young woman in office

by Joanne Shoveller, President and Vice-Chancellor of The International Business University (IBU)

In 2013, William & Mary scholar John Elder Robinson wrote a first-person definition of neurodiversity, describing it as ‘the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variations in the human genome.’ Corporate analysts and consultants have since built on Robinson’s definition, spending the years following championing neurodiversity as a competitive corporate advantage.

In November of 2021, HSBC’s Asia Pacific Chief Information Security Officer, John Scott-Lee, added his personal take to the conversation around neurodiversity in the workplace. In a moving presentation, Scott-Lee articulates exactly how his neurodiversity — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — allows him to apply incredible attention to the important work of securing the HSBC bank from cyber security dangers.

With the efforts of thought leaders like Robinson, Scott-Lee, and other advocates for the power of neurodiversity, the corporate world has made strides in seeking neurodiverse talent. Ford, EY, Dell Technologies, Microsoft, Deloitte, IBM, UBS, and other household names all have either established or early-stage recruitment protocols in place to achieve that aim. For early-stage startup entrepreneurs and small business teams, establishing a similar process will be imperative — and all the more important in the wake of COVID-19.

Beyond Intention

The need for creative problem solving and out-of-the-box thinking has reached a corporate peak. For entrepreneurs who are bringing a product or service to market in the post-COVID landscape, the case for fostering neurodiversity among their applicant pipeline is clear. But putting that into practice can be harder than hiring professionals and founders anticipate.

In his feature with HSBC, Scott-Lee speaks to some of the strategies he’s used to work on his understanding of social cues, a part of business, he mentions, that can be more challenging for some neurodiverse individuals. Throughout his career, Scott-Lee has learned how to read body language, monitor cheek muscles, and mirror micro-expressions to improve his understanding and his use of non-verbal conversational cues.

And though Scott-Lee has made incredible progress in this direction, one could easily see how a brief, virtual, face-to-face interview might put a neurodiverse candidate at a disadvantage. Similarly, individuals with dyslexia, autism, and social anxiety might find more barriers to a standard interview experience. Not only are those barriers the result of weak spots in the company’s recruitment strategy, they’re also holding the company back from the incredible contributions that can come from what Forbes has called the ‘untapped pool of neurodiverse talent.’

From The Beginning: Expanding the Search

The breaking down of barriers is to everyone’s benefit, but it’s nonetheless a goal that requires time, attention, and resources as a new founder or small business prepares to expand their team. The first and most important step is for founders to stress-test their hiring pools; working with higher education institutions, nonprofits, or other organizations who have supported neuro-divergent individuals can be a great way to expand to new job seeking audiences.

Equally important, founders and their hiring teams can vet the language in their job application, ensuring that there isn’t exclusionary or confusing language. Using aphorisms, ableist, or unspecific language can quickly cause the candidate to pass on the role. The same educational and organizational professionals who can help to introduce employers to new candidate networks can also help to review the job posting for any unintentional assumptions or oversights.

A Lucky Two Way Street

With a new and improved recruitment strategy, founders will need to apply the same process across their company culture, looking for any areas in which a neurodiverse individual might be less supported than another employee. The task of fostering real inclusion requires a deep question to be posed to every practice, from written communication to meeting format to the mechanics of a daily schedule.

Luckily, founders and early-stage teams don’t need to have all the answers, and the answers they arrive at don’t always need to be right for everyone on their teams. There are as many ways to think and work as there are thoughtful people engaged in the workforce. Employers need only begin the conversation, ask for input, and work to make sure that all employees have a hand in designing the culture they’re building.

Scott-Lee closes his piece with a clear vision statement for HBSC: ‘We want to be a place which is accepting and diverse in the way we think, in the way we solve problems, and in the way we look after our customers.’ His advocacy and his clarity have certainly helped his team get closer to that goal. Neurodiversity is everywhere, and the best employers understand the value that a team of diverse minds can bring. With a conscious practice dedicated to vetting recruitment and building inclusion, new founders can attract a new pool of competent candidates with whom to tackle this next phase.


Joanne Shoveller is President and Vice-Chancellor of The International Business University (IBU). Joanne previously served as Vice-President of Advancement at the University of Waterloo (Canada). Joanne led the advancement teams at the University of Guelph (2004-2012) and INSEAD Business School in France (2012-2016), building alumni, donor and corporate relations, multiplying charitable giving, contributing to strategic direction and launching two capital campaigns.