Understanding and advocating for a neurodiverse workforce

May 13, 2021

In this episode of Here to Help, Chris Hyams is joined by Peter McKenna, Indeed’s Head of Enterprise Data and Analytics. McKenna is an advocate for helping people with neurodiversity get jobs and encouraging employers to establish supporting environments and tools for employees.

McKenna talks about the partnership that Indeed has in Ireland with Dublin City University to create a toolkit for hiring managers and shares his own personal story about his son Christopher, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two.

- Hello, and welcome everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. And welcome to the next episode of "Here to Help." This is our look at how Indeed has been navigating the global impact of COVID-19. Today is May 3rd. We're on day 426 of global work from home. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs, and this is what keeps us up at night and what gets us out of bed in the morning. We have five core values at Indeed, the fundamental ideas that guide us on that mission. And they represent what we believe and they help us make challenging decisions about our products and about our business. And today we'll be talking about one of those core values, inclusion and belonging, and how we can all help encourage greater neurodiversity in the workplace. Today, I am delighted to be joined by Peter McKenna, Head of Enterprise Data and Analytics for Indeed. Peter is based in Dublin, Ireland, and has both the professional and deeply personal interest and passion for helping people understand neurodiversity, and how to create environments where neurodiverse individuals can thrive. Peter, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Well, thanks very much. I'm really excited to get the opportunity to talk about something, as you say, that I hold so dearly.

- Well, let's start off with the question that we always open these conversations with. How are you doing right now?

- Well, first and foremost, excited by this opportunity. In this crazy world that we're in, I guess, things are getting better. I'm in Ireland. We're in our third lockdown. Unfortunately, we're in the fourth or fifth month of our third lockdown. Beginning to ease. And I guess the one positive I would take from this, I'm very, very lucky nobody close to me has had serious problems from this. I have enormous sympathy for those who've suffered both I guess economically, as well as obviously in terms of health. For me, the experience has been more time at home, more time with family. I think my family are pretty much ready for me to go back to the office now. And then the other thing that I've found really interesting is, instead of going out for meals or otherwise doing the typical socializing, I've gone for walks with friends and actually, beyond that social conversation, had very real conversations. And that's been a good step forward. Hopefully that'll continue when we get back to this normal that we're all craving. How about you?

- We're actually doing quite well here. I've had a similar situation. I've been able to spend a lot more time with my family, my wife, and my two adult daughters who are 23 and 25. Certainly more time in the last 14 months than in the last several years before then. We're getting ready for them actually to move back to New York and Los Angeles where they were. So, just trying to enjoy these last couple of weeks and months together. Thank you for asking. So, we have a lot to cover today, but let's start by defining a term. Neurodiversity. We're going to talk quite a bit about that, and I think it's something that probably is a term many people had never even heard before the last maybe couple of years. And maybe some people have heard it, but are not quite sure what it means. Can you help people understand a little bit the meaning of the word "neurodiversity?"

- Yeah, I can certainly try. It means different things to different people sometimes, but in general, it's a term used to describe variations in people's characteristics. Whether it's learning, attention, sociability, even mood, other personal factors. Historically, these characteristics have actually led to people being marginalized or even kept separated from society in general. As you say, in the last few years, I think we've seen a significant ramping up of societies, of these parts of societies' openness to engaging. But there's still perceived barriers or perceived challenges from neurodiversity that, for example, as we'll talk about today, employers may feel in terms of being potential hires. And I think what I have seen, as we'll talk about, I have a son with autism, so that's part of the neurodiverse community, I hope today to bring some education or some information that will help to remove some of those barriers in how to include. The other thing I would say, if you don't mind, Chris, is I hope any members of the neurodiverse community listening will forgive me if I don't describe themselves or their loved ones accurately today. Neurodiversity, it's a kaleidoscope. Sometimes it's talked about a spectrum. It's a full kaleidoscope. There's so many different personality types, et cetera. And so while we talk about these things and there's some great information we can share, it's very difficult to put an absolute definition on some of the characteristics.

