Why it’s important to include neurodivergent employees & how to make your workplace more neuro-inclusive

Talking and sharing lived experiences is helpful in normalizing subjects that have traditionally been off limits. We create opportunities for people to share in a safe space and what we have found is that when one or two people share their experience, others feel much more able to open up. This approach creates psychological safety for others which comes through very strongly in our employee surveys.

This Q&A Session with Cathy Donnelly, Chief People Officer at Texthelp originally appeared on medium.com

Research suggests that up to 15–20% of the U.S. population is neurodivergent. There has been a slow but vitally important rise in companies embracing neurodiversity. How can companies support neurodiversity in the workplace? What are some benefits of including neurodiverse employees? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Neurodiversity in the Workforce: Companies Including Neurodiverse Employees”. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Cathy Donnelly, Chief People Officer at Texthelp.

Cathy joined Texthelp in 2022 as the company’s first ever Chief People Officer. After 25+ years’ experience in Human Resources, Cathy’s move to Texthelp was inspired by the company’s strong purpose and values. Cathy’s vision for Texthelp is one with a best-in-class global employee experience where everyone is supported to fulfil their potential. Her focus is on building a globally inclusive community that recognizes and celebrates diversity and fosters a high-performing culture.

Before joining Texthelp, Cathy spent almost 10 years as the Senior Director — Talent with Liberty IT, a subsidiary of Liberty Mutual Insurance. As an official ‘Great Place to Work’, Liberty IT earned Top 10 placement in the UK and Ireland Best Workplaces rankings in 2021. Before joining Liberty IT, Cathy was HR Manager for IKEA UK & Ireland. She was responsible for leading the HR strategy for the business.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you ended up where you are?

The start of my professional career began when I graduated with a degree in Business & French. Then post-grad, I focused on hotel and tourism management. After that, I decided that I wanted to go into HR. So I studied part-time for my HR qualifications while I worked initially as manager of a small restaurant in Belfast. Then, I spent a number of years with a chain of bars and hotels called Botanic Inns in Northern Ireland, where I established a HR function. It was an award-winning hotel chain by the time I was leaving, winning numerous awards for its people practices and being named UK pub company of the year in 2003.

After my roles in hospitality, I moved to IKEA and worked there for six years in a variety of HR roles. I was involved in opening the first two stores in Ireland, one in Belfast and one in Dublin. Following those store openings, I decided to take an opportunity at the head office in London where I spent time as HR Operations Manager for UK & Ireland and then as Head of HR for UK & Ireland. With responsibility for leading the people agenda for about 7,500 employees across 20 stores.

My role at IKEA required me to travel to London every Monday morning and home on a Thursday night. With two 7-year-old children at home, I decided that I needed to focus on my family first and I needed to make a change. This led me to accept a role at Liberty IT, a subsidiary of Liberty Mutual. I spent nine years there and helped to grow that organization as the Senior Director of Talent.

When I heard about the Chief People Officer role at Texthelp, I wasn’t familiar with the company initially. Though, as I learned about Texthelp’s mission, which focuses on creating technology that helps people to understand and be understood, as well as their goal to support one billion people by 2030…I was sold. The values, vision and mission of the company excited me and I knew would make me motivated and proud to get out of bed every day.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The first trait is to support your team and always have their back. I always make a point to be there and make time for the team, as I want them to be able to be the best version of themselves and shine at every opportunity.

When I hire, I aim to look for the best possible candidates and I look to be the support they need to really unleash their full potential. I’m very committed to giving people opportunities and making other people aware of the talent within my team.

The second trait is around feedback. It is important to always provide effective feedback, but still ensure people are treated with dignity and respect. I’ll always make a point of owning that feedback to help someone grow and develop and to recognise when a job has been done well. I always make sure to also celebrate my teams’ successes.

My third is having a vision and having a direction. I think it’s important to have a compelling vision that inspires people to sign up and want to go on that journey with you. Then having a clear direction as they join you on that journey is important to uphold and maintain.

Can you share a story about one of your greatest work-related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?

The struggle I am thinking of is a number of years ago trying to get the executive team’s attention on the talent agenda and the talent initiatives we were wanting to introduce. Experience has taught me over the years that executive level support is critical to the success and impact of people initiatives. My agenda items were frequently at the end of the agenda and we would regularly run out of time and not get to them.

I decided to change my approach and I started to talk numbers to the executive team so really speaking their language — sharing key stats from our people dashboards and putting financial metrics on attrition and time to replace key roles. This really grabbed their attention and they were fully engaged and onboard with our proposals — they could see the business impact of what we were planning. I think it’s so important for HR people to understand the business and draw a solid line between the business strategy and people strategy.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Texthelp has a big focus this year on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) and we have already established six employee resource groups (ERGs): 1) gender 2) disability 3) LGBTQ+ 4) wellbeing 5) environment and 6) ethnicity.

