and understand, and channel their own unconscious bias that goes into things like interview settings or even the way that they operate in their day-to-day and how they support their team members. So providing them with more information on the types of tools that they can use or different ways of doing things to support their neurodivergent job seekers can go a long way.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. Thank you. So many questions. I almost feel like we have to really jump. We have to really jump to this, but I want to underscore, there’s nothing as powerful as finding senior sponsors who are very visible and very public and have the positional institutional power and influence to champion these things, but also the personal stories that exist within our workforce, and particularly, again, in the perfect world, we have leaders who also personally relate. Somebody just wrote in about Richard Branson in the chat, but that will normalize something if we can say … You all know I love the word usualize instead of normalize because of what’s normal as we’ve been talking about, but the more we can do that, and it just with one fell swoop just lays down the line to say, “We are about this here. We are,” and I am going first because leaders need to go first to set that tone, to make it psychologically safe, to bring something above the water line of the iceberg, to disclose.
It’s very similar to Tim Cook coming out as CEO of Apple. The reverberations of that, and the progress that was made when he did that will be felt and were felt instantaneously and widely. There’s so many hours of labor those of us could be putting in that are at various places from the bottom up, but there’s nothing quite so powerful as that. So the alignment really needs to be there, everybody, because otherwise, we’re going to be pushing that boulder uphill. I’m sure you both agree, neurodiversity is represented throughout our organizations.
The question is, is somebody sharing on the side with you? Is somebody whispering to you? Is somebody sending you a private email saying, “Thank you. I’m so glad we’re talking about this. Here’s my story”? It’s getting that person to move into disclosure and feeling empowered enough and courageous enough to actually share in a public forum that that really is where we need to get those voices to, and same with our LGBTQ senior leaders who are still you hiding or closeted, and I’m still surprised how many I meet. When the world has changed, they still feel the stakes are so high that they cannot be honest. It’s such a reminder of where we are and all the work ahead.
KATHY WEST-EVANS: Jennifer, I think with this community, it’s do we get beyond the labels, right? That’s where the stigma lies. That’s where, I mean, like Danielle said, we all have biases. I think the thing that I hear from business most often is we just don’t know what we don’t know when we’re afraid to ask. This is not compliance. We can’t drive from the medical or the legal side of the house. We’ve got to have an environment where we feel comfortable asking, and that’s where our team makes ourselves available, and we hear a lot of interesting questions, and if they’re not addressed, they become the barrier.
JENNIFER BROWN: I mean, almost an FAQ, right? I would almost bring it down to here are the top 10 myths and here are the corrected, accurate versions of the answers to these things and starting to do training. So there’s a couple. Let me just jump right into some of these questions. Let’s see.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Can I just add real quick, Jennifer?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Sure thing.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: I think also the number one things that anyone should do when they’re interested in getting more involved or creating one of these programs is listen to the community. Ask the community what would work for them and what their current experience is like within your organization so you can only build up and improve from there.
JENNIFER BROWN: I like the nothing about us without us.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Exactly. Yes.
KATHY WEST-EVANS: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right? So let’s make sure we’re not only at the table, but also heard at that table, which leads to the I of the D&I, right? The I is the inclusion. It’s the, how. It’s the skill that we’re all trying to develop of building enough psychological safety and belonging so that we feel we can say the thing. We can be honest. We can give the great idea, but if we’re so busy managing our own lack of inclusion and belonging, we are certainly not going to bring our best to those conversations, and that’s where that link is between belonging and creativity and input and contribution, right? If that’s not there, then we’re not going to get the best out of our ourselves.
Structurally, can I ask you all, are the logistics owned by the HR team, the recruitment team or the D&I team or is there a partnership here in structuring these? Who needs to be a part of this? From the beginning, if we were to structure it with the right stakeholders in place, what would that look like, optimally?
DANIELLE BIDDICK: I think it’s a group effort always. With the other companies that I work with, it looks similarly across the board. Some of us who are the “program managers” all sit in different parts of our own organizations like I’m in talent acquisition. I know some other folks who are in HR, specifically, or even legal and DE&I. So I think it’s more just about creating some synergy across those different group, so that there’s an understanding of how this operates, and the place in which it actually sits doesn’t matter as much as long as all of these different team members are included to understand what the mission is and what we’re trying to drive so that we can do it effectively.
JENNIFER BROWN: Great.
KATHY WEST-EVANS: I think looking at the fact that it’s across a company no matter where you sit, and I think Danielle talked about they’ve got great leadership and the leadership has set the stage, and that’s always key, but though Danielle may be working with people who are in the veteran space or different communities, there’s that synergy between that team and companies supporting the ERG or the BRGs that have a voice in what that looks like. So it’s across the company.
JENNIFER BROWN: Great, and across different identity groups, we mentioned LGBTQ plus in this community. Can you speak a little bit to the dovetail that exists there, and what’s important to know?