- Thank you. That's a helpful framework for I think the rest of the conversation. And just to give a little background before we dive into the particular discussion of neurodiversity, let's just talk a little about your background and your experience. So, you're a senior manager here at Indeed in enterprise data and analytics. Can you just talk a little bit about your role?

- Yes, so, as well, I'm equally passionate about because I love working with data, and basically what my teams do is work with teams across the business to create data-driven capability that empowers decision-making and ultimately helps to be more effective and give a better experience for our customers, job seekers and employers. Some examples of that are one part of my team has built a platform called Athena, which is basically a data platform that powers all that. And we can use it in many different ways. Indeed, like so many businesses, has huge amounts of data. So, how do we get to the insights and the intelligence? And that's part of my team's job. Building on that, we create anything from what you might call these days the basic reporting, but critically important, how are we doing, all the way through to the what should we be doing for us, for our clients, et cetera? Where we have machine learning models that have basically, for example, we help our sales reps and CS reps to understand who are the clients who maybe have something we should talk to them about today. Whether that is there's something not going well or there's a product they may not be aware of that we can help them with. Using a thing called explainable AI, and don't worry, I won't go into it, really loads of boring detail about it, but explainable AI is very exciting because instead of saying who to call, we now are able to say why to call. So, the connections with our clients become personalized and therefore it's a much better experience rather than, say, sometimes you get lots of calls from companies just bombarding you with information. Whereas this, we're moving towards being able to be very personalized. And that leads to a better experience for employers, for job seekers, and a better performance for Indeed.

- So, in your experience in leadership, you've had the opportunity to manage large groups of people which increasingly means diverse groups of people. And how has your approach to leadership evolved through that experience?

- Well, I suppose the first thing I did was make lots of mistakes. As I moved from being a doer to a manager and taking credit for other people's doings, I made a couple of mistakes, well, a number of mistakes, but I'll highlight a couple. And I think they are relevant to the neurodiverse story that we'll be telling. One is, the very first mistake I made, or at least I realized I was making, was my first hires were all like me. I created my own little echo chamber and, initially, that was great. We all agreed with each other, we felt we were doing the right thing, et cetera, et cetera. But we were missing what we weren't thinking of. And so as the team grew, I won't even take credit that I realized this too quickly, as the team grew and we needed to hire more people, new personalities came in and they had very different ways of doing things. The second thing that I would highlight is that I kept, initially, I would tell people exactly what they needed to do and how they needed to do it. I was very directive, very prescriptive. And the problem with that, I began to realize, was of course I was just getting what I asked, at best I was getting what I thought I was asking for. Sometimes I got what I actually asked for, which wasn't even what I was looking for. So, one thing that I saw where that really came home to me was we were working on a segmentation project. We were working on who are our customers, how can we best service them? And my view, my view was quite narrow. It was like, "Okay, let's maybe use revenues." Something like that. But as I brought other people into the team, we took different questions and we came up with a much more colorful, real view of our customers. And I particularly remember a guy called David who I initially constrained. I had expectations. This is, in quotes, "all David could do." Actually what he did was so much better than I could ever have conceived of. So that was a huge, huge learning. And that led me to realize that the best thing I could do as a manager is hire people smarter than me and listen to them. And the reason I think that's so relevant to the story of neurodiversity is that I know I certainly didn't immediately think, "Oh, there's talent here that I should be able to harness. There is thinking here that could be different and good different, and create new value." And that's something that I've seen a lot, and we'll talk about hopefully over the next little while. But it was very interesting to see how much managing people is really the same challenges, the same things to watch out for when managing people with neurodiversity.

- So let's dive in a little bit to your personal experience. You mentioned your son. Can you talk a little bit about the story of your son, Christopher, and how that impacted your view of neurodiversity?

