An Intersectional Approach to Inclusion at Work


Historically, most organizations have approached inclusion sequentially: gender this year or two, race next, then sexual orientation, and maybe someday disability and age. Or maybe class. Or neurodiversity. Generally, sequential inclusion is expanded from the power center to bring in the next-most “acceptable” characteristic. But what happens if someone is an older, Black, visibly disabled woman? Or an Indigenous, economically disadvantaged, autistic man? What about a deaf refugee fleeing religious persecution, or any other person who happens to have some attributes that aren’t “currently includable”? Sequential inclusion leaves people behind.

Welcoming all talent requires:

  • Systemic inclusion that considers intersectionalities, comprehensively addresses all barriers, and embeds inclusion in all talent processes and decision-making mechanisms. It calls for inclusion by design, thoroughly and thoughtfully planned.
  • Inclusion from the margin. Creating systems that include the most marginalized and those identifying with multiple marginalized groups is the fastest way to include all. It also requires the participation of the marginalized. People don’t notice barriers they don’t face. Those impacted by barriers others don’t notice (or only notice when the problem becomes extreme) are best qualified to design the barrier-free future of work.

At one point in my career, it looked as though I had “overcome” the blatant gender, class, and even xenophobia barriers I had faced in previous jobs. And yet, for years, I was stuck, doing the work but not getting the credit. Even when a well-intentioned organization implemented an initiative to promote more women in leadership, I still didn’t feel included.

Looking back, I know that I hit the neurodivergent leadership ceiling, a hidden barrier. Autistic people are often overlooked when leadership is equated with charisma or extreme extraversion (although research shows that in dynamic environments, introverts and quiet people lead better than extroverts). In this case, the bias was not blatant. The people in charge didn’t mean to exclude me or those like me. The system, like most, was set up to cater to the dominant neurotype. Perhaps years later there would be an intervention to make the organization more welcoming of neurodiversity. But when I was desperate to be seen, heard, and acknowledged for my contributions, tweaking the system to include women did nothing for neurodivergent women — I was still unincludable and on the margin. In that, I was not alone: In the U.S., 85% of autistic college graduates struggle with unemployment, but very few organizations have programs to support neurodiversity or disability hiring and success.

Because autism can be experienced as culture, as a disability, or as social disablement, it has many psychological and physical manifestations that overlap with other cultural experiences, differences, and disabilities. Hence, addressing the barriers autistic people face both helps solve the sequential inclusion problem and creates a more inclusive environment for talent from other marginalized groups.

Removing barriers autistic people face at work benefits everyone

The comparison to canaries in the coal mine is often used within the autistic culture to describe the autistic experience of heightened vulnerability to harmful environmental factors, from bullying to the noise of open offices and the stress of management by fear. An open office could make an autistic employee with sensory sensitivities ill within hours, but most employees suffer negative health and performance consequences over time.

As another example, imagine a diversity-focused company proud of designing what they believe to be an inclusive hiring tool for rating candidates for office jobs: a standardized interview with rubrics, focused on specific answers and behaviors. Now imagine that one of the criteria in the rubric is “presentation,” consisting of elements such as eye contact and speaking enthusiastically. Some may consider evaluating eye contact and enthusiasm unbiased. Unfortunately, many autistic people will be excluded by this evaluation because intense discomfort with eye contact is one of the prominent autism characteristics.

However, these outward “presentation” barriers don’t impact only autistic people. For example, “enthusiastic speech” evaluation does not consider those with speech differences or who use communication devices — autistic or not. People with facial trauma or paralysis, vision impairments, and many other disabilities will also be unfairly impacted by presentation criteria. Moreover, many cultures discourage direct eye contact and have different norms for expressing enthusiasm. Finally, affect recognition is also racially biased. Detecting and removing arbitrary, non-work-related barriers makes selection fairer for multiple groups.

This is why I call my model of creating inclusive organizations the “Canary Code” for building better workplaces. Before there were electronic carbon monoxide detectors, canaries were used to detect the deadly gas in coal mines. Toxic gases impact the canary first, but all others are harmed eventually. And healthy air benefits all.

I reviewed over 150 academic articles on inclusion and best practices that help employee experience and performance. My findings converge with marginalized individuals’ lived-experience accounts: characteristics of work that are essential for including autistic talent (e.g., skills-based hiring, transparency of procedures, normalizing remote work) help all marginalized people and are highly desired by most employees.

Breaking the cycle of systemic discrimination

Access and success barriers make up the self-perpetuating cycle of systemic discrimination. Access barriers limit the pipeline of marginalized individuals into the organization. Multiple rungs of success barriers (e.g., limited access to professional development, unfair promotion mechanisms) further restrict representation, voice, and leadership opportunities for marginalized groups. The lack of representation in leadership, in turn, perpetuates access barriers. Thus, only a systemic intervention can address cycles of discrimination. However, inclusive practices support a better future of work for all, because mechanisms of exclusion also perpetuate stress and frustration for all employees.