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Yeah. I know, just based off of my own experience in working with folks, we’ve hired 76 people through Dell’s program, a number of them identify as LGBTQ plus, and it’s been really valuable to have these different employee resource groups that provide a sense of community or belonging within the organization. We find that a lot of the time there is a lot of crossover, especially into the LGBTQ space. So I don’t necessarily have statistics for you, but I know that there’s definitely a higher prevalence, whether it be identifying that way or just having a connection to that community.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. There is another question about accountability for managers and leaders. So how do you know how these processes are going and obtain feedback and hold leaders accountable, especially when maybe the process didn’t go as well as it should have. So how do you have insight into that and how do you correct for it or how do we enable managers to learn as they go because this is not going to be right away something that they have expertise in? So how do you maintain that visibility?
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Yeah. That’s a great example of how we do have to come together as a team from all different parts of our organization. So hiring managers, we try to really evaluate folks that want to raise their hand to participate in this program. Usually, they have a personal connection or they have an interest in becoming a better people leader by being more intentional about the way that they’re supporting folks on their team, by bringing them in through this program.
We require all managers to participate in a training. So that’s the first step. Then we also are constantly checking in with them. We utilize our community partners, our life coaches, our career coaches to also be touching base with managers and providing that on-the-go training. If a manager has a question and they aren’t sure how to approach a situation with their employee, then they can ask that career coach, “How would you recommend I talk with them about this?” or they can even just ask some of those questions around, “I can’t get a read on them. I don’t know if they’re really enjoying this project that they’re working on,” and the career coach can quickly come and say, “Oh, no. I had this conversation with them last week, and here’s the feedback they shared with me. They might just not express it in the same way as some neurotypical people on your team.”
So that right there gives them that on-the-go recognition of, “Oh, okay. I’m making a comparison to other team members. I need to stop myself and think that maybe this is just how this person exhibits excitement. They don’t have to be jumping up and down to show that they’re interested in their project.”
So there’s the career coach, there’s training, and then I’m just constantly checking in and making sure that things are going well and that our employees are growing and developing in their careers and ensuring that our managers are accountable for supporting that, and that’s where HR and DE&I teams come in to put some checks and balances there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Well, there’s an interesting question just came up. Is the assumption that leaders and managers are not neurodiverse themselves? So have you discovered them?
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Exactly, and a lot of them are. Yeah, definitely. It’s so funny, too, because we’ll do the training with managers and a lot of the time they’ll say, “Oh, this is me,” or “This is half of my team. What are you talking about? These are most engineers that you’re describing.” So yeah, we do have a lot of managers that will come out through the woodwork and say that their neurodivergent or their children are, and that’s been really beneficial.
JENNIFER BROWN: So beneficial. Oh, my goodness.
KATHY WEST-EVANS: We often find those champions, and sometimes they don’t self-disclose right upfront. I mean, I think about it. How many brains are the same, right? What’s normal in your way of looking at things? We all have different experience. I think there’s close to 21 million families in this country that have at least one person with a disability as part of their family, and how does that shape the way we look at things and the way we open opportunities.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m sure the amount of allies that came forward because of this is enormous.
KATHY WEST-EVANS: Absolutely.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: 10% of people have a learning disability. So if you work on a team of 10, your team’s already neurodiverse.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. That’s also the argument I make around gender identity and expression, the statistic, and I can never find it when I look for it, but I remember that one out of five people under the age of 35 identifies as not heterosexual and not cisgender, one out of five. So when you work with leaders who are dismissive of yet another diversity dimension I need to learn about, I always bring that up and I say, “You have no idea.” Safe to assume that we are surrounded by folks that identify in all sorts of ways, and without seeing that invisible or undisclosed diversity dimension, what our job is as leaders and managers is to set the table, is to be inclusive with our language, is to assume that that diversity is present.
So it doesn’t take somebody to be in the room and have disclosed how they identify for us to have inclusive language, for us to be having a conversation about these topics with every single person and not just those that we earmark as part of a community or not because, increasingly, it’s, “Who’s in my family? Who are my loved ones? Who’s my team member that I really care about or my best friend?” The allyship is so strong, especially in the younger generations, where they just don’t understand why we still are having unconscious bias, right?
So yeah, I feel old when I think about the different generational, that depth of understanding and embracing of these topics and how behind some parts of the workforce really are, and what is the way that all of us can catch them up in a way that sticks and doesn’t feel performative, doesn’t feel like a check the box exercise, et cetera.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: That’s right, and that’s the thing. We don’t want this to be a secret. We’re constantly learning and sharing best practices and evaluating feedback from program alumni to understand the ways that we should continue to grow and change. We want to share our expertise with others, even our competitors, because the only way that we can really get this talent into the workplace is through the macro level of doing it with other organizations who have the same mission and values.
So we’re seeing that other companies are moving in this direction and we all need to work together to fill those gaps and address this huge tight labor market with this undertapped talent pool. So I’m part of a neurodiversity at work round table that’s hosted by Disability:IN. So if companies are looking to learn on how they can get something like this started, we have companies of all different sizes, some very, very small mom and pop shops and then other huge corporations, and we all come together to learn from each other on what works and what works for us through that process.
