Responding to neurodiversity amongst customers and employees

Responding to neurodiversity amongst customers and employees

By Jennifer Hulme FCIPD (HR Director and Head of Stores, MID Communications)

To write my article about Neurodiversity, I have focused on my recent experience working within my business; we are an O2 Franchise based in the North West, we operate 16O2 shops and a Call Centre/Head Office based in Rochdale, employing approximately 200 amazing people.

As an HR Director and Head of Stores, I have several key priorities which drive our ongoing success. With a 28% labour turnover over across the business in 2018; recruitment and retention are high focus areas for me. Finding the right candidates with the right cultural fit and ensuring that once they arrive, they are engaged and enjoy their roles is fundamental to our success. As such, an objective was set within our current business plan, to ensure our employee population reflects the diversity of our local communities; being located in diverse areas of Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Lancashire it is essential that the WHOLE community can access the shop and its facilities. To deliver this, my team and I must first get to know those communities, through events and analysis of the Labour Market.

I am lucky to have a great team within my HR department who support my vision for a diverse and inclusive workforce, which reflects the communities we operate within. To this point, my Training and Development Manager, Rachel Lees, approached me in early 2018 regarding the subject of accessibility in our retail space. It was part of a conversation about future projects within her role that she explained an idea she had to increase the focus and awareness of accessibility in our shops, with a specific emphasis on Neurodivergent conditions.

Rachel joined my team at MID Communications in 2017 from a large technology retailer (based in Liverpool). She had met a lady called Julie and her son, Joe (names used with permission) during this time and through getting to know Julie, Rachel learned a great deal about the challenges and misconceptions facing individuals and their families living with autism and other sensory processing disorders particularly while out in retail spaces.

Julie explained to Rachel that her son had autism and found it challenging to interact with people in large spaces, particularly in retail or service environments with noise, space and sensory overload. Julie had a fledgeling business ‘Autism Adventures’, which delivered Autism awareness training to companies wishing to gain a better understanding of reasonable adjustments and triggers. Julie started the business to do just this, and while it was in its infancy, Julie had already had success engaging with the local council and local businesses, even gaining funding to support and grow Autism Adventures Ltd.

There was a particular focus on retail businesses, so Julie was delighted when Rachel reached out again two years later upon joining Manchester based MID Communications. Julie has historically had some poor, really negative customer experience in the service and retail environment, so was keen to cross over to Manchester to continue her mission.

I believe that there is still a lack of awareness and understanding of neurodiversity within workplaces, both for our customers and also those employees that live with the conditions that sit under this heading.

In many cases (but not all) simple, practical adjustments can be made to ensure customers have a pleasant shopping experience and employees feel safe and secure in their jobs. As HR, I have a duty of care to give my teams the information and knowledge to do their jobs well; if I fail them, I cannot be surprised when there are complaints, upset and disruption – therefore I fully supported Rachel’s desire to raise this topic and help managers to feel confident with both customers and employees alike. It is about not being afraid of asking questions, not reacting badly when an incident occurs, be empathetic and supportive of the families and the individual and importantly learn together what support mechanisms can adapt for the future.

One of the random things that retailers/landlords have focused on in past years is ‘gifting’ a specified time and date for customers with neurodivergent needs to come into their stores. I have personally experienced these initiatives within shopping centres just this year – we must do better, a lot better. Thinking with my commercial hat on, this community of people have a spending power with equal parity to the rest of the community.

To segregate and marginalise neurodivergent shoppers doesn’t make business sense! An inclusive environment at all times that understands and supports its whole community will create a successful business and aspirationally, can even bring communities together.

With a genuine heart, but a lack of understanding, I have made the mistake of thinking that a set week/month-long activities around neurodivergent inclusion is doing something extraordinary “aren’t I great!” However, it isn’t about a gesture for a set period, but it isn’t about a courtesy,

We must establish a strategy of year-round inclusion, a culture-shift in thinking, serving and employing within our whole community.

Employee and employability

Both Rachel and I have personally interacted with employees who have been scared to disclose their diagnosis because of stigma and impact, from feedback, they believe it will hinder their progression and career success. We are working hard at MID Communications to break those barriers, but we aren’t there yet. For these individuals, some of whom have received a diagnosis later in life, it is enough that they have to process the news themselves, they need to understand what adjustment they must make in their lives. They also fed back, the worry they have of how people will talk and treat them. It is my job to break that stigma and embrace real inclusion – how? Training and being vocal about how the business support diversity, showing the positive impact it can have.

Rachel talked passionately during a recent conversation about the word ‘suffering’ and explained that individuals with Neurodivergent conditions don’t inherently ‘suffer’ with their condition, the most sufferance is the judgment and opinion they face, while they go about their business. There is a spectrum, and many people live on this spectrum but are incredibly high functioning; they have a set of skills which are invaluable to society and businesses so that we could be the ones missing out. Often as recruiters, we need to think about – are these candidates even approaching me for a role and how can improve my openness for all eligible candidates to apply?

So, what are my takeaways?

  • Embrace proper training, understand, break stigmas through knowledge, we refresh training every year and work within our Guru communities in store to maintain this through the year.
  • Look at your recruitment practices and policies, how can you make your selves more ‘available’ to candidates particularly in the initial shortlisting techniques and your wording within adverts
  • Encourage people to talk, make it easy for them to access a confidential one-to-one discussion with a trusted, empathetic person. Generally, this is great for wellbeing conversations but can make it more comfortable for an individual to be more open and tell colleagues about the condition with they live.

Many thanks to Rachel Lees, Training & Development Manager for MID Communications Ltd for her support and content in writing this article.


About Jenn

Jenn Hulme is an FCIPD HR Director and Head of Stores for an O2 franchise – MID Communications, based in Manchester. Jenn also supports the CIPD Manchester branch in the role of Membership Engagement Lead which involves campaigning to improve the number of members attending local events and engaging new members and those wishing to upgrade.

Jenn also has a NED role with the Altus Education Partnership (Rochdale Sixth Form College) and is passionate about improving employability skills in young people through public speaking and training. Jenn is also a member of CIPD Manchester’s Branch Committee.

Follow Jenn on Twitter @JennH_HR

Could you support our campaign?

The CIPD Manchester Branch campaign will include Twitter chats, some podcasts as well as a blog series. The blogs have been written by a range of people, from within the HR and L&D world as well as outside. Some are from a personal perspective of being neurodivergent and others from neurotypical people. We are very grateful for people’s contributions in helping us explore how we can support neurodivergence in our organisations, and help us to step-up the pace of change and inclusion.

If you would like to contribute a blog and share your personal experience or that of your organisation, please get in touch.

We look forward to your reading, listening and contributing to this campaign. Please leave us your comments below and don’t hesitate to share this article with your networks. Together we can make a difference by raising awareness.

Read the earlier articles in our #NeurodiversityAtWork series

Neurodiversity At Work

  1. The case for neurodiversity at work
  2. Open up your mind
  3. How to create a neurodiversity-friendly workplace
  4. Understanding the benefits of neurodiversity
  5. How can we support neurodiversity in the workplace?
  6. Strengths not disorders 
  7. How inclusive is your organisation? | Ignite Talk

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