- Yes. Well, first of all, just a little bit of background about Christopher. So, he was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, and really it was a devastating diagnosis for us. Many times people talk about it literally is followed by a period of mourning. One thing I hope, in telling this story, will be clear is it doesn't need to be, but even some of the professionals involved told us to have no expectations, et cetera. And that's taken me a long time to move away from those kind of lowered expectations. And, in brief, Christopher was very lucky. Because he was diagnosed at two, we got early intervention for him. So, he went to a school that was able to help him. He had a number of years of one-to-one teaching. Interestingly, in that time, the teachers at that school had very constrained views on him. He wouldn't be able to write, he wouldn't be able to do certain things 'cause they had a way of doing it. So, it was very directive as I talked about. So, we actually moved schools. And within six weeks of moving school, he was reading and writing. It was just given the opportunity, given a different approach. And that really, back to my conversation about my management style, certainly opened some eyes, and I kind of went, "Well, that." Some of the the managerial mistakes I've made were becoming clearer as I saw the human side in a way I hadn't seen before. To bring it up to present, Christopher is doing really well. You know, we talk about what is autism. Christopher is one person with autism and he's now so engaged, so socially involved with friends, with family, et cetera. When some friends heard, as I said, it was kind of mourning, there was huge sympathy about the diagnosis, some friends thought, "Oh, so you'll be able to go into Las Vegas, like in the movie "Rain Man," make loads of money every time you bring Christopher 'cause you'll have that personality." And no, that's not my experience. But it's fantastic to see, I'm really proud to be able to say, that he's doing really well. And it's, for me, obviously, as you can probably see, such a relief, and so the horizons for Christopher's future, and therefore my family's future, is so much greater than we were initially told to be. And I hope the parents, and I'm conscious Indeed is a young employee base, and will have people who will face into some of these challenges in the future, it's not as negative as you may be told. There's a wide variety of outcomes and opportunities ahead.

- So, it might be helpful to talk a little bit more about autism, which is, you know, as you said, very easily understood from someone saw a movie once or maybe met one person. How can you help people better understand the spectrum of autism?

- Mm. So, the first thing I would say about autism is that if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. It is people are that different. And I'll talk about Christopher school. The classmates that he has, some can have difficulty socializing. Some may have difficult challenges in terms of their ability, their sensory processing. Things that we would not necessarily, oh sorry, things that neurotypical people, I hate using these scientific definitions, but neurotypical people wouldn't really understand. But it's a kind of a physical need that some people with autism might have in order to express themselves and to let out some of their instincts. And that can be seen as social challenge. What I would say is there are just as many people, or sorry, children with other challenges, whether they have autism or other forms of neurodiversity. And what I hope that people will see and begin to see is the ability and not the disability. Because we sometimes talk about what can't be done. And actually, while autism has a breadth of challenges, and I'm trying not to over-define it because of that, because it's so wide, it's also important to highlight that the capabilities that... I mean, I'll talk about Christopher's capabilities, but spending so much time in the community and so much time with his friends, there's lots of capabilities that each have, and it's fascinating to see how they're expressed as they're given the opportunities.

- I think you've already given a couple of examples of this, but can you talk a little bit more about how Christopher's diagnosis changed you as a person?

