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  • Writer's pictureJudy Katz

10 Things That Might Disadvantage Your Neurodivergent Employees During Onboarding

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I had a neurodivergent colleague who was fired within their first six weeks at a new job.


The job was well within their abilities, they loved the company, and they were performing exceptionally well in some ways… but not so much in others. It was emphasized to them during the termination process that it was unacceptable that they performed so poorly during their first month and a half on the job.


On the surface, from a conventional perspective, that makes sense. It's understandable that employers would all like their employees to show up ready and willing to work and put their best foot forward.


However.


While most of us have similar experiences in the first 30-90 days in a new role, many of these experiences may be more challenging for neurodivergents than they are for neurotypicals.


Here are a few of them:


  1. Establishing relationships and lines of communication with colleagues. Some neurodivergents value the work significantly more than personal relationships, and some neurodivergents communicate extremely well with others of their same neurotype, but less well with everyone else... at least until they're better acquainted. Both of those can be limiting in organizations that are very connection-focused. And many neurodivergents value personal connections very, very much... but have learned the hard way that making connections can be difficult until they know the culture better.

  2. Establishing work routines. Some neurodivergents function very well within routines... but in the first days at a new job, those routines are not yet established. Some neurodivergents have particular difficulty creating new routines. And some neurodivergents have both the need for routines and difficulty establishing them.

  3. Recovering from full days of taxing mental adjustments… and masking. One of the most common things I hear from other neurodivergents is how tired they are at the end of the day compared to their neurotypical friends and partners, particularly if they’re working onsite instead of remotely. Chances are, neurodivergents are working a great deal harder than neurotypicals are during their first few months of establishing their routines, lines of communication, etc… but may be working even harder at masking their neurodivergence in an effort to fit in to a new culture. Evenings and weekends may not provide adequate rest from that work, especially when they also might be…

  4. Shifting personal routines to accommodate new work routines. If the new job requires more commuting or different shifts than someone has worked before, that’s extra stress, time, and energy that the whole family and the rest of their support system feels. And even though remote work can be preferable for neurodivergents in many ways, setting up a home office (and adjusting family dynamics accordingly) may be a challenge if someone wasn’t previously working remotely. Side note: There’s a lot of overlap here with new jobs being extra taxing for parents or other caregivers — roles that fall disproportionately on women and femmes — but that’s a topic for another day.

  5. Adjusting to new environments and sensory challenges. Fluorescent lights, open floor plans, distractions due to noisy coworkers… all of these can be more stressful for a wide range of neurodivergents. And again, evenings and weekends may not provide enough rest for a neurodivergent employee to recharge… or it might take more of a toll on their home life to do so.

  6. Changing doctors and/or getting back on medication, especially if they’ve had a break in employment. It’s probably self-explanatory how a change in medication and other treatment can affect someone’s work. In the US, where a change in job can easily mean a change in health insurance, it might be difficult to get in to see a new doctor or get prescriptions filled in the first few months in a new role. And that can affect personality, mental health and stability, and focus… all things that can significantly impact job performance.

  7. Doing work in non-preferred ways while technology, office environment, or processes are being put into place. It’s common to have to wait for computers and software to be purchased or implemented, and in the meantime, managers may tell a new employee to “just do your best”. But it can be difficult for someone with a strong sense of efficiency or perfectionism to use workarounds when they know they aren’t able to work in the way that works best for their brains… and especially when they don’t have a clear “go date” for when everything will be ready.

  8. Adjusting to new management structure and new processes. Everyone has to get used to new managers and the way they operate, but neurodivergents may have a more significant need for specific styles of management, and therefore may have a rougher transition. For example, they may have a stronger adverse reaction to being micromanaged. Or they may need clearer deadlines than their managers are used to providing — something that can feel difficult to ask for in organizations that prize “self-starters”.

  9. Understanding how to do one’s job despite unclear instructions. Some neurodivergents may need more explicit instructions and more concrete examples in order to construct their understanding of the role — again, something that can be difficult to ask for when trying to prove oneself in a new job.

  10. Reframing one’s sense of identity when doing a new role. Finally, some neurodivergents have a strong sense of identity related to their jobs, and if their role is changing, that shift can take some time to adjust to... meaning more time feeling comfortable in the new role.


In addition to these, some neurodivergents have such a strong sense of honesty that they may not be as able — or willing — to breezily cover it up when they know their performance is lacking. But they also might not be eager to ask for accommodations that would reveal a stigmatized neurological condition — if they even know they have one.


All of this can add up to a much more challenging onboarding for a neurodivergent than a neurotypical, during a key period that sets the tone for an employee’s tenure in the job.


Organizations that care about diversity — or at least care about retention and productivity — can benefit from re-examining their expectations and their accommodations during this time, to make sure they set their neurodivergent employees up for success... and set their organizations up to leverage the best their employees have to offer.


My thanks to Jess Fox for her contributions to this article.

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