Does (Neuro)diversity Need a Business Case?

What is known as the “diversity business case” was solidified stridently and impactfully in a number of research reports in the 2010s. Consulting giant McKinsey, for example, reported in 2015 that companies with more ethnically diverse leadership were 35% more likely to have financial returns above average in their industry, while more gender diverse leadership correlated with a 15% likelihood of superior industry performance.

Other arguments have been made for diversity in the workplace from a business perspective, such as the potential to create better products through understanding a company’s full market. This argument has been made particularly in terms of disability representation, and the development of more accessible products.

But, the idea of a greater mix of people – the “diversity” in “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” (DEI) – being valuable in itself has been the bedrock of the business case in this area. This perhaps chimes with individual experiences at work, however unquantified: McKinsey began the same 2015 report with the words, “We know intuitively that diversity matters.” This intuition is clear, too, when it comes to the area of neurodiversity and true diversity of thought: get people who literally think differently in a room together, goes what seems very sound logic, and good things will happen.

Questioning the need for a “diversity business case”

Interestingly, some people now question whether “DEI” needs or benefits from a business case at all. Several HBR articles over the past few years, for example, have taken the stance that the only case for DEI should be the fairness case: “If you don’t need an explanation for the presence of well-represented groups in the workplace beyond their expertise, then you don’t need a justification for the presence of underrepresented groups either.”

In an article bluntly entitled Stop Making the Business Case for Diversity, researchers found (as the rationale) evidence that job candidates respond better to fairness-based messaging from employers than what we could term business case-based messaging.

Business cases internally help to catalyze change

This evidence is likely to be useful in copy-editing careers websites, but it also takes a narrow view of the purpose of a business case – which isn’t just attracting candidates, it’s making things happen internally and getting sponsorship for change initiatives.

In the neuroinclusion space, neurodivergent individuals, allies, and neurodiversity resource groups have found themselves over the last few years wanting to provoke and guide change for greater neuroinclusion, but not always receiving the support (including, in terms of funding) to pursue this. Time and again, the same question comes up from these aspiring changemakers: how do we make the business case so that the organization will see what we see, and start its neuroinclusion journey?

The very fact of greater neurodivergent self-advocacy in organizations has, to an extent, provided a business case in itself for some HR departments and senior leadership: the presence of multiple employees calling for constructive change can be a powerful one. But, it’s not always enough: and even populous resource groups can find themselves marginalized and without the resources needed, while individuals in organizations with less self-advocacy have a harder task still.

Sadly, then, we see the shortcomings of the fairness-only case for DEI: of course, there is an inescapable ethical logic for total neuroinclusion (and inclusion of all types), but this in itself has not been enough – typically – for organizations to take action.

Indeed, if we look to the past to see how DEI efforts have been mobilized, this has tended to be either by external pressure (compliance) or by matching such initiatives to the achievements of internal strategic goals (the “business case”). Most of the original autism-at-work program builders, for example, focused on excitement for unearthed talent, and what this could bring to their talent-hungry business in terms of innovation and performance – and found such messaging chimed with vital senior sponsors.

There’s a pragmatic role, then, for a business case for DEI, whether we like it or not… and such early neurodiversity talent programs, though criticized at times, were transformative in putting the strengths of neurodivergent talent at the forefront, and the precursor of today’s broader neuroinclusion corporate initiatives.

The business case must be made for inclusion, not just for diversity

Per the criticisms of the “diversity business case” though, the business case for neurodiversity/neuroinclusion programs today in the 2020s must be made carefully. It cannot stop at the “diversity” part of DEI, and talent acquisition – while the existence of diversity itself in a workplace is both ethical (fair) and the bedrock of potential “diversity of thought”… it’s not enough, on its own, to assume that diversity without inclusion is going to produce dividends. As the aforementioned HBR article sagely warned:

Increasing the numbers of traditionally underrepresented people in your workforce does not automatically produce benefits. Taking an “add diversity and stir” approach, while business continues as usual, will not spur leaps in your firm’s effectiveness or financial performance.

It is inclusion, then, that must be in (greater) focus as business cases are constructed and evangelized: as another consulting giant, Deloitte, stressed in their own recent report, “There has been an overemphasis on diversity, and an underemphasis on inclusion”. Studies – and Uptimize focus groups – in the area of neurodiversity at work affirm its importance: contrary to many false perceptions, organizations are already neurodiverse, often with a significant but largely hidden neurodivergent representation. So, while more (neuro)diversity is always possible, in this case there is already some diversity existing… yet without (neuro)inclusion, such individuals find themselves masking, uncomfortable, and unable to perform to their true potential.

What is pitched, then, to trigger action on neurodiversity/neuroinclusion at work must focus on culture – in Deloitte’s words, ‘Perform a culture reset, not a tick-the-box program’ – and ensure both cultural appreciation of neurodiversity and a concurrent atmosphere of respect, personal preferences, and psychological safety. Through neuroinclusion, then, we create environments where everybody can be themselves, and people feel valued and a greater sense of belonging (a business case in itself, tied to retention and reducing turnover). With that inclusion, (neuro)diverse individuals can work to their best, and (neuro)diverse teams maximize the potential of diversity of thought.

As more and more organizations take this path, and see the fruit of their efforts, the business case for neuroinclusion may, ultimately, become obsolete. Until that point, though, don’t be shy to articulate and advocate for the potential benefits that greater neuroinclusion can bring to your organization… alongside its urgent, ethical, justification.

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To learn more about how Uptimize can help your organization with their neuroinclusion efforts, through our neurodiversity training and consulting solutions, please contact us to schedule an initial discovery call.

Ed Thompson Founder CEO Uptimize

Ed Thompson is the CEO and founder of Uptimize – a unique corporate training platform that helps organizations attract, hire and retain talent that thinks differently. Uptimize works globally with organizations like Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte and IBM, building robust and impactful neurodiversity at work programs. Ed has also become a frequent speaker on the topic of neurodiversity in the workplace. His book, A Hidden Force, is available now.

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