- Yeah, I think I'd probably say the first thing it did is it made me a nicer person. And I mean that in the sense that I became much more aware of the challenges facing people who were in any sense marginalized. And I will have to admit I wasn't as aware as I should've been. And I guess human nature is such that, until it affects you, you're just not that aware. So, I would say I became much more hopefully aware of that. Hopefully not just sensitive to it, but proactive in terms of supporting multiple scenarios. But, selfishly of course, what I really did was I became active in autism advocacy, awareness, and services. And there aren't great services, even today, else I'd use the present tense, but it was worse than the past. There aren't great services available in general for the needs of somebody with neurodiversity. And one thing that's... So, one thing that I did initially was I went and did fundraising for autism services. In that, I actually helped a previous employer. I convinced them to establish a nationwide fundraising from their customers. And it was a very good retention play because it was actually a part of what the customer spent was donated to the national autism charity. That raised half a million, well, the equivalent of half a million dollars for the charity. And that led to way more services. And I know half a million dollars is a small number in a country the size of America. In Ireland, you could extrapolate that out to the equivalent of 35 million in the US. So you can imagine the kind of number of children who were given early intervention, et cetera. As Chris has become older, I hope I've retained the nicer person. I hope I've continued to be more aware. But the other thing that I have become is much more aware of there's limited services for children. There's almost no services for adults. And yet there's just not an expectation that people with those challenges should work. And to me, the employment level, or the unemployment level for people, with neurodiversity is way too low. Or sorry, wait, the unemployment level is way too high. And actually, when we look past this, it doesn't need to be. So, it's given me a drive, Chris, in what I hope is a more beneficial place, a socially aware place.

- So you talked about your initial reaction to the diagnosis, and that parents and even employers, as you started to talk about, can be fearful. How do you help people think about this issue?

- So, one of the things on a personal level is I will spend time, as was done for me, parents who had already been through the process, will spend time and talk to me about what I needed to do. What I would say for, first of all, for parents, as I said, it's not the kind of limiting factor. It doesn't have to be the limiting factor. There are opportunities. So, but give yourself time, look after yourself. Look after your partners because the two parents can take a different approach, et cetera. But I'll tell a little story about Christopher. So, I talked about him being diagnosed at two, very low expectations given to us. And as I said, I have had low expectations, you know, or lower. And he constantly exceeds the expectations. And what I realized was is putting barriers on his own. I wasn't asking him to do as much as he could. And a lovely thing happened a couple of months ago. Christopher is now 15. His aunt, my sister has a child in daycare, and Christopher and Sam, who's only three, get on so well, Shanae had suggested could, Shanae being my sister, suggested to the daycare, could Christopher work there for a work experience? That was so successful a couple of months ago that Christopher is not in school next week because they've got a week off. He's back in the daycare, which is just wonderful. And it's at their request. And the reason I tell that story is because I think the most important message I can give to parents and to employers is to look at the ability and not the disability. Christopher's ability, and my sister saw it better than I did, is with people. He's got challenges, he's got a level of intellectual disability, but he is great with people, so you wouldn't think of in the cliched "Rain Man" or other stereotypes that a person with autism would be great in the service industry or would be great in the education industry. The big thing I would say is, going back to that kaleidoscope image I have, if you've got a hiring need or if you're a parent who sees skills, there's a matching opportunity that we haven't thought of societally that actually is available. And there are more supports, I think, increasingly emerging for parents to tap into that, but there's also more supports for employers to be able to leverage that. You're not on your own either as a parent or as an employer.

- So, at Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is a perfect segue to talking a little bit about what are some of the ideas that you have around what Indeed can do to help more people with neurodiversity get jobs.

