Neely Kimey was put onto a performance improvement plan (PIP) to address what her former employers called a “pattern of borderline unprofessional behaviour”.
Kimey, who is now chief executive at Weird and Wired ADHD coaching, was told she rolled her eyes and shut down during professional conversations.
The behaviour was deemed unacceptable, despite the fact that she had disclosed autism and ADHD to her employer. Kimey knew her actions had been misread.
Speaking to HR magazine, she says: “I attempted to fight the eye-rolling by explaining that this was me looking up while I was thinking, usually whilst feeling intense pressure from my supervisor to answer her question.
“I’ve since learned that this is a common issue for people with autism because we do it without realising others think we’re being rude.
“I also vehemently fought against the ‘shutting down’ accusation because this was an autistic shutdown due to how uncomfortable I was when meeting with my supervisor.”
Ambitious about Autism, a charity for autistic children, defines an ‘autistic shutdown’ as a freeze response which happens when an autistic person is overwhelmed and has a reduced ability to process or communicate.
Kimey says her attempts to explain went unheard.
“HR was not trained nor informed about neurodivergence whatsoever, so when we discussed corrective actions for the PIP, absolutely no one knew about appropriate resources, accommodations or options for people like me,” she says.
“I was expected to work directly with my toxic supervisor to determine solutions, which just made me feel trapped and motivated to quit as soon as possible.”
Kimey is not alone in her experience. Cybill Watkins, group product legislation manager at Zellis, has autism and ADHD. She says that managers can easily misunderstand her behaviour.
She says: “Managers might perceive an employee who has ADHD to be disruptive because they can’t sit still for long periods, or because they fidget in meetings.
“Likewise, judging or even reprimanding people for interrupting is discriminatory. As someone who has ADHD myself, I often unwittingly interrupt people, not through rudeness, but because if I don’t say what I have to say there and then, I will have forgotten what I want to say.”
According to neurodiversity specialist and coach Hayley Brackley, PIPs can hold employees to neurotypical standards of behaviour that might be unnatural and unsustainable for a neurodiverse person.
She says: “PIPs often inadvertently impose a rigid adherence to nine-to-five working schedules, which may not align with the varied energy and concentration cycles of neurodivergent individuals.
“There’s often an expectation of a certain social interaction and communication style, disregarding the different ways neurodivergent individuals may process social cues and express themselves.
“An emphasis on multitasking or rapid task-switching can also be problematic as managers should consider some neurodivergent individuals’ need for a focused, singular approach or extended transition times.”
Kimey says it is not just the substance of PIPs that can be problematic, but the way they are delivered.
She says: “Neurodivergent folk often struggle to understand certain unspoken nuances or suggestions hidden within neurotypical behaviour or language. We may blindly trust that things are going well until it’s very explicitly written out for us that it actually isn’t going well, making the PIP a shock when it comes.
“Often, our genuine curiosity or justice sensitivity will earn us the mark of ‘insubordinate’ when in reality, we just don’t adhere to the social rules of hierarchies the way neurotypical people tend to.”
A new way forward
To prevent reconcilable differences turning into PIPs, Brackley said that managers should evaluate if their concerns are unintentionally biased or can be accommodated for.
She says: “Managers and HR practitioners should critically evaluate performance measures for unintentional bias and ensure that they reflect equitable standards.
“Embracing flexibility in work arrangements and understanding each individual’s unique working style are imperative.”
Watkins adds that employers should make sure they have properly implemented reasonable adjustments to remove any barriers for the employee’s performance.
She says: “Support the individual to identify why they are making careless mistakes or struggling to get their work done.
“Take the workspace for example, if someone is easily distracted, don’t seat them in the main office thoroughfare. Hot desking is a common policy but for many neurodivergent people, including myself, it’s a minefield that can introduce sensory issues with light and noise or not adapting to change easily.”
Watkins said the most helpful thing HR can do is talk to neurodivergent workers.
“No one article can provide all the answers. The real solution lies in reaching out to employees who are happy to talk about their own experiences of neurodiversity.
“As someone who has both autism and ADHD, I believe it’s crucial that HR utilises people like myself in order to better understand the issues and challenges, and how to do better.”
The legal perspective
Audrey Williams, employment partner at Keystone Law, explains how to create a legally sound PIP for a neurodiverse employee.
“Where concerns arise around the performance of a neurodivergent employee there is a need to have honest and respectful discussions to understand how the employee is finding aspects of the role difficult or more challenging, and the extent to which their neurodiversity is impacting their role.
“When managing the performance of a neurodivergent employee, employers must make reasonable modifications, if required, to the plans to ensure the employee has the best opportunity of succeeding.
HR or an appropriately trained manager should facilitate such discussions and, if needed, specialist advice and support should be sought. Clearly it is important to ensure these are done sensitively.”
To learn more about staff wellbeing visit the Health and Wellbeing at Work Show on Tuesday 12 and 13 March at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.
Giving inclusive feedback
Sandi Wassmer, CEO of Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (ENEI), offers some top tips on how to give feedback to neurodiverse employees.
- Present the feedback in a neutral and non-judgemental way
- Give the employee space to process the information and respond. Remember that neurodiverse people can be very honest and sometimes have no filter, so you may need to give them some time to work through their response to the situation.
- Take breaks and pace the conversation appropriately, make sure the employee is not overwhelmed and you’re not overloading them with too much information all at once.
- Remember that everyone is human – no one likes receiving negative feedback and these conversations can be uncomfortable. No one sets out to do a bad job at work so empathy and openness can go a long way towards helping to resolve these situations.
This article was first published in the January/February 2024 print issue of HR magazine.
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