From intergenerational inclusivity to policies aimed at achieving gender balance, diversity and inclusion is high on the agenda for accounting firms.
Integral to this movement is neurodiversity, which relates to the organisational representation of people with developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and learning disorders such as dyslexia and dyscalculia.
Globally, this group is poorly represented in the workforce: 2021 data published by the UK’s Office for National Statistics points to just 22% of autistic adults in employment. Yet neurodiverse teams have been shown to be significantly more productive than neurotypical ones, with strengths including focus, attention to detail, and the kind of out-of-the-box thinking companies need to stand out.
For all these reasons, the accounting sector is turning its attention to this undertapped demographic through targeted hiring programmes focused on technology-related roles.
‘Neurodiverse individuals represent an untapped pool of strong talent’
EY launched a neurodiverse centre of excellence scheme in 2016 with a pilot project in Pennsylvania, US. The programme hires neurodivergent people for technology innovation roles, where, according to Hiren Shukla, the programme leader for EY Global and Americas, they excel. They ‘bring new dimensions of creativity, complex problem-solving capabilities, and an ability to harness the power of data and technology to complement our overall approach to building and deploying high-performance teams’, he explains.
Recruitment to the scheme differs from traditional channels thanks to a process devised in conjunction with neurodivergent colleagues. ‘It systematically removes any surprises, commits to open sharing of information, and creates psychological safety so that we can look for acumen, aptitude and interest,’ Shukla explains.
To date, there has been a 92% retention rate among employees hired through the programme. Their output includes AI-based products, as well as intelligent automation platforms that Shukla says, ‘are increasing quality, reducing risk and shifting man-hours to more collaborative, value-add opportunities for our clients’.
The EY scheme now extends to 13 locations across North and Central America, Europe and India. The Mumbai office has been actively recruiting neurodivergent talent since 2020, and the scheme is set to expand to Bangalore, Delhi and Kochi. ‘It’s the multinational companies that are paving the way for autistic adults in India,’ says Nidhi Singhal, director of research and training at Action for Autism in India. ‘But it can’t just be a case of creating, say, 100 new vacancies; it has to be part of an organisation’s value system.’
Action for Autism works with employers on the recruitment of neurodivergent people and training programmes. Singhal explains that a barrier to employment for ASD adults in particular is schooling. ‘In India, employers look for college education,’ she says. ‘But autistic individuals may not be able to complete college, meaning people who could do very well [in employment] miss opportunities because they’re not graduates.’
The challenge is universal. According to 2018 research, less than 40% of autistic students in the UK complete higher education.
‘The productivity of the team will be 30%–100% higher than a neurotypical one’
For Nick Ballantyne, a consultant focused on data and AI at Deloitte in Perth, Australia, university represented a different challenge in terms of his autism and path to employment. After graduating in mathematics and psychological studies in 2012, Ballantyne struggled to find work. ‘I applied to hundreds of jobs, but got none,’ he says. A year later he embarked on a second degree in engineering but came to realise that ‘one of the problems people with autism have at uni is they get stuck’.
Six years in and realising something needed to change, he paused his studies. It was at this point he learned of a new internship programme at Deloitte, in partnership with the Autism Academy for Software Quality Assurance at Curtin University and the Australian Computer Society.
The practice’s Australian offices established a neurodiversity initiative in 2018. In addition to the Perth internship programme, it champions neurodiverse colleagues through mentoring, partnerships and recruitment.
‘Neurodiverse individuals represent an untapped pool of strong talent, particularly for areas with severe global shortfalls such as cybersecurity,’ says Pip Dexter, lead partner for human capital at Deloitte Australia. ‘Building on the programme in Perth, we are in the process of working with a specialist partner to bring in 10 neurodiverse software engineers in the next few months, and that is just the start.’
After a three-month internship, Ballantyne was hired and has since become a consultant.
‘Being put in a client-facing position rather than a “safer” one like audit or tax, where there are clear set rules, was a risk,’ he says of his role, adding that uncertainty can be challenging for some ASD individuals.
Since starting at Deloitte, Ballantyne has noticed a broadening awareness of neurodiversity within the organisation. ‘For example, during Neurodiversity Celebration Week there are talks by people with dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism, highlighting how everyone’s different and how to accommodate each other.’
Deloitte Australia works with Neurodiversity Hub, an international network of educational institutions and businesses. Its mission is threefold: it provides pathways to university for neurodivergent individuals; it offers them support structures for completing their course; and it works with partners including Dell, IBM and SAP to connect neurodivergent students with work experience, internships and employment opportunities.
The hub was launched in 2018 by Andrew Eddy, director of Untapped, an Australian organisation that drives recruitment of neurodiverse candidates. Untapped has developed an implementation model for onboarding neurodiverse staff.
Crucially, Eddy recommends recruiting teams over individuals. ‘The chances of just one person being a superstar are low, so it’s higher risk from a business perspective.’
The approach brings the added benefit of a support structure for people who may have limited workplace experience. A specialist autism spectrum consultant is employed by the company to train managers and co-workers in their new colleagues’ specific requirements, and to be on hand to offer support. ‘The productivity of the team will be between 30% and 100% higher than a neurotypical one, effectively paying for the consultant role,’ Eddy says.
An accountant himself, Eddy is familiar with the sector’s obstacles to and potential for neurodiversity. ‘Similar to law firms, there’s this desire that everyone can be someone who can go out and sell the firm,’ he says of accounting’s traditional approach to profiling candidates. ‘An ideal place to think about including some autistic individuals is in shared service centres that bring together a number of roles related to accounting processes, so general ledger, accountants payable, payroll – detail-heavy tasks that may not suit every neurotypical person.’
Untapped’s Andrew Eddy on how to create a more neurodiverse workforce:
- Job fit. ‘Something that’s unappealing to a neurotypical person may suit neurodiverse people. If it’s very repetitive, or involves recognising patterns or in-depth analysis, it could suit an autistic person, for example.’
- Essential skills. Regardless of role, many job descriptions stipulate qualities such as presentation and communication skills. ‘But in a team you don’t need everyone to have all those skills. If there’s just one skill an autistic person feels they lack, they won’t apply, so you’re cutting them out of the process. Instead, focus on the traits needed to be good in this job.’
- Educate. Understanding neurodivergent colleagues’ specific requirements is essential for integration, inclusion and success.