- Identifying and handling neurodiverse cases
- Billy’s strengths and weaknesses
- Good practice at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO)
- Prospect briefing: Disability Discrimination and Appraisal & Performance Systems
People choose professions based on their strengths. For example, many people with dyslexia work at the BBC because the organisation is creative, while many workers on the autism spectrum work at GCHQ, the UK’s largest intelligence and security agency, because they can see patterns.
Neurodiverse people typically choose roles that tend to be self-governing and have minimal contact with line managers.
Companies generally don’t understand the pressures and challenges that neurodiversity brings. Different conditions come with unique skills and abilities, just as neurodiverse individuals possess unique strengths and limitations.
Getting people to “put yourself in their shoes” is very hard to do with autism spectrum conditions because people often see neurodiverse people as behaving like spoilt children. Managers might say: “He (or she) is not getting that adjustment because the rest of the team don’t.”
- Change, particularly to routine, gives heightened emotional arousal
- Conflict affects performance
- Inability to explain feelings and outline issues
It is important that performance management systems identify neurodiverse conditions at the outset. Most cases come to reps through criticisms of performance, typically including:
- Lack of team work
- Poor in terms of contribution at meetings
- Lateness in producing reports
- Not understanding instructions (unless presented in a particular way)
Any ambiguity, especially in describing tasks, issuing instructions etc works against neurodiverse individuals.
By the time members come to us, they tend to be broken and need help to get back to normal. Fortunately, in 90% of cases the performance management has been sloppy and that can be used to stop cases proceeding.
Reps use questions such as:
- Do you see a lot of this?
- Has your family noticed…?
- How else are you affected?
And follow up with: “The only reason I’m asking is that my friend/a colleague….”
If there isn’t a positive response, then you can’t pursue the neurodiversity discussion.
If a positive response is received, reps should advise the member to speak to their doctor, as a GP consultation is the springboard to getting an assessment.
After assessment, many companies have support programmes that are helpful, benefiting both the company and the individual. A line manager recommendation may be required.
If a line manager understands neurodiversity, it can make a massive difference to the member, case management and, ultimately, the resolution.
Billy is a member in his early 50s. His wife is a GP and she suggested he get tested. The assessment revealed that he has Asperger syndrome and is exceptionally high functioning.
Billy is very sociable and outgoing, with a good sense of humour, although he is often a fraction of a second behind others in “getting it”. He has a wide range of interests, is intense and doesn’t know when to stop. (In company, his wife stops him.)
Based on observed interactions with colleagues, the Prospect rep judges Billy to be well-liked.
Billy sees his problems as:
- Not being very good at taking verbal clues
- Finding sarcasm difficult
- Getting confused over new information
- Finding it hard to determine priorities
Billy says his mind is like a bookshelf in that if you add a book at one end, a book falls off the other.
He has ways of coping. For example, if he can establish a pattern, he will work strongly to that pattern.
Billy’s job is firefighting computer problems and producing the related communications to explain and update those affected.
Under performance management, Billy was marked in the lowest category overall (putting his employment at risk), based on the timeliness and complexity of his communications – though he is great at fixing the computer problems. Billy had tended to sort the problem out before producing any communications.
Billy was given a six-week plan and advised to show evidence that he had met the plan.
Due to the worrying situation, Billy was signed off sick with depression and work-related stress.
Although Billy had difficulties talking about his Asperger’s, the Prospect rep encouraged him to be open, explaining that there was nothing to be ashamed of and that adjustments could be made, as well as other things done.
Billy also has dyslexia and asked colleagues to double-check his communications.
Despite no colleagues complaining about this, “constantly asking colleagues for help” became a performance issue too
The Prospect rep noted that the lack of empathy from the line manager suggested that the manager could be on the autism spectrum.
First meeting with the manager
The first line manager didn’t know about neurodiversity. There was no referral to occupational health. The manager’ held the view that equality meant treating everyone the same. The Prospect rep pointed out that we don’t all start at the same place.
The rep requested some more time for some activities and some software.
The manager kept Billy on an informal warning, adding to his stress levels.
Addressing the performance issues
Billy tried hard, made great progress and got some good testimonials from internal customers.
Billy continued to be conscientious, including, for example, volunteering to cover other’s shifts.
The line manager continued to say: “But I haven’t seen X.”
The rep categorised the manager’s attitude as “this is how the system works”, rather than looking into making reasonable adjustments.
The rep noted that Billy got angry and that the line manager’s behaviour was (deliberately?) making Billy angry and stressed.
Managing the member
The rep read a comment about himself on Billy’s timeline that cast him as very laid back, leaving Billy unsure that he was committed to his case. This was discussed. Billy didn’t realise his comment was hurtful, and the “lack of commitment” had been due to the rep taking a day to respond!
Following that, the rep time-managed Billy by specifying a time and date for their next contact. If that had to be changed, he contacted Billy to re-arrange it. Written communications were kept clear, concise and directive; any explanation was dealt with verbally. Oral communications were direct, with no colloquialisms.
The Prospect rep insisted that the person hearing the appeal should be trained in neurodiversity issues. He also warned the manager that he was blundering into a discrimination case.
The case went quiet and didn’t go to appeal. Billy worked with the plan and is still in touch with the rep. Billy’s world of work has returned to normal.
Additional comments from the rep
Billy was socially high functioning, until the line manager entered the equation.
When Billy got a new manager, the previous manager insisted on overseeing progress on the improvement plan.
Handling the case was a journey for the rep.
The IPO, based in Newport, Wales, is the UK government body responsible for intellectual property (IP) rights including patents, designs, trade marks and copyright.
IPO has a number of staff with neurodiverse differences, including dyslexia and autism spectrum disorders.
Its in-house Diversity Group recently focussed on neurodiversity, with an emphasis on autism spectrum disorders. Working with the National Autistic Society (NAS) and Autism Spectrum Connections Cymru (ASCC), they provided:
- team training on working with people with neurodiverse difference
- individual training on workplace engagement
- specific training for managers on how best to engage with their employees who have neurodiverse differences.
Reasonable adjustments successfully introduced for individuals with autism spectrum disorder include:
- reduced productivity targets
- a structured workflow process, including timings; being given clear instructions over what work to do when
- statements to help with decision points, for example “If…” “Then…”.
- the introduction of coping strategies: for example a phone call strategy whereby a caller is asked for their case number and a summary of the issue and a time to call back is agreed with them. This strategy can also benefit neurotypical members
- making sure that meetings are scheduled in advance and not moved so that the individual can plan their day
- provision of coloured lenses, desk mats to reduce glare (the standard desks are bright white), ability to lower lighting and by contrast, provision of a very bright desk lamp
- noise cancelling headphones, quiet desk location, screens around desks to reduce noise and distractions, access to a quiet space
Prospect’s branch at IPO report that workplace assessments by experts, and a willingness from the employer to try different options, are key for success since the reasonable adjustments provided for one person will not necessarily be appropriate for someone else with the same condition. The adjustments set out above have worked well where individual needs have been taken into account.
- Equality Briefing on Disability Discrimination and Appraisal & Performance systems