8 minute read 23 Nov 2020

How to get the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce

By Nathalie Hofman

Principal, Forensic & Integrity Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Helps others succeed. Proud of her Dutch heritage. Passionate about equality. World traveler. Baker. Single mom to compassionate, smart and artistic Avery.

8 minute read 23 Nov 2020

Companies that embrace neurodiversity can gain competitive advantage in many areas — productivity, innovation, culture and talent retention.

In brief
  • No organization is too small to begin thinking about neurodiversity.
  • To create a neurodiverse program, you should understand the meaning of neurodiversity and how to embrace it in your workforce.
  • An effective neurodiversity program can lead to long-term success for the business.

Imagine you are interviewing someone for a paralegal position in your general counsel’s office. Her résumé looks solid, but when you begin your interview, she continually rocks back and forth. When you attempt small talk, she speaks in a monotone voice, although she becomes more animated as she discusses her work. By the time you finish the interview, you decide she just wouldn’t be a cultural fit for your team even though she clearly has the technical know-how.

Sounds like an easy call, right? But what if you had known that the candidate was born with a different type of mind — an autistic brain that allows her to focus intently on complex work but makes it difficult for her to socialize? In fact, she would be considered a prime candidate for a workforce neurodiversity initiative.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiverse individuals have intellectual, developmental or learning disabilities such as autism, dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and social anxiety disorders. Many of them have superior technical and mathematical abilities, have a strong propensity for details and can concentrate for an extended period on complex tasks, often recognizing patterns others don’t see.

Neurodiversity should be an essential part of any organization’s talent strategy. Companies that embrace neurodiversity in the workplace can gain competitive advantages in many areas — productivity, innovation, organizational culture and talent retention. But many organizations fail to hire people with neurocognitive challenges or to support them in the workplace.

In this article, I would like to share my journey as a diversity and inclusion leader and how I gained a deep appreciation of neurodiversity through my personal involvement in the EY neurodiversity program. I am passionate about this issue because I see first-hand how neurodiversity has made EY a stronger organization. It complements our NextWave strategy of creating long-term value for clients, people and society.

Neurodiversity in the workforce

Many autistic and other neurodiverse individuals don’t view their condition as a disability. Instead, they see themselves as differently abled. Climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has Asperger’s, said on Twitter that she’s “sometimes a bit different from the norm. And — given the right circumstances — being different is a superpower.”

Research has indeed shown that many neurodiverse individuals possess unique strengths in a number of areas.

  • Processing information: researchers found that autistic employees have an information processing advantage and are better able to detect critical information, which may account for their higher-than-average prevalence in IT positions.1  People with autism excel at pattern recognition and spotting irregularities, such as cyber intrusions, which is one of the reasons the Australian Government Department of Defence has found success with its cybersecurity neurodiversity program.2
  • Productivity and work quality: JPMorgan Chase reports that professionals in its Autism at Work initiative make fewer errors and are 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees.3
  • Sustained attention to detail: neurodiverse employees often bring a hyperfocus to complex, repetitive tasks, which they can sustain over a long period of time.
  • Talent retention: the four largest US autism hiring programs (SAP, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft and EY) all have retention rates of more than 90%, higher than the average retention rates in their industries.4
  • Dependability, motivation, engagement and peer integration: at least 86% of employers surveyed by the Institute for Corporate Productivity rated employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities as good or very good in all four areas.5

It is undeniable that some traits common to neurodiverse people can prove challenging in a fast-paced corporate environment. But most of these challenges can be addressed by trained, supportive managers. In fact, managers are learning that many of the accommodations made for the neurodiverse can also benefit their neurotypical employees, such as setting clearer expectations, giving more explicit feedback and providing consistent communication. Many managers of neurodiverse professionals report increased sensitivity to the individual needs of all employees, improving their ability to leverage the talents of everyone in the workplace.


A diversity and inclusion leader’s journey

In 2016, EY launched a neurodiversity program, which now employs more than 100 professionals with cognitive challenges in six Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence (COEs), with three more on the way. The program was created with three key goals:

  • Create a culture of inclusion
  • Leverage untapped talent to meet demand for em­ployees and specific types of work
  • Impact society in a positive way

First, the EY organization revamped recruiting and hiring processes to prevent candidates from being automatically rejected for traits that have no impact on job performance. For example, many autistic people use self-stimulating behaviors, such as hand flapping, rocking or repeating words and phrases. We don’t let these behaviors prevent us from employing talented people.