We have an overarching DE&I leadership council that I chair alongside our CEO. The council is starting to focus on building awareness around all the ERGs across the organization, educating people on the experiences of others, and starting to share some of that lived experience.

Recently, an employee who celebrates Ramadan created a video and wrote an article talking about Ramadan and what it means to him. It included tips for us, as his colleagues, on how to support him through that period. We’re starting to create more conversations across the organization, starting to open people’s minds to the experiences of others, and making sure that our employees feel that they can bring their authentic selves to work and be accepted for who they are.

Another exciting initiative we have this year is Texthelp’s approach to learning and development. We’ve launched a whole new curriculum with new leadership development programs, so we’re thinking about how we develop our senior leaders, as well as how to develop leaders for tomorrow. It’s about building that organizational resilience and giving people the tools and the toolbox to perform well within their roles.

Fantastic. Let’s now shift the discussion to neurodiversity in the workforce. Can you tell the readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to include neurodiverse employees? Can you share a story with us?

I think I would start with our goal of attracting as wide of a candidate base as we can. It’s not only thinking about neurodivergent employees but thinking about it earlier in the process. How do we open our application process and make it possible for people who are neurodivergent to apply?

First, our Read&Write software is available on our careers page. When you land on our careers page, you’re encouraged and invited to download our software, which makes it much easier to apply. We also encourage applicants to reach out if they need any support during the application or interview processes.

Second, we’ve looked at all our job descriptions to make sure that we don’t exclude anyone through our choice of vocabulary e.g. we don’t use the superstar word or the guru word and we don’t ask for skills that aren’t necessary. Really, it’s about toning down some of the language because we understand that neurodivergent people see something like, “Excellent communication skills,” and tend to think, “Oh, that’s not me.” We’re trying to make sure that we support them as they move through the recruitment process.

Recently, we had a candidate who told us that she was autistic and asked if she could have the interview questions in advance because she didn’t feel as comfortable to think of responses on her experience quickly. She wanted time to read the questions, to prepare and get herself ready. We worked with her to find an accommodation that worked for everyone.

Third, we provide an onboarding e-learning for every new hire where we talk about the accessibility tools that we have, whether Read&Write, or something else. There are instructions within the e-learn for employees to download all the software that they want to use. We don’t want somebody to have to stick their hand up to say, “Hey, I have dyslexia. Could I possibly get access to the Read&Write software?” Again, no self-identification. It’s available to everyone.

Lastly, we recently held a training session around recruiting and managing people with autism that we offered through a specialist group locally in Northern Ireland. We have also run several sessions for employees around disability inclusion and how to create an inclusive workplace.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?”

This is something I’m passionate about both on a professional and personal level. Research shows that one in five people are neurodivergent. There’s a massive part of the adult population that we’re not tapping into.

Businesses are in this war for talent. We’re all fishing in the same pool for people, but we really need to extend the pool that we’re fishing within. If we could make workplaces more inclusive and open them to more people who are neurodivergent, then I think the world would be a much better place.

There’s a lot of research that has been done on this. Texthelp spoke to 500 neurodivergent people about their experiences at work and found that 61% have experienced stigma in the workplace. When asked why they don’t disclose being neurodivergent, 44% felt it would negatively impact their career, 42% were concerned that their managers and colleagues would view them differently, 19% didn’t know how to raise it with their manager, and 19% have had a previous negative experience when they did disclose it.

I think those statistics are particularly shocking. We have a duty as employers to make our workplaces inclusive and make sure that people can bring their full selves to work and be the best version of themselves that they possibly can be.

Research from Accenture has shown that companies that champion neurodiversity and disability inclusion benefit from 28% increased revenue and 30% better profit. Studies from Cloverpop, and another from CEO North America, has also shown that there’s 87% better decision-making in neurodiverse teams, and 81% of employees who believe their company culture is inclusive are happy in their job.

Again, we’ve all heard the statistics around employee engagement and how that drives business results. These statistics show the importance of also supporting a neurodiverse workforce.

Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help include neurodiverse employees. Can you share with us how the work culture was affected as a result?

Some of the things I mentioned already have really had an impact. For example, making our software widely available to all employees, rather than making them ask for it, allows them to avoid unnecessary self-identification. Our efforts around training programs, as well as our implementation of employee resource groups, are allowing employees to not only better understand the value of inclusion but to find common ground with their colleagues.

Mostly, it’s important to us that we create a level playing field within the workplace, ensuring that our commitment to inclusion is impactful for everyone, no matter their personal circumstance.

What are some of the challenges or obstacles to including neurodivergent employees? What needs to be done to address those obstacles?

There is a need to dispel some of the myths and misunderstandings around neurodivergent employees e.g. neurodivergent people don’t like change. None of us like change really and we know it’s the only constant. There’s a piece where we need to make sure that we are giving all employees, including neurodivergent employees, the tools in the toolbox to manage and negotiate their way through our company process and any changes as they come up.

Making them readily available, without forcing someone to raise their hand and disclose how and why they need the tools.