To create a system of fairness, embed the six key principles of the Canary Code into the entire talent cycle.

Participation

Include individual employees in the work-design process — in particular, those who think differently or are intersectionally marginalized. For example, I’ve helped rewrite a research analyst job description that initially included working with frequent interruptions. Not only is this suboptimal for any analyst because data analysis requires deep work, but it would be a major barrier for autistic people, who pay a higher psychological price for distraction. Many autistic professionals have lost their jobs because their responsibilities were changed to include excessive multitasking, they were moved into noisy areas, or they were otherwise precluded from exercising their strengths — without their input. It’s more effective to involve individuals in crafting their jobs than attempting to design for them, even if using empathy. Empathy is constrained by similarity, and those who have not experienced autistic focus may think of an interruption as a minor inconvenience, not the sensation of being hit with a baseball bat. And even in less-extreme situations, participation boosts morale and productivity overall.

Outcomes

Autistic employees’ productivity is partly explained by their innovative ways of working. Yet, innovative employees of all backgrounds are often forced to work in traditional, less-effective ways. Focusing on outcomes instead of “professional appearance,” presenteeism, or work style supports both inclusion and productivity. For example, if a performance evaluation form calls for assessing the number of phone calls an employee made, but they exceeded their sales goal using a well-crafted email blast, does it matter that they didn’t use phone calls? Or if a manager effectively uses asynchronous collaboration technology to unite a hybrid team, is the lack of synchronous meetings a problem or an accomplishment?

To avoid evaluating style instead of substance, review your criteria for performance evaluation and promotion. Do these include references to subjectively defined “potential” or “fit”? Do they include preferences for a specific work style (e.g., teamwork)? When criteria other than outcomes are considered, the most marginalized are the least likely to be similar to the rater and most likely to be negatively impacted by the similarity bias.

Flexibility

Removing arbitrary time, place, and work-style barriers supports the employment of those who need the flexibility to accommodate sensory sensitivities or sleep issues associated with autism. Moreover, it can help address other opportunity gaps, such as transportation limitations associated with disability or economic disadvantage. Expanding flexibility to include job matching to peoples’ unique strengths, job crafting, and job sharing, as well as providing viable part-time options and benefits that work for a wide range of life circumstances further helps include marginalized talent. It also supports the satisfaction and retention of all employees, for whom flexibility is a highly desired perk.

Organizational justice

Justice in the workplace is concerned with the fairness of outcomes and procedures, as well as interpersonal treatment, dignity, and providing sufficient information to employees. All types of justice have implications for employee morale.

In particular, use Leventhal’s six procedural justice criteria when evaluating whether your organization is inclusive. Evaluating your hiring, promotion, and other decision-making procedures, ideally with substantial participation of those who are traditionally not represented, will likely surface areas for improvement. Just procedures:

  • Are applied consistently across people and time
  • Are free from bias
  • Ensure that accurate information is collected and used in making decisions
  • Have a mechanism to correct inaccurate decisions
  • Conform to prevailing standards of ethics or morality
  • Ensure that the views of various groups affected by the decision have been taken into account.

Transparency and clear communication

Clear organizational communication is essential for autistic people, who are often excluded by the reliance on hidden messages, corporate doublespeak, and “insider” expressions with obscured meaning. Cultures that lack transparency in procedures and decision making present success barriers for autistic people and others. Transparency, on the other hand, supports both inclusion and productivity, promotes a sense of psychological safety, and drives organizational performance.

Valid tools for decision making

Subjective selection, promotion, and other talent management practices exclude neurodivergent talent, create barriers for other marginalized groups, and narrow organizations’ talent pools. Instead, using valid instruments rooted in job analysis helps ensure inclusivity. For example, autistic job-seekers are often denied work because of personality-based interviews, which measure the ability to talk about one’s skills rather than demonstrate them. This access barrier also impacts class migrants and people from cultures that value modesty. In selection, direct assessment of skills essential to the job is more valid than asking people to extol their skills. In promotion, evaluation supported by examples of outcomes helps reduce bias.

. . .

Solving the problem of autism exclusion at work by designing radically inclusive systems can help solve other inclusion and well-being problems, creating a better future of work for job seekers and employees of all backgrounds. Ultimately, removing barriers to access and success of marginalized talent can help make sure that no one gets left behind.

Author’s note: An expanded academic discussion of autism, disability, and intersectional inclusion will appear in the upcoming special issue of the Consulting Psychology Journal on disability inclusion.



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