Why Accounting Firms Should Be Hiring Neurodiverse Graduates

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Something I haven’t really written about before is my own experiences working in accounting. In fact, it’s possibly even something that you may not have appreciated I spent the early part of my career doing!

So, I thought it might be helpful to share with you my own thoughts on how a neurodiverse inclusive approach to hiring could be of benefit to accounting firms. My own experience was predominantly within mid size and small firms, but I think this will be relevant to any size firm. I’d like to explore how an understanding of neurodiverse individuals and their work preferences could enable firms to both attract applicants that are both capable and motivated and to avoid the often common mid level drop off. That career point where many people either leave professional practice or move ‘up’ to bigger firms.

Talent Attraction and Retention

An area that so many organisations, not just accounting firms struggle with is attracting, recruiting and then retaining good people. As is probably not surprising, the really good candidates will be in high demand and should they have any ambition, could be slippery fish to hold onto.

During my own years working in both public practice and in commercial finance roles, graduates came and went like fireflies. They’d come in a wave, buzz around and dazzle you with their brilliance and before you knew it, they were gone!

Perhaps less of an issue in smaller firms, but seeing the challenges smaller firms have with a less ‘sexy’ profile when it comes to enticing decent candidates to apply. I found there were often massive misconceptions of what it meant to work in a smaller firm compared to perhaps the Big 4 (though there were a few more when I started out - showing my age!) which can often be a barrier to attracting graduate talent.

Assuming you’ve managed to snag good people, there then comes the question of how do you hang on to them? At least for long enough that you can minimise the impact and cost of rehiring, training and development of their eventual replacements? Another thing that can be disruptive, particularly for smaller firms is the client continuity. With often a higher level of client interaction and engagement, the last thing you want is a revolving door at the point where your more junior staff are becoming your more senior staff and can have real influence with your clients.

But Neurodiverse people wouldn’t be able to handle client facing work

This is something I’ve heard before. The ‘we’re a client facing business and autistic people wouldn’t be able to deal with the client engagement side of things’ concern.

So, is there any truth to this? The answer is simple - Yes. But then it’s also a little more complex and I’d also say, ‘although it depends’.

As a very broad generalisation, there is a common myth that autistic people in particular don’t interact well or at least don’ t like to interact with people. My equally broad and generalised response to that would be that’s a lot of rubbish. I think it would be safe to say that practically every autistic person both enjoys a and wants to interact with other people. The question is to what extent, in what way and how does that compare to your own expectations of interaction. When you then overlay that with a level of social anxiety and often poor prior experiences, it’s a more complex issue.

Having said that though, there are plenty of people who are neurodiverse, autistics included, who are highly capable, effective and personable communicators who would be a wonderful fit in this space. When you broaden out to Dyslexics and people with ADHD, communication and influencing skills can often be a real strength.

What it comes down to is that commonly held stereotypes are just that, stereotypes, and what is always critically important is to 1) understand the true requirements for success in the role 2) and to understand the individual strengths of each person you’re assessing for that role. Some will be a great fit, others not so - whether they are neurodiverse or not.

The Changing Nature of Work

According to international recruitment firm Hays, there is a growing shift to data and analytics driven work within the accounting profession. Having people skilled in analysing and interpreting large data sets and being able to improve efficiencies and develop cost saving and performance initiatives is where competitive advantage will sit for many consulting based practices.

This shift is at the expense of the more traditional ‘number crunching’ work and will in some part at least require a greater focus on soft skills such as communication and team work.

And yet, from my own experience at least, this combination of skills, connecting the traditional reporting and taxation type work along with identifying opportunities to drive business performance have been the corner stone of smaller accounting practices and will, I would imagine, continue to be for the foreseeable future.

And yet I also left accounting

The foundation in understanding business, the operational and financial fundamentals and the traps or pitfalls that lead to failure (I started my professional practice career in insolvency/corporate recovery) that I gained was invaluable and has carried through to every role I have had since. The opportunities to develop across so many facets from client management through to problem solving and workflow management was something I feel is fairly unique to the accounting profession. Additionally having experience across a number of domains and different sized firms gives you a lot of exposure to both working directly with highly experience partners to very direct and hands on client interaction.

But, like many, I did leave to find greener pastures. The allure of something different and work / personality fit needs to be understood.

I do wonder though, how many people who would be ideally suited to an ongoing career in the profession end up leaving due to a lack of career planning and guidance. Did they miss out on having a leadership team who understands them and was able to nurture their strengths?

3 changes accounting firms could make to tap into neurodiverse talent

There are of course many things that could make a difference when it comes to attracting and retaining neurodiverse talent. But for the sake of brevity and to ease the burden on your memory, we’ll stick with 3 to start with.

Hopefully you’ll also find these ideas very actionable and shouldn’t require much investment of time or money at all.

1. The recruitment process.

This is a big topic indeed, but let’s start with some basics. The interview process itself is often cited by neurodiverse people as being a key barrier. So then what could you do differently?

I’ll give you one simple changes that you could do easily tomorrow. When you’re inviting someone to an interview, send them the interview questions in advance. Sound easy?

“But how do I know if they are a neurodiverse candidate? I could be giving others an unfair advantage?” you say. I got you, and to be honest I would have thought that would be the case too.

A local police command in the UK tested this in practice with a mixed group of both neurodiverse and neurotypical candidates. The first conducted interviews in the normal way with both groups and then repeated after providing the questions 30 minutes before the interview.