- So, the first thing I'll say is to continue doing a couple of things. So, one is, Indeed has actually established an inclusive culture. It's a joy for somebody with my background and I guess my needs now, emotionally, it's fantastic to be working for a company that has that inclusive culture. As an example, all managers do a training on supporting disability and neurodiversity of people with those challenges. Indeed has also, and I think this is really important, I want highlight to employers in Ireland, but it'll be relevant to everybody, partnered with a university and an autism charity to create a hiring manager's toolkit for neurodiversity. And I think that's what I'm talking about. There are assets that are publicly available that employers can access. We probably need to do a better job of highlighting and we probably need to do a better job of making increased awareness on that side, but this is my first attempt that are making sure people are aware of it. So, I think that's very important. And by partnering with specialist companies, Indeed has been able to do that. I would highlight that any employer can partner with those specialist companies to remove some of the barriers. But when we talk about Indeed, what can Indeed do, I would really call out two things. One is to hire more people with neurodiversity. And some of that probably requires us to go and look because it's not only do employers have a, I guess, a mental barrier, sometimes fear, some employers feel, "Oh, it'll be too hard. It's not going to benefit me." It will. There are so many skills they have. But actually, people with neurodiversity have usually, and indeed their parents like myself, have usually been brought up or educated not to have expectations of looking for a job. Not to think about that. So, I think one of the things that as Indeed as a hiring company ourselves can do is see, well, how can we tap into that? So there's, as I say, specialist companies who partner with universities or with other communities, so that those people can be helped to get there. The other, to go through the hiring process, et cetera, the other thing that we can do, I mean, Indeed, as you say, our mission is to help people get jobs, and our mission really is to help all people get jobs, so one of the things we can do is to use our platform to really to look to change the societal barriers. To see how can we, as a company, help the people help increase the kind of the catchment of people with neurodiversity, even making themselves available to the workforce, and then to highlight to employers the opportunities that are available, the partners that are available. And one thing I would say, Chris, is, you know, in these weird times of COVID, et cetera, you know, it isn't easy to hire people. It isn't easy to fill all the jobs that are available. And yet, I'm talking a societal generalization here, but we've got, what, 5% of the population who we're not really even thinking about it as being potential hires, and yet, as I say in like kaleidoscope image, they all bring different skills and therefore can the matching of a whole spectrum of jobs and a whole spectrum of skills. That pairing is I think something that I think it's not going to be easy, but Indeed certainly can play a role partnering with companies who are specialists in that space and giving a bigger platform.

- So, for any employers who might be listening, what are some of the things that they might be able to do better when it comes to hiring for neurodiversity?

- Yeah, so, well, the first thing I would say is, in principle, I would want employers to not see this as a corporate social responsibility thing. To see this as finding the right skills, finding people who fit the role you're looking for. Because they're available, but just think about it in a broader sense. The other thing is, and I keep saying this, but see the ability, not the disability. It's really important on that sight. I've mentioned a couple of specialist companies, and I'm a, in my spare time, I'm a non-executive director of a company called Specialisterne Ireland. There are many equivalent companies across Europe and across the US. There are a number of Specialisterne companies, but there are also many equivalent companies. they tend to be small, but they have developed frameworks that help companies to successfully bring people up into the workforce through the hiring process and through actually being in work, the onboarding and being successful in the workplace. And I would encourage employers to seek those out because it seems quite challenging maybe if you don't initially have a partner or leverage the kind of frameworks we talk about that Indeed put out. So, very quickly, what Specialisterne will do is they help to identify the client, is that they're essentially clients, the job seekers with neurodiversity. They help those people to actually go through the interview process. And that can be really scary for a young person or even a not so young person with neurodiversity. And then they also help the company. So, when there's a successful interview, and as we say, it's a regular interview, but when there's a successful interview and a placement, Specialisterne also has a coach available to the company to help train and support managers who are new to this because I believe it seems more daunting than it is, but it's very important to have that support. And that helps to reduce the barrier. So, I think that's something where the employers, particularly the many employers who are struggling to fill their jobs at the moment, the biggest message I would say is you don't have to do it on your own, and there's a whole pool of skills that are available if you take that broader viewpoint.

- So you talked about different approaches to hiring for a neurodiversity, but you also hinted at there's a big difference when someone comes and joins an organization. What are some of the things that employers can do to ensure that they're creating the right support structures for neurodiverse employees and what should people who are managing teams with neurodiversity be thinking about?