During the interview process, the EY recruiting team typically starts with a week of virtual meetings and technical exercises, avoiding initial face-to-face interviews that can be challenging for many neurodiverse job candidates. The team is careful to provide customized accommodations for each candidate, limiting sessions to no more than one hour at a time and building in unstructured time. Once hired, neurodiverse employees go through a customized onboarding process, and are given a job coach and trained office buddies for ongoing support.

After learning about the EY neurodiversity program, I decided that I wanted to support it by including EY neurodiverse professionals in my client engagements. I started out with one engagement that focused on eDiscovery process optimization.

My colleagues and I traveled to the EY Neurodiversity COE in Philadelphia to meet with the professionals about the engagement. We presented the problem with minimal direction because we wanted to give the team latitude for finding solutions. In the end, we were blown away by the results. The team came back with a stronger solution than we had envisioned because they were able to approach the issue from a fresh viewpoint. They helped us add a new dimension to approaching similar issues in the future by creating more efficient tools and processes.

Since then, I have championed the use of the neurodiversity team within my practice group and consistently look to identify new ways to utilize these team members to improve operational efficiency and harness cost savings.

Besides the benefit of productivity, the neurodiversity initiative has become a big boost for team culture. We have seen improvements in delivery when our professionals work with the neurodiversity team. Employees, especially millennials, want to work at an organization that acts ethically and is forward thinking in its approach to diversity. Teaming with neurodiverse colleagues makes work more meaningful and rewarding for everyone.

EY neurodiverse professionals bring not just above-average productivity and work quality; their fresh way of thinking has sparked innovation. They have also created a stronger workplace culture across the EY organization. I have yet to meet one colleague who wasn’t recharged after collaborating with one of the team members from the Neurodiversity COE.

Besides the benefit of productivity, the neurodiversity initiative has become a big boost for team culture.

Getting started with neurodiversity

Neurodiversity programs don’t need to be overly complex. With small, low-cost steps, any organization can get a program started. While taking the first step can always sound daunting, here are some ideas I’ve seen that may be helpful.

  1. Begin with a conversation among business, HR, and diversity and inclusion leaders

    Functions such as IT, legal and compliance are usually prime candidates for employing neurodiverse talent. Leaders in these departments might consider starting a discussion about neurodiversity with relevant HR representatives and functional inclusion and diversity leaders.

  2. Learn from the leaders in the field

    EY is one of more than 200 companies participating in Disability:IN, which offers an Inclusion Works program that provides a great platform for members to share their experiences. EY teams have also collaborated on the Autism @ Work Playbook created by the University of Washington Information School. The playbook provides a detailed look at how many corporate leaders developed their initiatives. It includes resources for creating a solid business case for neurodiversity, attracting sponsors, scoping and designing a program, and partnering with external resources, such as universities and community agencies.

  3. Start small

    Many organizations have found success by piloting a small group of employees who work in just one or two key roles at a single geographic location. Inclusion Works offers a free framework for neurodiversity pilots that covers planning, scope and employment modeling, recruiting and sourcing talent, and internal training.
  • Show article references#Hide article references

    1. “People with autism possess greater ability to process information, study suggests,” ScienceDaily, 22 March 2012.
    2. “Defence builds cyber capability with talents of people with autism,” Australian Government Department of Defence Annual Report, 2016-2017.
    3. “Overlooked workers gain appeal in challenging times,” The Financial Times, 17 March 2020.
    4. “Corporate Neurodiversity Hiring Programs: Scratching the Surface?” Autism Spectrum News, 1 January 2020.
    5. Employing People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Institute for Corporate Productivity, 2014.


If your organization hasn’t embarked on the neurodiversity journey, you can explore how to get started by learning from those who have successful experiences. Big changes can start with something as simple as intentionally recruiting neurodiverse talent who possess the required skill sets for a job. The more that organizations can normalize the conversations around valuing people who think a little differently, the more they can drive innovation, increase productivity and generate a sense of belonging across the entire organization. 

About this article

By Nathalie Hofman

Principal, Forensic & Integrity Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Helps others succeed. Proud of her Dutch heritage. Passionate about equality. World traveler. Baker. Single mom to compassionate, smart and artistic Avery.