In the first test as you’d probably expect, the neurotypical candidates performed better on average. No major surprise there as that’s pretty much par for the course. Neurodiverse candidates under-perform relative to their neurotypical peers in interviews.

The expectation was that in the second test, the neurotypical candidates would still outperform the neurodiverse people. Seems reasonable right?

Well, in fact what actually happened was the neurotypical candidates performed no better or worse than they did in the first test. However, the neurodiverse candidates increased their performance and actually were on par with their neurotypical peers!

So, moral of the story - providing interview questions 30 mins or more in advance of the interview to all candidates is an equitable adjustment that is more likely to level the playing field for neurodiverse candidates without providing an unfair advantage to anyone.

For a range of other interview adjustments could be making check out this free guide.

2. Managing the environment

This is also a topic I’ve covered previously (you can read more on that here) but the key thing to consider for neurodiverse people is the sensory environment. So, what do I mean by that?

This is the level of noise and movement along with the type and amount of light that an individual is exposed to. The hardest part about this is, that everyone is different. I’d like to be able to tell you that you should just do x, y and z and things would be perfect. The thing is, some people are bothered by it, some can become so distracted and even distressed and anxious due to the sensory inputs, whilst others won’t be fazed at all.

What is important then is to be able to have an open, non-judgemental conversation with your staff about the environmental factors that both assist and retract from them being effective at work. Often, all that is required are very minor tweaks to the work space and access to things such as flexible working arrangements. The trade off in productivity and the creative solutions and problem solving abilities that many neurodiverse people possess will invariably be worth any effort you put into supporting them.

Interestingly, many people have found that the sorts of adjustments and the level of awareness of how these environmental factors affect people has helped them to be supportive of many other employees. With a workplace that is more conducive to people being their best at work, the benefits are obvious.

3. Communication

The area that seems to the epicentre for any major issues that have arisen in my experience (and is consistent with the experience of my peers) is a lack of effective communication.

I say ‘effective’ communication as, it’s not enough generally to say, ‘well I sent them an email’ or ‘I told them clearly what I wanted’, when the other side is not receiving the message being sent.

A corner stone of effective communication is trust. Without trust it is much hard for people to be open and honest about how they feel, what help they might need and to provide constructive feedback (or to hear it when given).

Simple things such as active listening, without judgement and working to collective agreement help to build trust. Honouring your promises and being consistent in your words and actions again all help build trust. For many neurodiverse people, there is very little to no ‘game playing’ at the hear of what they say or do. Equally, when they encounter that sort of behaviour it can be confusing and concerning and will quickly erode confidence and trust in others.

So what else could you do to assist with communication in practical terms? Don’t rely on a single medium when setting expectations or providing instructions. One way that I’ve found to be fairly consistently helpful when setting out a task or work to be done is to firstly provide the instructions in writing. For example, an email with clear, unambiguous instructions laid out in bullet points.

Provide the person time to digest and consider what questions or issues they might have with the instructions. Then follow up with a quick conversation, either face to face, via phone or even sms or chat (depending on what technology you have at work). This follow up (and indeed the initial approach) you should look to work together with your neurodiverse staff member on what method best suits them.

Allowing time to consume and consider the instructions without the added pressure of a direct social interaction (ie you standing in front of them or waiting on the end of the phone) with an informal check in will set you both up for success.

The fact that you are working to support them to be successful in a way that demonstrates mindfulness of their working style and is reducing potential stress will help in the cycle of trust building and effective communication. Remember, a key element is talking to your team member and getting an understanding of their working style and preferences so you can both be more effective together.

In Summary

With the pressure on accounting firms to both find and keep (for as long as reasonable) good staff along with the move towards data analytics based skills, the case for at least considering neurodiverse talent has never been better. For both smaller and larger firms, the opportunity to reduce hiring and training costs through hiring neurodiverse staff, who when supported effectively will typically turn over at significantly lower rates than others, should be something to seriously consider.

The adjustments to be made to both recruitment and staff management practices should be neither complex or costly and are within your grasp today. I also have absolutely no doubt at all, that as you learn more and put in place the sorts of adjustments that will support your neurodiverse team members, the rest of the team will notice and benefit from them as well.

But we just can’t afford the training time and supports

Do you provide staff training today? Whether it’s in paid training or just time off the tools to learn new skills or brush up on old ones? Learning to make accommodations within your recruitment process and how you go about supporting staff is no different. The time that you would spend on this sort of training though will have far reaching impacts. Most other employers who have done the same have fairly quickly realised that it’s not about supporting autistic staff for example, but about supporting all staff.

The potential gains in engagement and productivity across the whole team will outweigh any amount of time and effort spent on training.

If you do provide external or paid training, then diverting a small portion of that, particularly when you first start hiring or wanting to supporting existing neurodiverse staff is an investment in your managers, your HR team and your other staff too.

Want some help to get started or work through your initial questions?

If this in anyway has piqued your interest, perhaps you get applications from neurodiverse candidates or you suspect or know you have neurodiverse staff already, but just aren’t sure where to go next, then help is not far away!

If this is you and you want to get so some tangible practical actions, then reach out and set up a time for us to connect, you can do that here.

I’m looking to make neurodiversity recruitment simple. If you’re interested, feel free to join my email newsletter.

chris turnerComment