IBM's Journey in Fostering Neurodiversity and Inclusion

In this interview, we speak with Gabriella Pacso, IBM EMEA Growth Acceleration Leader and IBM Diversity & Inclusion Champion at IBM, about the importance of neurodiversity in diversity and inclusion. Gabriella shares insights on IBM's approach to neurodiversity, progress made, and accommodations for neurodiverse employees. We also discuss IBM's efforts to train managers and colleagues, raise awareness, and the business benefits of recruiting and retaining neurodiverse talent.

How does IBM define neurodiversity and why is it an important concept in the field of diversity and inclusion?

Welcoming neurodiversity means being inclusive of people who see, understand and think about the world differently. In IBM, we champion Neurodiversity, a concept where neurological differences born with or acquired over time are to be accepted and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include autism, attention deficit, hyperactivity, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette syndrome and other neurological differences.

Unfortunately, neurodiversity is not well understood by the public. More than 40 percent of autistic adults are unemployed and the gaps begin to form early. When neurodiverse children struggle in the school setting, too often they grow into adults who struggle to find their way in a world that doesn’t understand their challenges or their potential. But that could be changing.

IBM has a 110 years long history of disability inclusion and neurodivergent leadership. In 1914 we hired our first employee with a disability. Diversity is not about simply checking a box – there is a strong business case for prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion, and advancing the neurodivergent community globally is an integral part of that.

One of our founders, Herman Hollerith, was supposedly neurodivergent. He earned an engineering degree from Columbia University at age 19, seven years later he invented the Punched Card Tabulator, and at age 32, merged his Tabulating Machine Company with the CTR Company that evolved into IBM.

How has IBM incorporated neurodiversity into its D&I initiatives, and what progress has the company made in this area?

It’s important that we set that tone not only in what we do and say, but also how we say it. Our decision to shift from using “People with disabilities” (PwD) to the more inclusive terminology “People with Diverse Abilities” (PwDA) is one more step to an even more inclusive IBM. We recognize the important talent and contributions of neurodivergent IBMers to our business, our clients, and our communities. This talent pool brings different perspectives, backgrounds, and ways of working, making us a more competitive, diverse, and inclusive company.

That’s why we are dedicated to hiring neurodivergent people through our Neurodiversity (ND) @ IBM global program that includes neurodivergent friendly hiring and development opportunities and neurodiversity training for all employees. IBM hired over 70 neurodivergent talent in the last 2 years, in eight countries, with ND enablement available to employees in more than 30 countries.

What are some examples of accommodations or adjustments that IBM has made in the workplace to better support neurodiverse employees?

We are focusing on two areas related to neurodiversity in hiring: making the workplace more accessible for neurodiverse employees and developing hiring models to bring more neurodiverse employees into IBM.

While we have a clear plan to hire neurodivergent employees in various locations around the world, one challenge is identifying locations that suit neurodivergent candidates. The design thinking model in place at many IBM locations tends to be noisy and ever-changing. Due to sensory processing disorders and sensitivities to certain environments, autistics may encounter difficulties thriving in agile office spaces. However, with simple accommodations such as noise-canceling headphones or making sure their desk isn’t on a main hallway with a lot of traffic, they can adjust more quickly and feel more comfortable in these settings, leading to increased focus on their work.

A bigger challenge is creating an environment where the neurodiverse can successfully apply for opportunities across IBM. The goal is to have a neurodiverse hiring process fully integrated into the standard hiring process within the next few years. Nothing is ever perfect, but we want to make sure we’re providing equal opportunities regardless of factors related to neurodiversity. IBM has a long tradition of welcoming people with diverse abilities, and we’ve developed a very structured process for onboarding people living with various types of disabilities, like vision or hearing loss. We need to make sure we reach that same standard of quality for neurodivergent candidates.

How does IBM train managers and colleagues to work effectively with neurodiverse employees and ensure their success in the workplace? What steps is IBM taking to raise awareness and reduce stigma surrounding neurodiversity in the workplace?

Our Be Equal campaign promotes progress, and celebrates plurality of mind and being an upstander, as a role model or an Ally. IBM has significantly bolstered employee education programs that strengthen IBMer advocacy for diverse communities by addressing sexism, racism, bias mitigation, allyship, covering, leading with inclusivity, and other related topics. IBMers can earn badges like the Be Equal Ambassador Badge and The Neurodiversity Ally Badge, if they demonstrate a level of volunteer effort and advocacy representation which support IBM’s diversity, inclusion, talent, and business priorities. These badges are commercially available and being used by companies around the world to support their employees in standing up for equality. A Be Equal Ally is more than a badge you earn or a class you take. It’s continuous self-education and progress. It’s a lasting commitment to our IBM core value of personal responsibility to others.

Neurodiversity 101, our internal education course, was completed by more than 4,800 IBMers in 61 countries, exceeding its goal. IBM also maintains private channels, on the Slack messaging system, for neurodivergent and autistic IBMers, providing safe spaces to share experiences and resources, and to ensure their voices are heard.

IBM celebrates each year the International Day of Persons with Disabilities with numerous learning opportunities around the world, including a live accessibility training session. Over 2,000 IBMers earned the Accessibility Advocate digital badge.

In 2022, we launched the disability confidence and neurodiversity acceptance workshops, to increase the outreach, hiring, retention, and advancement of people with disabilities and neurodivergent individuals globally.

What are the business benefits of recruiting and retaining neurodiverse individuals to the company?

All organizations have people who are neurodivergent or have other cognitive differences, regardless of whether there is active recruitment of this talent pool. Being inclusive of neurodiversity at work has numerous benefits for business. First, your organization will be able to attract and hire from a large, talented, and previously overlooked talent pool. Dyslexic people, for example, likely represent around 10% of the world population. Neurodivergent people are also naturally adept in many skills that are critical to the future to work, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and analytical skills. Working in cognitively diverse teams creates a competitive advantage.

Committing to neurodiversity inclusion can also boost an organization’s public reputation, which in turn can improve customer loyalty. Research has found that 87% of consumers would prefer to buy from companies that hire people with disabilities.

Another advantage of a neurodiversity-inclusive environment is that you can create a culture that values all employees for who they are and let them bring their whole selves to work. By taking simple steps to ensure that everyone is comfortable at work, you can boost productivity and retention throughout your organization.

Recruiting and retaining neurodivergent people can also have a significant social impact. Giving neurodivergent people the chance to have a meaningful career can significantly contribute to their sense of identity and wellbeing. Organizations that are neurodiversity-inclusive can also have an economic impact. Employing autistic people can save society money by reducing lost productivity and the need for adult care.

Ultimately, everyone benefits from hiring neurodivergent people, from employees to entire communities. In conclusion, the business benefits are likely a combination of these elements: an opportunity to hire new talent, support existing employees, enhance your organization’s brand, and benefit the wider community.

Interview by Dana Oancea, Romanian Diversity Charter