- Yeah, that's a great question, Chris. And it is, as you say, it's different to just hire. It's how do we make it successful? How do we make it not just successful for the company, which is critical, it should not be a charitable initiative, but it also needs to be successful for the person? So, in terms of employers helping managers and managers being aware, that creating the culture, providing training, providing coaching on that is a very important part of that. Again, of course, I will say my see the ability, not the disability. But one of the things that a company needs to think about, and I'll come back to the managers in a second, is, not dissimilar to the neurotypical community, people with neurodiversity have very wide degrees of vocalizing what their concerns are. And it's important for a manager, sorry, it's important for a manager to check in and to ask questions that they may feel like, "Oh, they'd tell me." But maybe there's a question about how can you help. And so I'll give an example. I had a team member who was struggling, who was relatively high stress. And I, personally, because of my background and my experience, I really try not to fall into the trap of diagnosing everybody with autism. We all have quirks and characteristics, every one of us. But what I did do was I talked with the person, I shared my observation that, really, I didn't want a situation where the person was so stressed. And what, after talking, what she said to me was that the stress would build up during the day. And some of it is just being constantly engaged, constantly in motion. So, we actually gave the opportunity for her to decompress. Just take more regular breaks than you might naturally do. And that made an entire difference, not just to her happiness, which was first and foremost, but to her productivity, her impact on her self-worth. And so it's those kinds of conversations that a manager needs to create. And then, from an employer side, create a safe space. It's okay for people to say, "Hey, I really need, whether it's the breaks, whether it's I need like a darker room or, I mean, there's just so many. I need different types of food, et cetera. I need accommodations there." But while things are different, they don't have to be a problem as long as we just see that each person has their own sense of style. And I guess the more we've been working from home and doing our hybrid, we're all certainly seeing more of each other's individual styles.

- Well, as we wrap up, one of the things that we like to talk about in closing is just looking back the last 14 months, which has forced all of us into a different work and home, and family posture. What has this experience left you with in terms of looking at things differently, and, in particular, anything that you're feeling optimistic about for the future through this experience?

- Yes, I think, I mean, I'm talking about the kind of the work experience or the opportunities for people with neurodiversity because, as I said at the beginning, I've been really lucky. These 14 months, personally, have been boring at times, but not been challenging in the ways that I have been for so many. For what's happened in the last 14 months and one of the things that I'm super excited about is that people with neuro-diversity have succeeded in adapting. And that's often seen as something that they wouldn't succeed in. They've succeeded in working from home, adapting to the new normal, et cetera. Another thing that's happened is what I would see an acceleration of companies embracing the, wanting to set a target for the proportion of people with neurodiversity and other disabilities that they want to have in the workforce. So, as we have leading companies, and there's a group of 500 very large companies who are working together now, I think the website is called The Valuable 500, which is an interesting title, it is important because their goal is so focused on create the opportunities. That excites me. One thing I'll say that isn't so exciting is I do see governments, I see it in Ireland, but I see it elsewhere, who, the minute a person expresses an interest in working, start to pull away the supports. Particularly the financial supports. And so as a society, we shouldn't let that happen because actually we need to get people, we need to get the culture changed, so that get us to a point where people with neurodiversity don't need as many supports. But don't pull them straight away. You're essentially pulling the, you know, breaking the bridge that we're trying to build for them. But being involved, you know, and over the last 14 months and even before that, I hope I've expressed just how much I see the kaleidoscope of skills having so much more possibilities than is generally seen. I'm delighted and excited to see that people are, like companies are beginning to see that more, and I want to accelerate that. And my hope is, and my next goal both with Indeed and with Specialisterne, is to broaden the amount of the spectrum of the kaleidoscope that is targeted and that that opportunities are given to. 'Cause it's still quite niche. It's still data engineers, data scientists, whatever kind of typical or stereotypical view you'd have. And actually we have the opportunity. We're beginning to have more and more success stories throughout the whole kaleidoscope of employment. And to me, that's really exciting and really heartening.

- Well, Peter, thank you so much for sharing your story and your experience, and your personal journey here. It's really powerful and meaningful. And thank you so much for all the work that you do for the neurodiverse community, and of course for Indeed helping people get jobs.

- Well, I really appreciate the opportunity, Chris in both accounts, and the opportunity to get the platform today. Been great to have the conversation. As you can tell, I'd keep going for a plenty longer, so thank you very much.