A work environment for neuro-divergent people

I have been lucky enough to have worked in many different environments over the years. Restaurants of all economic levels, bars, a newspaper, a collection agency, security companies, cancer support groups, local and global technology companies. I am sure I missed a few places in that list. All of these jobs taught me about working with different groups of people. I have also been lucky enough in my personal life to be immersed in a wide range of personality types.

I spent almost 20 years working in internet technologies of one type or another. I was almost always the odd person out in some ways. I did not come from a technical background, I just always enjoyed the technical aspect of it. I only half fit in.

There are many jokes about engineers and people who were early adopters of technology and like most jokes they originated with some truths. Many of the early programmers and coders were “bookworms” “geeks” “nerds” “techies” “trekkies” and “oddballs”. Everything from here on out is my opinion and thoughts on why that was and my experiences in trying to make the best possible work environment for people who fell into those particular pigeon holes.

There is a segment of our population who just have brains that work differently. Well, there are many segments and they all have their strengths and weaknesses but what am talking about are the people who need to be learning in order to be happy. They need a challenge to make it worth their while to put in the effort but they need to always have a chance of success. Failure can be devastating. In the work environment this is the opposite of what most companies do. They bring someone in that they believe is qualified for a position that needs filled. Then they start adding information or tasks until the point of failure. That is the end point. From that moment on the person will be repeatedly challenged until the point of catastrophic failure. If you aren’t moving forward, you are not valued. This is simply not true or workable for everyone. Sometimes someone is in the position that they need to be in, and they need to be an expert in that position with no pressure to advance.

One of the skills I tried to build in myself was the ability to manage people as individuals as well as a group. If three people were all doing the same basic set of tasks I looked at each one to see how best to make sure they were all successful. If one of them was very bad at putting thoughts on paper I might make them the one who took the lead on conference calls while someone else wrote up the plan. If someone was exceptionally good with irate people but terrible with follow-through they would become the point person for a crisis and someone else would be assigned for after-care.

Many times in a business a plan is put in place for how a department is run without ever actually looking at the people who will be the cogs. In a technology company you hire people for their brains and their skills not their personalities, so you must be willing to change the plan and fit the cogs into the correct spot.

There are questions you do not ask during the interview process but that may be challenging in a corporate environment such as: Have you been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD? Are you Bi-Polar? Do you have issues with anxiety? Do you have trouble communicating with others? The reason you can’t ask these questions is because you would never hire someone who said yes, especially to more than one, and that would be a mistake.

There have been many fiction books and movies that equate a higher IQ with some propensity to mental or mood disorders but there have also been studies that imply that this may in fact be true. If you are in a business that values intelligence and brains that might work in a different and sometimes better pattern then hiring neuro-divergent employees can be a great benefit to you. Keep this in mind when you are beginning the hiring process. If the job is for someone who will be sitting in an office writing code do you really need them to come into the interview shiny and neat and on top of all the social graces? Think about the requirements of the job, not your expectation of how a person in an office should look or act.

My list of things you can do to make a department run more smoothly with a wide range of personality types.

  • Things must be put in writing – a clear and concise list of what is expected, hourly, daily, weekly or by task.
    • Do not assume that someone will go outside of that scope.
      • If you hire someone because of their amazing ability to process numbers you must not expect them to understand that they need to call customers and explain the methods they used to achieve those numbers. It is two different skills.
    • This include basics that you might expect someone to already know such as appropriate dress, appropriate language, appropriate behaviors. Always assume this is their first adult employment.
  • Change can be very difficult for people with anxiety disorders. If you will be making changes that will effect your employees give as much warning as possible with clear information about what the changes are and what the benefit will be.
    • This includes changes to the office environment. For a person who is immeshed in patterns in their daily life something as simple as moving their desk can be very disruptive.
  • Many people diagnosed with mental disorders have chemical imbalances. If this is the case, then body physiology changes daily, which means you may see personality changes. While it is understood that you cannot have someone that is incapable of doing the work, or makes it difficult for others to work this may be a good opportunity to look at flex time scheduling, or the option to work from home on some days. You must remember that this is not a choice for the employee. They cannot “snap out of it” and start behaving differently. You must adapt.
  • Have a clear chain of command. If someone with high anxiety in a crisis does not know where to turn during a crisis this can turn into a bigger issue. Again, have it written down so there is no guess work.
  • Make an effort to keep the employee a part of the group. Anxiety and mental disorders will frequently cause someone to feel alienated. Sometimes it is their own choice but if you use team building strategies to keep everyone working together in the long run things will run easier. Personality conflicts cannot be allowed to turn the workplace into a battleground.

Sometimes I miss working in such challenging atmospheres. I use to joke that I would love to go back to being a server and just having to deal with the people that were in front of me short term, but really having to earn your money by adapting every 15 minutes to different people and different situations taught me a lot of what I have used in all of my jobs including being a parent.

Oh – that reminds me of one warning. Don’t fall into the trap of being a parent to your workgroup. They don’t need a mother or father at work, they need someone to help them learn to be a good employee for their futures. If they pick up some life lessons as well, that’s a just a bonus.

**These are all really just my opinions based on 30 years of working. I hope no one takes any offense at any of my wording, I am not always on the cutting edge of correct terminology when it comes to sociological trends.

3 Comments

  • Susan Joos

    October 30, 2019 at 4:30 pm Reply

    Very nice! I bet you were very, very good at all of your endeavors!

  • Erin OBryan Felty

    October 31, 2019 at 8:02 pm Reply

    Don’t forget yelling…NO yelling at employees or belittling them.

    • tlm0000

      October 31, 2019 at 8:22 pm Reply

      Well that’s just common sense and true for all personality types. Yelling or belittling is a bullying behavior and should never be tolerated in the workplace. I don’t believe I ever did either in any of my positions.

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