Workplace Wellbeing

6 Ways Leaders Can Help Neurodivergent Employees Overcome Bias in the Workplace

Neurodivergent individuals often face disproportionate discrimination and bias in the workplace. Learn about the challenges faced by those with neurodivergence and discover six effective strategies leaders can implement to overcome this bias.

Written by
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Dave Fisse
Clinically reviewed by
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Michelle Rojas
Associate Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
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    Imagine feeling excluded from your peer group at work to the degree that you are almost invisible. It’s unimaginable to most of us. Yet, it captures the reality of many neurodivergent people in the workplace. 

    Media-driven stereotypes of neurodiversity help reinforce how employees with ADHD or Autism, for example, are perceived by co-workers and even leadership in many organizations. This commonly results in neurodivergent employees facing discrimination and bias at work. 

    This can be so pervasive that some choose to hide their diagnosis from their team, managers, and HR leaders to avoid being discriminated against or even bullied. Disclosing their neurodivergence is too risky. As a result, they suffer in silence and isolation.

    Many neurodivergent employees want to do well, meet expectations, and be like everyone else—while being liked by everyone else. 

    Without the support of HR and People leaders, their existence in the office becomes a daily struggle against their condition’s unique challenges and limitations, combined with the self-blame formulated in their minds. 

    What does it mean to be neurodivergent?

    In the simplest terms, being neurodivergent means having a brain that functions differently from the average or “neurotypical” person. The variance in cognitive functionality is most apparent in the unique ways that neurodivergent employees learn, perform, interact, communicate, and perceive the environment or their peers. 

    While neurodivergent employees may struggle with things we take for granted, they also possess unique skills and strengths that enable them to realize profound success. But, a supportive workplace environment is needed for them to flourish.

    The Cleveland Clinic captures the quintessence of neurodiversity by saying, “People who are neurodivergent often excel at communicating in online spaces. That’s because nonverbal communication—such as eye contact, facial expressions, and body language—doesn’t have to be a part of online interaction. Experts often compare computers and other digital devices to prosthetics for those with difficulties in social communication.”

    Some of the most common disorders on the spectrum of neurodiversity include the following:

    • Autism spectrum disorder (previously termed Asperger’s syndrome)
    • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
    • Down syndrome
    • Dyslexia (difficulty reading)
    • Dyspraxia (difficulty with coordination)
    • Intellectual disabilities
    • Mental health conditions like bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder

    How is systemic bias impacting neurodivergent employees?

    Employers in every industry are experiencing an exponential rise in neurodivergence among their workforce, primarily consisting of employees with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and other learning differences.

    The systemic bias and discrimination that neurodivergent employees confront in the workplace is the byproduct of not fitting the norm (or sense of normality) as others view it. Sadly, it’s a systemic issue in professional work environments across the country—much the same way you may recall students with Autism or Asperger’s being treated by bullies in school.

    Having to deal with workplace bias prevents employees from utilizing the special skills and talents that set them apart from everyone else. They are also faced with navigating the stigma around neurodiversity, which commonly prevents them from communicating the disorder diagnosis to anyone.

    HR leaders play a crucial role in promoting initiatives that communicate the benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion for all employees in the workplace. Overcoming bias is a significant part of this effort.

    The challenge HR leaders face

    Unfortunately, most workplaces aren’t adequately prepared or equipped to help neurodivergent employees overcome bias and realize success. It’s a dynamic challenge for HR and People leaders because there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. 

    No two neurodivergent employees are the same, as each experiences the symptoms and severity of their conditions uniquely. There are different subtypes—inattentive, hyperactive, and combined types—which present an employee’s strengths and weaknesses in the workplace differently.

    That’s why nurturing a sense of inclusion and belonging in your organization is important, empowering neurodivergent (and neurotypical) employees to achieve what’s possible. This starts with creating company policies inclusive to everyone. 

    If HR leaders fail to put forth the effort to recognize the unique nuanced experiences of the neurodiverse, they are destined to fail in their mission—because they lack the deep understanding and the tools to create truly welcoming work environments.

    6 ways to support neurodivergent employees facing bias

    Research suggests that teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without them, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review.

    HR leaders play a key role in helping neurodivergent employees overcome bias and creating a workplace where all individuals can thrive and contribute to their full potential. It's essential to foster a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion that benefits everyone in the organization.