When it comes to internal processes changes, if a company knows that there’s a change coming, they need to start to think about, “Okay. Who’s impacted by that change? How can we minimize the impact of that change?” Neurodivergent people often think and learn differently, so ensuring that those differences are addressed when internal shifts take place.

Lastly, as mentioned above, companies also need to be careful with the language they use to make sure we’re being inclusive in job descriptions and internal content.

How do you and your organization educate yourselves and your teams on the concept of neurodiversity and the needs of neurodivergent employees? Are there any resources, training, or workshops that you found particularly helpful?

As mentioned earlier, we did some training earlier this year. We had one session around recruiting and managing people with autism. We did some general awareness training for all employees around disability. We’ve used a specialist organization, as well as our in-house experts.

Our business is accessibility and inclusive technology, so we had some of our technical teams deliver training around accessibility. We are also rolling out DE&I training for everybody within the organization over the next few months.

Then, we are really using our employee resource groups to share those lived experiences. We’ve had several employees and senior leaders talking about their own personal experiences with mental health, some with a family member and others with themselves. We have started to take some of those taboo conversations that are not spoken about and create safe spaces to have those courageous conversations.

This is the main question of our interview. Can you please share five best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people who are neurodivergent?

  1. We know that accessibility is important so we’re working with our Enable Employee Resource Group to make the workplace suitable for everyone — and that includes broadening the definition of “accessibility.” For example, we are refurbishing our offices to include quiet spaces, which are especially important for those who struggle to focus in a hectic, noisy environment.
  2. We actively listen to our employees and we survey them regularly, not to target solely people who are neurodivergent but to find out about their experiences at Texthelp and what we could do better and how we might be able to accommodate them differently. And we show that we are acting n their feedback by regularly publishing updates on actions we have taken based on survey feedback. In the surveys, we do focus in on DE&I and what employees’ views are in terms of how we’re executing on our DE&I strategy.
  3. When it comes to disabilities, we always look beyond physical disabilities. Certainly, making accommodations for physical disabilities is important but we’re also thinking about the invisible disabilities, those that can also hinder the experiences our employees have at work, but aren’t as obvious. For that reason, we make our inclusive technology products available to everyone — there is no requirement to raise your hand and self- identify. We know that a high percentage of employees who don’t disclose that they are neurodivergent so making the software available to all supports everyone to perform at their best at work. And let’s remember that some invisible disabilities are undiagnosed for our employees — I have met a number of people recently who had a late diagnosis of ADHD and now, everything makes sense. They were struggling to focus and manage their to-do lists — tools like ours, e.g. Global Tasks can help with this by providing a structure that supports them to focus, improving their work experiences in a way that they didn’t even know was possible.
  4. Talking and sharing lived experiences is helpful in normalizing subjects that have traditionally been off limits. We create opportunities for people to share in a safe space and what we have found is that when one or two people share their experience, others feel much more able to open up. This approach creates psychological safety for others which comes through very strongly in our employee surveys.
  5. Think inclusion each and every day — make it part of business as usual. For example, think about how to make the process inclusive from the outset — don’t wait until someone asks for an accommodation. And when you make decisions, ask yourself if you’re being inclusive — a great example of this for me is several years back when I was early in my career and screening resumes, I likely would have considered spelling errors to be carelessness and subsequently rejected candidates on that basis. Now I see spelling errors and I immediately think that the applicant may have dyslexia and I would make sure and bring them through to the next stage of the process. With this in mind, it’s important that we place our focus on the strengths and experience displayed within the application, rather than the minor details.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

My life lesson quote comes from my husband. Very early in my career, he told me to believe in myself. I suffered a lot and continue to suffer to this very day from imposter syndrome. I think very early on in my career, when I was really finding my feet, I couldn’t understand why people were giving me these opportunities. My husband used to just repeatedly say to me, “Believe in yourself. Believe in yourself.”

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would love to see a world where people wear their neurodivergent badges with pride. I’m in awe of their ability to view the world in such a unique way — for years, we have heard ‘great minds think alike’ but in reality, the fact is ‘great minds think differently’. There’s an incredible number of CEOs with dyslexia. They obviously have this creativity, this entrepreneurial spirit. Dyslexia is not a barrier. It doesn’t stop them being successful. Yet many people hide their dyslexia, or they hide their autism, and they feel they’re different. They often don’t value themselves. For me, I’d love to see a world where neurodivergent people recognize their strengths and know the value that they bring to our world.

Gain more insights from Cathy

At Texthelp's recent Festival of Workplace Inclusion, Cathy spoke on our session '‘Inclusive Leadership: Strategies for HR & DEI Success’.

Register to view this session on demand. Discover how neuro-inclusion can help address talent shortages and strengthen company culture. And gain strategies that help Cathy lead a neuro-inclusive HR and DEI agenda. You'll also hear from Miranda McCarthy, DEI Lead at MassMutual and Melissa Bosch, DEI Country Lead at EY Ireland.

Whole Person. Whole Potential.

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