Keep the Conversation Going Series – 2023 Philly SHRM Symposium

The goal of this session was to help define what neurodiversity is, to expose common barriers to inclusive workspaces, and to outline various approaches that would aid in furthering any companies’ efforts to provide neuroinclusive workspaces.

Speaker Cait Russell, OTD, OTR/L, Director of the Neurodiversity Employment Network: Philadelphia with special guest Zechariah Dice, HR Business Partner, Parkway corporation, first level-set on Neurodiversity as the natural variations in the neural functions of all people, both with neurotypical and neurodivergent functioning. It is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities.  Neurotypical refers to functioning considered “normal” neurocognitive functioning. In contrast, neurodivergent refers to individuals whose cognitive functions vary from what is considered neurotypical.

Building A More Inclusive Culture – First Steps

The current landscape of inclusionary practice has grown far beyond the boundaries of ADA compliance. More and more companies are looking to acknowledge the needs of a neurodiverse workforce in order to attract and retain talent. Ultimately, policies and procedures that are inclusive for neurodivergent employees are also inclusive for neurotypical employees. As part of this presentation, Cait, The Director of the Neurodiversity Employment Network for Philadelphia, pointed out that one of the first steps that companies must take to start building a more inclusive culture is to acknowledge the barriers that exist for all of their candidates and employees. Companies also need to have a genuine interest in the success of neuro diverse talent because often changes need to be systemic rather than piecemeal.

Inclusionary Policies Can Benefit Broader Groups

One of the barriers that was discussed in this workshop is the lack of knowledge on how neurodiverse individuals engage with the workplace – first in the hiring process and then with workplace culture. Here, in the US, we often rely on classic signs of “normalcy” when hiring a candidate.  For example, good eye contact during the interview. Relying on those classic signs can weed out good candidates who would otherwise be a great value add. Zechariah Dice, HR Business Partner, from Parkway Corp., described how allowing all candidates to choose from a variety of interview styles upfront offered all candidates – not just neurodivergent candidates – the opportunity to engage comfortably with the hiring process. Parkway Corp. now provides every candidate the option to interview virtually, over the phone, or through written communication (including getting the interview questions ahead of time). This is a great example of how inclusionary policies can benefit more than just the group for which they are designed.

Culture Is Not About Fit, It’s A Composition

Corporate culture can also be a barrier for both candidates and employees to engage fully. Neurodivergent employees, and many other marginalized groups, can feel that the culture of a company is unwelcoming for a variety of factors. The sensory environment, a lack of psychological safety because of explicit or implicit messaging, etc., can all be barriers that employees experience. One barrier that was discussed was the unspoken rules that neurodivergent employees can have a hard time learning if they aren’t told explicitly about them. Additionally, hiring managers often remark that they are looking for the “best fit” when searching for a candidate, and, in turn, discount people who might not fit that exact vision. The best fit, in their vision, is someone who can immediately blend into existing culture and understand unspoken rules, but as Cait made sure to point out, culture is not about fit, it’s a composition. Different perspectives provide value-add in however your company measures success.

This breakout session also offered several resources, many free, that companies both in Philadelphia and nationally could find helpful. One of the resources discussed was the clearing house found at the Neurodiversity Employment Network. Philadelphia companies, of all shapes and sizes, can engage with the clearing house to find diverse candidates.

Valuable Resources

  • Neurodiversity Employment Network Philadelphia ( –These are just a few examples of the many resources available to companies looking to create more inclusive workplaces. By taking advantage of these resources, companies can learn how to create an environment where all employees feel valued and included.

  • Ask Jan – The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is the leading source of free, expert, and confidential guidance on job accommodations and disability employment issues. JAN is a service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy/ODEP

  • Ultranauts – Founded in 2013 by two MIT engineers, Ultranauts (formerly Ultra Testing) mission is to demonstrate that neurodiversity is a competitive advantage for business. Ultranauts offers solutions for recruiting, assessing talent, and flexible business practices for harnessing unique strengths.

  • The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) – SHRM offers resources to help companies create inclusive workplaces, including webinars, articles, and toolkits.

  • The National Organization on Disability (NOD) – The NOD is a nonprofit organization that works to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace. They offer resources such as disability employment guides and webinars.

  • Diversity Best Practices – Diversity Best Practices is a membership organization that provides research-based solutions to help companies create inclusive workplaces. They offer resources such as toolkits, research reports, and webinars.

Follow Through on Acknowledging Your Employees’ Needs

Companies can also engage with Diversity experts to pay for an assessment of their business and advice on how to make it more inclusive. If that’s not financially feasible, companies may want to involve their employees in creating processes and policy – part of the process is to ask what they need. Perhaps you already have Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s) whose employees would be willing to share their thoughts on what inclusive practices would have the greatest impact. We learned in this session that the most important part of this process for any company, whether you’re working with an expert or not, is to follow through on acknowledging your employees’ needs. Companies often ask their employees for suggestions on how to improve working life but very often don’t acknowledge the responses they get and make no changes. Make sure that if you are engaging all employees in thinking about how to improve diversity efforts that your company is acknowledging the efforts, acknowledging why or why not the gathered suggestions are feasible and then follow through with putting changes in place.

This was a fantastic introduction to the concepts of neurodiversity, and the presentation was well researched and full of valuable resources.

About the Author

Elizabeth Walters, SHRM-CP is a Human Resources Business Partner at Canon Solutions America Inc. Elizabeth spent 9+ years as a Retail Manager and made a mid-career pivot to HR. Prior to joining Canon Solutions America Inc. Elizabeth enjoyed a variety of roles within Aramark, headquartered locally in Philadelphia. Elizabeth is currently a member of Philly SHRM’s Emerging Leaders and the Thought Leadership committees.

Editor: Dennis Paris

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