    Here are six strategies you can put into practice to help employees overcome bias and realize success.

    Establish a neurodivergent affirming culture

    Neurodivergent employees require a high level of comfort and trust in leadership to become a part of an organization. Reaching a “safe” space where employees will consider sharing their diagnosis with HR or People leaders requires even more. Most never reach this comfort level and keep their neurodivergence a well-hidden secret. 

    A supportive and inclusive work culture enables the invisible to be visible. It empowers neurodivergent employees to thrive by persevering in the face of bias. A consistent support system established by HR and People leaders can help ensure success in their role without requiring fulfillment of workplace accommodations.

    By taking the time to understand and embrace neurodiversity, in all its different shapes and sizes, HR leaders are creating a better work environment for everyone. An inclusive work culture that successfully integrates neurodivergent employees can result in more innovative approaches to work, creativity, and a boost to team morale in the office.

    Normalize open conversations around neurodiversity

    When neurodiversity evolves from something no one feels comfortable talking about to a topic that is embraced and appreciated, HR leaders can begin to see the stigma around neurodiversity begin to break down.

    Open and honest dialogue around neurodiversity needs to be a consistent effort that HR leaders bring to the surface every day. Ensuring it remains in the current conversation is critical to driving a broader understanding of why neurodivergent employees do things the way they do. 

    When it comes to personal conversations between HR leaders and employees, leading with empathy and understanding is the most effective method to break through the stigma, and encourage neurodivergent employees to seek the care they need.

    Coaching and mentorship

    Trust is a prerequisite for effective coaching engagements between HR leaders, People leaders, and employees. It’s important for People leaders taking on a coaching role in the workplace to establish a sense of trust early in the relationship. This reinforces intent, goodwill, and ensures the protection of the employees’ privacy and sense of psychological safety.

    One proven approach for HR and People leaders is establishing more informal and collaborative conversations. The best outcomes involve both individuals openly and honestly sharing their experience with neurodiversity, strengths and weaknesses, and preferred ways of working that have delivered success.

    Immersive leadership training 

    A long-term investment in educating and training your leaders and employees to better recognize, embrace, and support neurodiversity in the workplace will pay dividends for employers. 

    HR and People leaders need to have a deeper understanding of the many dynamics of neurodiversity and apply that knowledge to how they manage and support neurodivergent employees. 

    Neurodivergent employees who believe their organization’s leadership understands their struggles and challenges are typically more engaged, productive, and personally invested in the organization’s success.

    Education and awareness workshops for employees

    Provide training and awareness programs to educate all employees about neurodiversity and the specific challenges and strengths of neurodivergent individuals. Offer workshops and resources that promote empathy, understanding, and inclusion.

    Continuously update training materials and programs to reflect the evolving understanding of neurodiversity and inclusion.

    For example, it’s important for leaders to understand the methods of communication that work best for each of their employees. Most neurodivergent people prefer written communication, such as an email or instant message, instead of face-to-face conversation or a phone call. This is just one example of how training and education can help employees succeed in the face of bias.

    Expand access to mental healthcare

    Offering an innovative EAP with expanded access to mental healthcare increases utilization while normalizing support for neurodivergent employees.

    For example, Spring Health’s precision mental healthcare provides expert guidance and personalized care to help reduce the stigma that often keeps people from getting the support they need.

    WellSprings, our thoughtfully designed sessions featuring interactive, intimate conversations on mental health stressors, are a great resource to help compel honest conversations about neurodiversity with your employees.

    Gain an even deeper understanding of how neurodivergent employees can boost productivity and innovation in your workplace. 

    About the Author
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    Dave Fisse

    A proud Pacific Northwest native, Dave lives in Los Angeles where the abundance of sunshine fuels his creativity. The University of Oregon School of Journalism provided the foundation for his 15-year career as a copywriter and storyteller. Dave is passionate about advocating for men's mental health, spending quality time with his wife and three-year-old, and watching Oregon Ducks football in the Fall.

    About the clinical reviewer
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    Michelle Rojas
    Associate Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

    Michelle is a Corporate Social Worker and passionate about unlocking access and opportunity for marginalized groups. Prior to joining Spring Health, Michelle led DEI at mission driven companies and social enterprises like Imperfect Foods and Hot Bread Kitchen. She is an East Coast native and currently lives in Denver Colorado with her partner and two dogs.

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