Aron Mercer, Chief Growth Officer at Xceptional, was diagnosed with ADHD when he was 12. As a founding member of Xceptional, Aron is passionate about helping neurodivergent individuals find employment where they can be supported and add value, and also guiding and training businesses in understanding how they can create environments that are inclusive for neurodiverse team members.
We talked to Aron about some of the challenges neurodiverse people face throughout the recruitment process and the steps businesses can take to make positive change in addressing these barriers.
Tell me a little bit about Xceptional and how it started?
Xceptional was launched in 2017 by Mike Tozer. I'm part of the founding team who caught Mike’s vision.
Mike has autistic people in his family and the business started as a technology service company that offered employment for autistic people who could provide exceptionally good software testing services for companies. But within a few months, Mike saw the huge potential for both businesses and job seekers and launched Xceptional’s unique and accessible recruitment and placement services.
We focus on a group of people that are often overlooked and under-represented. We find what they can be fantastic at. Today, Xceptional assesses neurodivergent people for their skills, places them in open employment and then provides training and coaching to employers on inclusion. The training and coaching can go quite granular in terms of the recruitment process, operations, meetings, constructive feedback, to the role of co-workers in building inclusive environments.
There’s often a misconception that the training that we do is for the neurodivergent individuals only. It's for the businesses too because, just as importantly, they need to change. So we work with tech companies, like WiseTech, state government departments, large corporates and everyone in between.
With a deliberate focus on diversity, we're helping businesses solve growth and talent problems. Interestingly, we currently have very low unemployment numbers in Australia, but at the same time the unemployment rate for autistic people is around 32% and it hasn't really moved in a long time. And unfortunately, most Australian corporates will employ less than 3% of people that have a disclosed disability, yet we make up around 15% of the population.
Australia also ranks very low on OECD rankings when it comes to employment of people with disabilities across developed countries.
Do you think this is because of a lack of understanding?
I think that's part of it. For example, if someone turns up to their new place of work and they have mobility issues, they're in a wheelchair or they need a walking frame, it's easier for employers to understand how to accommodate that. If someone turns up like me and kind of looks like everybody else but will struggle with an open plan office, the distractions and fluorescent lighting and other things, it's really hard to understand how to accommodate that. So yes, there is a lack of understanding.
Often as well, hiring managers and talent people can be lazy in terms of just looking for people that have done exactly the same job somewhere else. So it becomes this self-fulfilling cycle. If you have gaps in your CV because you haven't had a chance, that just keeps perpetuating because your CV is overlooked again and again.
There is a lack of understanding about practical ways to accommodate all invisible disabilities.
What are some of misconceptions you’ve seen and heard about neurodivergent people?
If you take an autistic person for example, there are often a range of responses from hiring managers. They either think they're going to get Rain Man who is going to come in and do the work of three people, or that they’re going to get someone who's going to sit in a corner and rock and need a lot of supervision. These are the misconceptions we at Xceptional have seen over the last five years. Autistic people probably face this their whole lives.
There is also the misconception that it will cost too much to make it worth it to hire neurodivergent people. That you'll have to change too much. It'll take too much supervision. So businesses feel they aren't ready for that.
Curtin University did a study in 2016 that debunked these misconceptions and found that hiring, onboarding, managing and including productive autistic people resulted in no net increase in cost to the business, even with all the adjustments they made to accommodate the individual.
No doubt there’s also fear, uncertainty and doubt around what adjustments may be needed.
And then we have employers say that they’re waiting. You know, they really love what we do at Xceptional but they’re just not quite ready yet. They want to make sure that the environment is perfect. The perception that is very pervasive is that you need to wait for perfect. Again, the assumption is neurodiverse people will require a lot of help and support. Therefore, the conditions need to be perfect, but some of our most active hirers are fast growing tech companies, like WiseTech. Since we started working together with you in 2018 you’ve put on several hundred staff.
That said, it’s important that we don’t pigeonhole people. There are neurodivergent people that aren’t interested in tech and may have the aptitude to work in the creative industries. EY runs a program in the US focused on autism and they estimate that 35% of autistic adults have got the aptitude and attitude and desire to work in tech. This doesn't mean they can all be fantastic programmers, but that's disproportionately higher than your neurotypical people.
For example, people with ADHD are often pigeonholed as being fantastic at sales, entrepreneurship, because we're seen as high energy, have lots of ideas, but there’s a perception that we’re poor at the operational side of things.
There are so many well-known people that are neurodivergent. Richard Branson is dyslexic, Elon Musk is autistic, Greta Thunberg is also autistic, and Emma Watson has ADHD.
How challenging is it for neurodiverse people to find the right place to work?
Clearly when you look at the statistics around employment and unemployment figures relating to neurodiverse and specifically autistic people compared to neurotypical people, there's a mismatch. I’m not a psychologist but it’s important to understand that this also has psychological impacts. We have been working deeply in this space for years, and have assessed more than 2000 candidates, mainly from Australia but some from around the world. Autism affects how people interact with the world around them, including other people. And so the social construct of the job interview and recruitment process can be incredibly difficult.
