Welcome to our Summer blog post. This quarter we are focusing on best practices for onboarding and managing neurodivergent professionals.
Blog post art provided by Isaac Rader. To view more of Isaac’s artwork, visit doghouseart.net!
Orientation & Onboarding for Neurodivergent Talent
No one thinks exactly like someone else. Researchers have demonstrated that people in general show individual differences in cognitive styles, the habitual ways we process information for tasks involving decision-making, problem-solving, perception, and attention. Neurodivergent people process information in ways that vary significantly from neurotypicals. These differences in thought processes can result in difficulties for autistic and other neurodivergent individuals in areas such as “seeing the big picture”, understanding context, learning from experience, thinking intuitively, and working efficiently.
The aim of the neurodiversity movement is to support neurodivergent people so they can contribute to society as they are, rather than how society dictates. This requires that those who are not neurodivergent understand the differences in how individuals with autism or another neurodivergent condition think, acknowledging their differences and providing support while recognizing and appreciating their strengths. Therefore, the struggle people on the autism spectrum may have with seeing the big picture, understanding context, thinking literally, generalizing and thinking intuitively need to be taken into account in the orientation and onboarding processes to set them on a path for success.
After the offer, orientation is typically the second welcome a new employee receives from their employer. The candidates have spent a lot of effort trying to make a good impression on you to get the offer, and now it is your opportunity to create a good impression on your new hire. This is no different for autistic employees than it is for any employee. For autistic individuals, however, the orientation process should start earlier than the first day and include additional steps to reduce candidates’ anxiety and provide additional support in the administrative aspects of becoming an official employee.
Subjecting new hires who are on the spectrum to an orientation event that may be overwhelming and difficult for them to navigate can be avoided by holding a pre-orientation, a briefing for candidates by their human resources representative a week before the candidates’ start date. A pre-orientation can serve several purposes:
- Preview with the candidates what will occur during the formal orientation session and identify any potential accommodations required by the candidates.
- If multiple autistic employees will be starting at the same time, use this opportunity to introduce them to each other, allowing them to recognize some familiar faces when they attend the orientation, as well as on their first day of work.
- Show the candidates their new workstation (assuming an in-office situation) and encourage them to bring some personal items to set up at their desks.
- Provide any paperwork that needs to be completed at the orientation so the candidates can review it at home beforehand, giving them time to consult with others on selecting certain benefit plans if they need to do so.
- Introduce key staff who will be presenting at the orientation, allowing the candidates to feel more at ease at the actual session.
On the day of Orientation, some reasonable accommodations may include offering candidates a “buddy” to accompany them to all or certain parts of the day’s programming, particularly large group sessions and appointments to receive security badges and technology. Ensure that any Orientation schedule includes sufficient breaks and the option for opting out of group lunches.
Many organizations confuse the process of orientation with that of onboarding. Orientation is a one-time event, typically on the first day or within the first week of work, that familiarizes a new employee with general information about the employer and gets them set up with security clearances, technology, and benefits enrollment. Onboarding is the process through which new employees learn about organizational norms, the expectations of their new job and develop both personal and information networks. The onboarding process can take up to one year.
In many organizations the onboarding process is not as clearly defined as the orientation process, and much of the responsibility falls on the new employee. A successful onboarding process should include multiple resources, including supervisors, required trainings, job coaches and mentors. It is important to remember that autistic employees, particularly those that struggle understanding the unwritten social rules of your organization, should not be expected to take the lead in guiding their onboarding process.
For autistic and neurodivergent employees to be successful, it is important to have a clear onboarding process. Have a clear description of their role and responsibilities. Providing detailed project plans with tasks, assignments, deadlines and interdependencies clearly defined increases the likelihood of success. To the extent you will have training requirements for your autistic hires, provide a schedule of the sessions upfront. Discuss the purpose behind each training and how it relates to the employee’s tasks or role in the organization. Let them know the expected timing to complete the trainings and how long each one should take. If your organization has a learning platform that is available to employees to take training courses at will, discuss what is appropriate for the individual and how to balance any desire to do additional trainings against the required workload.
Many autistic individuals struggle to understand the unwritten rules in the workplace that define an organization’s culture. Providing clear and consistent direction to autistic employees about the unwritten rules of your work environment is critical to their success. Direction on the unwritten rules of your work environment should come from the individual’s direct supervisor, HR support or a close colleague. When addressing situations that require clarification of hidden curriculum issues, always talk to the individual in a one-on-one setting, not in front of others. The goal is to coach the new employee with respectful feedback, explaining the norms of your organization’s culture and how they could have handled the situation or interaction more effectively.
Autistic individuals who struggle with social interactions and understanding the cultural norms of an organization will have a particularly hard time developing both the formal and informal relationships that most employees begin to form during an onboarding period. To assist autistic employees successfully integrate into your organization, it is useful to have individuals who can serve as coaches. Once a candidate has settled into their new role, after two to three months, assign a colleague from outside of the individual’s group to serve as a mentor. The role of the mentor is to help the autistic employee continue to learn about broader organizational norms (i.e., career development, goal setting) and develop a network. A mentor/mentee relationship for autistic hires should be well-defined and highly structured.
Retention of new hires on the spectrum will be influenced by the effectiveness of your orientation and onboarding processes. Both processes should be well-thought out and structured to support the success of your neurodivergent hires. As the employer, previewing and providing context around these processes will help autistic and other neurodivergent individuals transition more smoothly into their new roles. Done properly, orientation and onboarding will result in employees who understand their roles and responsibilities and are performing well within the norms and culture of your organization.
Your Next Steps
Neurodivergent hires will benefit from structured orientation and onboarding processes. Additional steps, such as previewing and providing context, may support the success of autistic hires. What are the current orientation and onboarding practices in your organization? Are they clearly defined? Is there room for improvement to make them more neurodivergent friendly?
Stay tuned for our September post when we focus on managing neurodivergent employees.