So I would encourage anyone to reach out to me if you’re interested in learning more or getting connected. You can hit me up on LinkedIn. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We can send that out after this I’m sure as well or I’ll drop it in the chat.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Danielle. We just got a question about that. So where do we start when we have not the resources of a Dell? A question I was fascinated by here, Virginia asked, “What does this resume or CV look like for an employer to consider candidates?”
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Such a good question.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I’m very curious about that. Again, to the disclosure, what do we put on the resume? What are the signs and how do you telegraph that, “Hey, we’re looking for you. We want you in this process,” when there’s so much either lack of understanding that there’s support that exists in a targeted program or that there’s stigma that we assume is there, et cetera?
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Well, I mean, a lot of companies do it in different ways. We actually have targeted social media campaigns where we actually say, “Hey, we’re looking for neurodivergent talent. Come and apply here.” So we have a funnel that directly takes this talent pool into the variety of jobs that we’re looking to fill. I don’t know if I pointed this out. My goodness, my cat, I’m sorry. I don’t know if I pointed this out earlier, but we hire really across the organization. We’re not trying to pigeonhole people into any type of role, specifically. So I think that’s another thing to take away, but training your talent acquisition professionals to understand that gaps in a resume doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t have the skills to do the job. They may have just not had the same opportunities as other people did or they may have not had a college degree because that’s not their preferred way of learning.
So there are things that we need to really be mindful of, even job descriptions, the way that they’re built out to ensure that we’re using inclusive language and not weeding people out of the process. So I’ll pause there. Kathy, I saw you come off of me. So I’m wondering if you have anything to add.
KATHY WEST-EVANS: Well, I’m just thinking, Danielle, when we talk about this, it’s telling the story, right? Whenever, Danielle, when they’re doing a recruitment, we send it out nationally because we can get the word out to communities. So using your networks, using your partners, and really thinking about that bigger strategy, I just think that’s so key. When you’re looking at a job description, I mean, there is a term that is used called essential functions. Don’t guess what you need to have done. What are your essential functions?
So we’ve seen companies have that aha moment of, “Yes, someone needs to get to point A to point B, but you don’t need to have a driver’s license,” right? So how many job descriptions have required driver’s license thinking that’s the way? I mean, the whole function around accommodation is you can do an essential function, but you may do it differently. So leave that door open.
JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent question. Let me squeeze one more thing in, technology dos and don’ts for accessibility and inclusive hiring practices. Quickly, is there just recommendations or biases or things you don’t do, things you do do? Is there a way we can begin to be aware?
DANIELLE BIDDICK: I think I saw a quote maybe earlier on in this chat that if you’ve met one person with a disability, you’ve met one person with a disability, and I think that actually comes from a quote from Steve Silverman, who’s an autistic author, and he said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” and that’s so true. I think you should always have a very person-centered approach when it comes to accommodations and just understanding what works well for someone.
We don’t necessarily do anything differently. We just get to know what the needs of our employees are. Some people prefer not to be on camera and that’s okay, but we train them on how to approach their manager about that or how to say to their team members, “Hey, don’t pick up the phone and give me a call when you need something. Send me an IM instead.” So it’s more just those “process accommodations” of changing the way that we do things to ensure that everyone can work in the best way for them.
JENNIFER BROWN: Doesn’t that apply to all of us?
KATHY WEST-EVANS: That’s applicable to everyone, isn’t it?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Exactly. Absolutely. I often, especially virtually, we need to be investigating, “How are you finding working this way? Is there something we can do or I can do that would accommodate how you like to receive information, how you like to be engaged before, during, and post? What kind of time you need to digest or reflect or give feedback?” This is all, even just introversion and extroversion, we think about how much of a role that can play in our own inclusion and then having to overcome and assimilate to a culture where one is dominant and you’re not part of the dominant group. It can be very depleting, and if nobody ever inquires, nobody ever opens the door to the conversation about how we want to be best engaged, how do we feel most productive? When do we feel we’re able to really contribute, and what gets in the way of that?
I think that huge question can be asked often and needs to be asked often, and I think if we open that door, folks will walk through. Over time, it’s not always instantaneous because remember, people have not had an inclusive experience in previous opportunities. So we’re inheriting people with a lot of baggage and, frankly, trauma from not feeling seen and heard.
DANIELLE BIDDICK: Exactly. Well said.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. So our discipline here, we need grace, we need patience. Again, back to our job of just opening, opening, opening, just making sure that people know, “Hey, you safe here. I see you. I hear you. I want to see and hear you. I want you to thrive, and you tell me what gets in the way of that however small,” because a leader’s job is to remove obstacles so that people can thrive and reach their full potential.
I mean, I think there’s nothing more important than that, and we’re all learning a new language in this virtual world and with the changes in the workforce that are coming in, and it’s such an amazing opportunity for expansion and inclusion.
So thank you. We’re almost out of time.
KATHY WEST-EVANS:… and innovation, and innovation.
JENNIFER BROWN: … and innovation and creativity, and speaking the language of our customers. That world out there that we all work so hard to serve, we need to be around that table. Nothing about us without us, and then we need to be heard and included in a real and concrete way at that table.
Hi. This is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion, and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
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