This starts with the job advert and how it's often written as a laundry list of must have technical skills – sometimes there can be 15 different things listed. We've spoken to hundreds of people who are routinely overlooked for jobs. Also many who will back themselves out of a process at the start, before they even put an application in, if they see something that they can’t do.
The interview process can also be very difficult because there seems to be a focus on how you say things rather than what you are saying. For neurodiverse people, face-to-face interviews can be overwhelming not only because of the personal interaction but also the sensory overload they may experience. People could be overly stressed by fluorescent lighting or sounds as well as the challenge of verbal processing. And an interview, whether it's over the phone, on zoom or in person, is all about verbal processing. How am I interpreting what you're saying and giving a coherent answer that weaves in my experience and what sets me apart? Do I know what you're looking for? That's the whole game in an interview. And so that can be really challenging especially because often employers are looking for people like them.
How do you help break down those barriers through the work that Xceptional does?
On the candidate side we work really hard to give them an opportunity to demonstrate their skills. A traditional recruitment process can rely on how well a candidate can articulate their skills. We've built a platform that helps candidates demonstrate their potential in areas like problem solving, attention to detail and logic. And then we give them an opportunity to talk about what support needs they might have and how an employer can set them up for success.
We give candidates the confidence that there are employers, like WiseTech, who are innovative, growing, inclusive organizations that are deliberately looking for people like them.
On the employer side, we deliver inclusion training and produce guides around neurodiversity at work, and we provide coaching for managers and staff.
What advice would you give to employers about hiring neurodiverse people?
So it starts with really interrogating what do you actually need? What's essential? What's not essential?
Then making sure the job advertisement reflects that. When you're interviewing, we suggest things like providing the questions up front.
There’s also a common trend for employers to meet with candidates at a café for an interview. We advise against that due to the sensory challenges candidates can face. Personally, I get distracted. I've also got a hearing loss so being in a café with lots of background noise, clunking, clicking, milk getting frothed, people chatting, all while I'm trying to concentrate and give an answer…that can be a huge barrier.
It’s important to do the interview in an environment that is less threatening. So if in an office, don't have the candidate facing out to the walkway where people are walking past and they're getting distracted.
How can businesses ensure their hiring processes are inclusive of neurodiverse people?
Our long-term goal is that we’re not needed and that businesses can do inclusive hiring for themselves. When it comes to people disclosing whether they are neurodivergent, we've got evidence that says in large workplaces about two thirds of people don't disclose.
From my personal experience, until I started working at Xceptional, I had never told anyone in a professional context that I have ADHD. I never mentioned it because you’re either ashamed and it wasn't relevant.
So you know, businesses may have people who are sitting there in silence, especially if it's not something that businesses talking about. And let’s be clear, neurodiverse people don’t want to get a job because they’re neurodiverse. They want to get a job because they can do the job.
If an employee does disclose, then the best position is to support them if they need it. Employers have a huge role to play in creating psychological safety and an environment of inclusion where people know they are adding value.
When Mike and I sat with Richard White years ago, he basically said he wanted to build a team of smart people that were good problem solvers. He wasn’t looking at labels, he was looking for people that think outside the box and can solve complex problems.
What advice would you give young neurodiverse teens about their future careers?
There's never been a time of more opportunity for neurodivergent people.
Understand the different support services that are available to you. There are Federal Government initiatives like Job Active and Disability Employment Service Network.
The changes that have come about because of COVID have made a profound difference in terms of accessibility to employment. For example, for many jobs you no longer need to be within a commutable distance of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane. The number of jobs that are advertised as ‘remote’ has increased dramatically.
I think the changes that are slowly happening across employers who are actively hiring neurodiverse people is positive and we will start seeing these positively impact the teens of today as they head into the workforce or further education. Australia does have some catching up to do when it comes to including neurodivergent people. In the US, large corporations like SAP, Microsoft and IBM have been running hiring programs for years. But given how busy we are with employers coming on board, I believe we are at a tipping point. We are reaching higher levels of awareness that there are groups of people out there, such as autistic people, that can be amazingly skilled that are often overlooked.
How important is it for businesses and teams to be diverse and inclusive?
There’s no shortage of studies that show diversity and inclusion broadly leads to higher innovation, higher shareholder returns, greater wellness and mental wellbeing, lower churn rates and so on.
We’ve seen two interesting things happen, at one level, employers like WiseTech, are getting great people into the organization, and on another level the people who are already working at these organizations who are neurodivergent are actually coming forward and saying, ‘hey, this is me’.
So back to my point about psychological safety. These individuals are feeling better about their place of work because suddenly employers are standing up and saying, there's a crew of people out there that we really value, and we want to be active and deliberate about getting more into the organization. And so both neurodivergent and neurotypical people feel a sense of belonging to the organization. Belonging and people's engagement with work increases when you deliberately focus on diversity and inclusion.
To find out more about the services Xceptional provides for individuals and businesses, visit www.xceptional.io.