Neurodiversity, disclosure, and the workplace

(Photo courtesy: Sanguinarabbita)

The Financial Times has published today an opinion piece that is about “the benefits of revealing neurodiversity in the workplace“. That is literally the title.

It reminded me of an experienced board director, who said in a closed group, that ever since she had revealed to headhunters and on her applications that she had a diagnosis of ADHD, she had not been shortlisted for any interviews. She said in her rational mind she wanted to argue that it was because she was not a good fit but if you see the boards she serves on and the experience she has, you too would be forgiven for keeping alive at least a working hypothesis that her disclosure and resultant risk-aversion and discrimination may have stymied her chances.

If like me, you have ever experienced the frustration of getting people to disclose any protected characteristics that aren’t easily pigeonholed on external scrutiny — as binary gender presentation or family names that lend themselves to religious association often could be and still are used, although luckily it gets less so as people present with gender fluidity and intercultural identities grow — you’ll know that nobody is going to disclose anything that they worry is going to cost them in the workplace. LGBTQIA persons report post-disclosure harassment as much as Jewish and Muslim persons do, for instance. Knowing that possibility, I did empathise with the adamant non-disclosure even as it stood in the way of my job as a board committee chair responsible for overseeing the gathering and reporting of the diversity data. This fear of repercussions is why, as the article mentions, there are “secret groups” in place where neurodiverse execs and other business professionals hang out together.

With the benefit of the reality check of the practice of governance and disclosures, I would posit that the Financial Times article has got it the wrong way around. The question is: what should workplaces do to help people safely reveal their neurodiversity? 


Building inclusive, by which I mean truly welcoming and inclusive, culture comes first, way before you start telling people to disclose their individual difference markers.

Building a culture of high trust and psychological safety comes first, way before you require disclosures even if anonymised. Where reasonable adjustments are needed, anonymity is not really an option so safety is an essential.

These are the real and meaningful preconditions for requiring disclosures, and indeed reasonable adjustments for which the article makes the case.

That culture building is the real job of leaders and boards leading and overseeing businesses.

And before you ask: no, hiring a person of colour, who is self-styling as a DEI expert and whom you see as a “safe hire” in the role of driving DEI in your organisation, doesn’t finish that job — it fails to even start it. 

Unless you give that person board-level backing, executive sponsorship, high profile, and a clear ring-fenced budget, commensurate authority, and adequate team support.

And you don’t fire them at the first sign of political winds changing (as, reported by the NBC, is happening in the USA; edited to add two days after the original post).


As I have written elsewhere, we also have to learn to distinguish between “being” and “performing”.

Leaders and boards need to learn to distinguish between someone “being” different from their “performing” that difference to play to stereotypically held views of how they should behave or be. As we know “stereotypes” are statistically significant shorthand and retain their power because of that, despite often being tasteless and reductive.

Not understanding the difference between “being” and “performing” does real disservice to the truly different because you could find the organisation making reasonable adjustments for the easier, bounded stereotype rather than for the complex and nuanced reality.

And unless the reasonable adjustments for any marker of difference come from a place of true understanding and inclusion, organisations will only create more challenges for the “different” by nudging them to premature disclosure to an audience not ready for them, not ready to understand and elicit the true value of their difference.


Late edit: I published what I wrote and then two friends challenged me hence this late edit.

One pointed out that in the 1980s even the 1990s, people kept their sexuality private at work. One of the highest profile CEOs in the City has talked about her own experience of the work environment that was cis-het-normative and not welcoming to anyone “different”; she only came out in 2008. In 2023 while the risk of discrimination and harassment is not zero, it is on the wane, supported by overt codification of non-discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender in the law.

Many questions arise.

Is neurodiversity in the place where sexuality was in the 1980s?

Is this a reasonable parallel except on the broad theme of difference and discrimination? A vital difference being that employers do not have to make workplace adjustments for employees’ sexuality — except to the extent that harassment and aggression are not tolerated — but they will need to, for the wide range of neurodiversities presented in the workplace.

These questions should be asked before encouraging even more revelation and disclosures, so the organisations are proactive and ready, not reactive and fumbling.

The second friend was more blunt, pointing out that culture and values cannot be transactional. Citing recent layoffs where people found out about their job losses through bluntly disabled access to email and work Slack channels, the friend argued that not only such behaviours signal poor cultural foundations, and poor values being revealed, they also suggest that organisational cultures are scraping the bottom of the barrel where basic humanity and decency are concerned. Layoffs done badly will leave behind a structural void, which will be filled no doubt, but with what?

Strong words indeed but since I do work on inclusive leadership (mainly with scale-ups), I cannot disagree.

What indeed is inclusion if not basic human decency?

And yet we find ourselves having to make the “business case” for practically everyone who is not “the norm” — whether it is women, or people of colour, or those with disabilities. Only some of these groups need reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

Given that backdrop, can we reasonably expect a genuine effort to create inclusion for those needing reasonable adjustments of a wider variety? The FT article mentions several instances of these adjustments and some may have costs associated with them.

Or will nudging persons to reveal their neurodivergent status become the latest cynically exploited artefact, so leaders of these very same organisations can claim “oh-looky-look-how-inclusive-we-are!!”?

Asking people to disclose more and more about themselves, while not creating an environment for them to contribute meaningfully, is solving workplace issues the wrong way around.

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University or Harmony Energy Income Trust, or Witan, where I serve as a non-exec director, and chair various committees at the time of writing.

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