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Microsoft opens ‘different front door’ to neurodiversity

In celebration of Disability Employment Month, Neil Barnett, Director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility at Microsoft, champions inclusive hiring.

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Teams including neurodiverse individuals can be up to 30% more productive.
Not all neurodiverse job applicants feel comfortable disclosing their conditions.
A common limitation in neurodiversity programs is the focus on STEM-related job roles.

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Inclusive hiring: Empowering neurodiverse talent for a brighter future

As we celebrate Disability Employment Month in October, it’s crucial to recognize the challenges faced by neurodiverse job applicants when seeking employment and navigating screening processes. Neil Barnett, Director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility at Microsoft, has dedicated years to promoting inclusive hiring practices.

Back in 2015, Barnett initiated Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program pilot program, which aimed to create an inclusive pathway for job seekers by providing support throughout a hiring process tailored to accommodate neurodiversity. This program remains successful and has led to the development of additional initiatives like the Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable, which Barnett leads. He expressed, “We had a hunch that there was a lot of talent out there. To be an inclusive company, you need to have people with disabilities integrated into the organization’s fabric and DNA, and we believe we’ve made significant progress in that direction over the years, but we also acknowledge there’s more work to be done.”

The conventional approach to hiring often involves “screening out” candidates by identifying reasons to exclude them. However, Barnett emphasizes the importance of a different approach, “screening in,” where recruiters and managers actively seek out the skills and qualities that neurodiverse individuals can bring to the organization. This may involve meeting applicants where they are, asking about their preferred communication methods, and offering accommodations early in the process. Recognizing that not all neurodiverse job applicants feel comfortable disclosing their conditions, it’s incumbent on organizations to create an inclusive environment for everyone, not just those considered neurotypical. Barnett explained, “Many individuals are not yet comfortable self-disclosing or advocating for accommodations, and our aim is to make the process seamless. Ideally, people shouldn’t have to if they don’t wish to, but they should still reap the benefits of a more inclusive process.”

“Neurodiverse workers bring unique qualities such as creative thinking, pattern recognition, visual memory, and attention to detail”

A common limitation in neurodiversity programs is the focus on STEM-related job roles, which has prompted feedback from the neurodiverse community for a broader range of job opportunities. Barnett stresses the importance of diversifying the roles offered through these programs to include positions in finance, customer service, sales, and marketing. He highlighted the shift in this direction among more companies and underlined the significance of providing opportunities for job seekers with various skills, not solely technical ones.

Research has shown that teams including neurodiverse individuals can be up to 30% more productive. Neurodiverse workers bring unique qualities such as creative thinking, pattern recognition, visual memory, and attention to detail. Microsoft employs thousands of neurodiverse individuals who weren’t hired through the specific neurodiverse hiring program. As a result, Barnett’s team is focused on extending the resources available for new hires to those already within the organization. He stated, “We’re looking at the entire employee experience, from interviewing and hiring to onboarding, growth, and retention, and striving to establish a neuro-inclusive culture. Additionally, we’re exploring ways to scale these efforts not only within the U.S. but also internationally.”

Barnett acknowledged that large corporations are eager to participate in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Since 2017, he has led the Neurodiversity @ Work Employee Round Table, which includes many of the nation’s largest employers collaborating to enhance disability inclusion. The main challenge currently facing these initiatives is scaling them up, taking the principles and practices learned from diversity initiatives and applying them to a broader labor force. Barnett believes that the key to achieving this lies at the organization’s “front door” – making the entire career site and recruitment process more inclusive, so that candidates don’t have to self-identify or disclose their conditions, and where recruiters and screening processes are already attuned to these principles. He expressed, “This is the bigger goal that many employers are working toward, even though achieving it at scale is challenging. Nevertheless, it’s the direction we must aim for.”

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