Accommodating neurodivergent employees can increase workplace innovation, creativity


For many businesses, diversity and inclusion is an important part of a well-rounded workplace. But when it comes to accommodating and hiring employees who are neurodivergent, it can be hard to know where to start.

One company that has made “neuro-inclusivity” a key priority and reaped the benefits is Ottawa-based software company Kinaxis. 

“What was always really important to John (Sicard), our CEO, was neurodiversity and, specifically, autism,” chief operating officer Megan Paterson told OBJ. “He has a son who is on the spectrum and his family lived with how challenging it can be in a neurotypical world for people who aren’t neurotypical.”

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According to Paterson, when the company started searching for ways to bring in more neurodivergent employees, it was clear that there was a wealth of untapped potential.

“At the time, the labour market was so tight,” she said. “There were so many incredible people that just faced all these barriers along the hiring journey. They never get the chance to be hired. They could get through school and get great grades, but it was the hiring process that stopped them from going forward.”

In 2015, Kinaxis got help from one of its biggest competitors to kickstart its hiring program. 

Software company SAP, which has an office in Ottawa, had implemented an Autism at Work Program. According to SAP’s website, the goal was to support candidates on the spectrum during the hiring process and offer resources to facilitate employee success on the job.

“They were really fantastic about sharing information,” said Paterson of SAP. “At the end of this two-hour conversation, I said, do you mind if we copy what you’ve done? And they were like, go ahead. It was so great – software competitors coming together on something bigger than business.”

A year later, Kinaxis launched its Autism at Work Program. As part of its efforts, the company partnered with Specialisterne Canada, a non-profit organization that helps neurodivergent job seekers connect with employers. 

Paterson said Kinaxis changed its recruiting process to introduce a process that allows candidates to apply without a resume. Instead, candidates participate in a four-week paid pre-orientation program, then present a project to their hiring manager at the end. 

“It has helped us eliminate a lot of barriers that we didn’t even know we had in our recruiting system,” she said. 

She added, “We also did a lot of training, for managers, for recruiters, and for employees at large, about autism, best practices and how we can make sure this new group of people is included and respected.”

Now, about five per cent of Kinaxis employees self-identify as neurodivergent. 

Important for businesses to understand and accommodate neurodiversity

On April 13, Finding Your North Star Autism Summit will be hosted at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. The conference will bring together human resource professionals and other business leaders to discuss neurodiversity and inclusion in the workplace. 

Organizer Ingrid Windsor Joseph said it’s important for businesses to prioritize inclusivity and adjust their policies to ensure neurodivergent employees are supported in the workplace. 

Ingrid Windsor Joseph (Supplied)

“The duty to accommodate is informed by three principles, which are: respect for dignity, individualization, and integration for full participation,” she said. “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Autism is a spectrum, as is (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).”

That means that accommodations will look different for every employee. According to Joseph, making the workplace inclusive for all is the first goal. When employees know they can raise concerns, she said it can be easier to open a dialogue and have a conversation about what they need to improve their productivity and leverage their strengths. 

Joseph currently works with businesses to help them adjust their practices to better accommodate neurodiverse employees. That includes teaching businesses about the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), which mandates compliance with accessibility rules to identify and remove barriers for people with disabilities.

Workers are not required to disclose if they’re neurodivergent to their employees, but Joseph said it’s more common than some might expect. She said one in 40 people have autism and about five per cent of the population has ADHD. 

“A lot of corporations already have the tools (to accommodate neurodiversity), but they need to make better use of the tools they have,” said Joseph. 

For businesses looking to improve, Joseph said that tracking progress is key. 

“Neuro-inclusion is not currently factored into key performance indicators, but it should be,” she said. “The Finding Your North Star Autism Summit aims to change that by providing practical solutions and resources for businesses to thrive in a diverse and inclusive world.”

She added that failing to improve diversity, equity and inclusion policies can have costly consequences. The average corporate judgment or settlement for DEI-related lawsuits amounts to $125,000, with litigation averaging 275 days. 

At the end of the day, Ingrid said neuro-inclusivity is good business. 

“We all have our exceptionalities,” she said. “Understanding how we can work together is crucial. If I understand you and you understand me, let’s make money together and let’s get the job done.”

Paterson from Kinaxis concurs. 

“Selfishly, it’s really good for Kinaxis,” she said. “One of the first people we hired had a master’s from Carleton, the highest marks in his class, and we got him. That gives us a competitive edge.”

She added, “From an innovation perspective, the last thing we want is for everyone to be thinking alike. That innovation and creativity, that’s how new perspectives are formed. It’s led to different ways of working, but also different ways of thinking. It really adds value.”

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