This is a guest resource by Dr Nancy Doyle C. Psychol. AFBPsS and Neil Milliken BA Oxon MBA FRSA
Introduction to the case study
As the neurodiversity movement grows in strength, more employers are recognising the importance of supporting neurodiverse talent in the workplace. While a positive outlook is a welcome progression from the days of focusing on deficit and disorder, a balanced approach is required. As an employer, even with an eye on nurturing aspirations, you must remember that the Equality Act 2010 is likely to apply.
With an array of consultants and businesses offering serrvices in this growing field, we would advise the same due diligence in commissioning services as you would use to approach any specialist provider. It needs to be legally compliant, benchmarked and with some clear expectations around impact. It is also important to remember that while lived experience is incredibly valuable, it is not a substitute for professional guidance.
Similarly, it is unfair and inappropriate to expect in-house champions to offer advice and do the work of professionals, in this situation. In-house champions have an important role to play in increasing awareness, which they do alongside their day jobs.. They should not be called upon to interpret the law too. Asking them to do so is neither fair nor safe.
A medium-sized employer was using an in-house neurodiversity champion group to give advice to managers on how to make adjustments for their staff. The group included a marketing assistant with dyspraxia, a finance officer whose son was diagnosed as autistic and a dyslexic office manager. None were trained in HR, psychology, occupational health, assistive technology or a related field. They were providing the advice in addition to their regular jobs within the company; the neurodiversity champion status was not part of their job description; they weren’t professionally insured to work in such capacity.
In this case study, personal experience does not make the individuals neurodiversity experts. They are not qualified to interpret the legal obligations of the Equality Act 2010 to the workplace, and they lack clinical expertise on how different employees might be experiencing a neurominority condition.
Should that employer find themselves defending a disability discrimination claim, at some point, the process of how they determined adjustment and support will be scrutinised to assess whether it was ‘reasonable’. Basing decisions on the advice of this in-house group is not likely to be considered a thorough and reasonable approach. Likewise, consultants who practise on the basis of lived experience alone are unlikely to be viewed as sufficiently specialist for these tasks.
In order to secure the best and most appropriate support , we advise considering the following four main points when selecting a provider of assessments, coaching / mentoring, awareness training and HR consultancy.
What are the qualifications and / or training of delivery staff? Relevant qualifications depend on the service they provide and the professional training that you require.
When conducting diagnostic assessments, make sure that you’re using one of the following professionals for delivering the service:
- Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC) Registered Occupational Psychologist or other Registered Psychologist with appropriate specialist training in workplace considerations.
This last point – specialist training in workplace considerations – is important because there are standards in clinical and educational practice, such as how to share reports, that are different in a work environment. British Psychological Society guidance prohibits the sharing of full, confidential reports with HR departments, for example, and recommends that the employer gets a precis with ‘workplace strengths and struggles’ and ‘what to do next’ rather than full IQ scores or confidential background information. You can check the British Psychological Society’s ‘find a psychologist’ register to check their credentials. A trainee psychologist is qualified to level 7 and also capable of delivering assessments under supervision, but the HCPC registered psychologist takes legal responsible for decisions.
- Specialist trained teacher, registered with the Professional Association of Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (PATOSS), though again ensure that they have undergone specialist workplace training to understand the parameters required for workplace delivery.
PATOSS registrants tend to be aimed more towards dyslexia, dyspraxia and occasionally ADHD, so be aware this won’t be suitable for autism assessment.
- Psychiatrist registered with the Royal College of Psychiatry.
A psychiatrist can diagnose ADHD, autism, and overlapping mental health / neuro conditions but again, make sure that their practice is workplace compliant. Any diagnosis is considered medical grade data but many managers won’t automatically know how to handle confidential employee details at this level so the professionals need to manage that boundary for them. Medics of any kind should have experience of liaising with employers.
It’s also worth noting that diagnosis is not required for disability protection under UK law. The Equality Act does not provide an exhaustive list of named conditions. It says that the person must have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial adverse impact on day to day activities and that impact must either have already lasted for 12 months or be likely to last for 12 months. This includes the memory, concentration, learning and communicating difficulties experienced by neurominorities.
So, if you have an ongoing performance need, it is safer to assume a need for adjustments and proceed, rather than spend additional time on diagnosis. Diagnosis is most helpful for catharsis, addressing underlying confidence issues and improving ambition. As an employer, you need to focus on identifying and removing any barriers that the individual is experiencing rather than worrying about a diagnosis, or worse, trying to diagnose them yourself.
Workplace needs assessments
Workplace needs assessments help to determine what adjustments an individual needs to be enabled at work and to meet their potential. They are about identifying barriers that an individual is experiencing and making adjustments that remove them effectively. Workplace adjustments are called “reasonable adjustments” under the Equality Act 2010 but remember that only a court of law can determine if an adjustment is “reasonable” or not.
Considerations for judging whether an adjustment is reasonable include whether they effectively remove the barrier someone is experiencing, cost and impact on others. You can find more guidance on how to assess “reasonableness” in our People Manager Guide on adjustments. Contact your organisation’s Disability Business Partner for more information.
There are no specific qualifications for workplace needs assessors in the field of neurodiversity. A psychology-led service would require a level 5 Bachelor’s degree with supervision from a level-8 Registered Psychologist, however Access to Work and many charities rely on in-house training. The British Dyslexia Association offers a level 4 qualification. You might also seek Occupational Health support – however, please be aware than not all Occupational Health advisors are specialists in neurodiversity, so you may find that the advice is to seek a specialist referral, or that their reports are limited.
Some companies offer online questionnaires and remote assessments. These are perfectly acceptable but please make sure they have a clear escalation process as they should be looking for risks and flags that would indicate a need for more professional assessment. Who in the business can handle escalation and what is their process for it? You should ask this before commissioning.
Anyone providing online or remote assessments should be able to explain to you how they would proceed if they were to identify a safeguarding risk or a complex case, and that escalation should be to someone appropriately qualified to handle it.
Assistive technology support
Assistive technology (AT) providers should be trained in the tools that they are supplying – this might be specialist, such as a provider’s certificate for Dragon (speech recognition software) which offers dictation and command. Trainers should be certified in the AT that they teach and at a minimum have an IT trainer certification. They might also be trained members of the British Assistive Technology Association. Providers of the software and hardware should be subject to the same due diligence as providers of interpersonal services in terms of regulation, impact and due diligence.
There are no specific qualifications in coaching and mentoring for neurodiversity, but there are several specific to the workplace. In this area, it is important to remember the remit of the employer. Your job is not to ‘fix’ a condition, it is to make sure that the individual is enabled to do their job and that you remove barriers that are preventing them from doing so to the best of their ability. Coaching can help the individual make personal adjustments to their workstation, flow and environment based on their individual profile. A well-qualified business coach will be able to do this while balancing the needs of the wider team, supervisor and bringing the supervisor into the conversation where required.
The Institute of Leadership and Management offers coaching qualifications at level 5 and above, this is a good place to start, and the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development offers a wide range of coaching courses. You can also look for a background in Psychology or membership of the International Coaching Federation.
Credibility in the field is based on existing qualifications, with some additional training or supervision from neurodiversity specialists also required. Note that mental health experience is not the same as neurodiversity adjustment support and tends to come from the medical model, not the social model which may grate on employees who do not wish to be pathologised. Mental health qualifications do not automatically translate to coaching neurodiversity at work, though they are a solid foundation for professionalism.
Awareness training and HR consultancy
Any of the above-named qualification routes could result in a reliable neurodiversity trainer or HR consultant. Consider remit and appropriateness, however. An individual with experience in assessments or coaching might not be able to work within your HR systems. An organisational change expert might not be able to advise on recruitment. A consultancy that excels at reducing exclusion in recruitment design might not be the best at explaining to a team of managers how to get the best from their neurodivergent employees. An engaging and passionate trainer may not be providing solid legal advice. Choose a trainer or consultant who is most appropriate for your needs and audience(s).
If you are going to rely on the advice that a trainer or consultant gives you to guide managers or update HR protocols, you need to be sure it is high quality, and ultimately, that it will stand up in court. Remember, you are the customer. You can ask for references, experience details, examples of materials and trial before you buy for big roll out projects.
Does the organisation publish any sort of evaluation or long term follow up to assess the effectiveness of their services other than testimonials?
Can they provide any sort of guarantee of impact other than self-report of clients?
It’s very hard to quality check the current market of neurodiversity providers. However, here is some guidance to keep in mind:
- Publishing before and after data is more reliable than testimonials which tend towards positive and emotional connection rather than impact to performance and job retention.
- Feedback from managers is more reliable than feedback from individuals who tend to be swayed by how much they liked the professional.
- Look at sample sizes. Where interview data are collected from a few individuals, this does not compare to evaluations of hundreds of examples. If an organisation doesn’t report sample sizes when making grand claims, this is marketing not impact evidence.
- Outlining a clear evaluation process from the start is a good sign. How will they measure success of any intervention? What do they expect to see change, and can they show that they have measured this previously?
- Any academic links or peer-reviewed published studies are also good signs of quality impact, as they show that the provider is not just relying on their own interpretations, which are subject to bias – and might just be marketing material.
3. Regulation and recourse to complaint
Ask the company about their internal system for complaint handling. Do they have a clear escalation process for complaints? If the service was delivered badly, what happens next? If a coach or assessor is a bad match, can they be replaced? As with any other service, you need to check this out before you commission.
Is the organisation regulated in anyway by a third party to whom you could complain if a service was not adequate? As above, we’ve outlined the various professional bodies for individual registration. Psychologists are also registered with the Health and Care Professionals Council, who can handle complaints and make sure that professionals learn from their errors or, in serious cases, stop practising. This is really important when working with a vulnerable client group.
At the organisational level you might look at quality standards. Does the organisation have a quality standard such as BSI ISO 9001 or similar which would guarantee a rigorous complaints process?
Check for GDPR compliance. Any company you commission should be registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to hold medical-grade data.
4. Due diligence and governance
Does the organisation have robust customer relationships and contracts that indicate a level of due diligence has been done to assess financial and governance standards? Specifically, you want to make sure they are insured to deal with the fall out if you are successfully sued at employment tribunal following their advice and that they are financially sound enough to carry the project through to completion.
This is no different to any other area of procurement, so please follow your company’s usual guidance. Individuals may suffer if there is a break in service half-way through or incorrect advice provided, and you will be responsible for that as an employer.
In legal cases assessing negligence, we use the ‘Man from Clapham Omnibus’ test to consider if a ‘specialist’ is appropriately qualified. Would a member of the general public recognise this person as a specialist? People who make career switches to specialise in neurodiversity may understand your industry, they may be from finance, marketing, technology or more. However, unless they have done their own due diligence for their new role, and have had the appropriate training and qualifications, their prior history alone will not make them neurodiversity specialists.
As a relatively new and rapidly growing market, it is important that “buyer’s beware” and there are high stakes for individuals and employers who do not exercise caution here. On the plus side, the popularity of the neurodiversity field has encouraged many psychologists, assistive tech specialists, HR professionals, coaches and counsellors to develop this specialism and translate it into their practice. There is a thriving market from which to commission and much innovation in the field.
BDF would like to thank Dr Nancy Doyle and Neil Milliken for their support in creating this commissioning guide and supporting toolkit.
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