“Deep empathy” to drive real change for dyslexics in the workplace

12 April 2023

£50,000 is a lot of money to lose… but that was the fate of M&S after they dismissed dyslexic employee Rita Jandu for ‘rushing’ and making ‘mistakes’. In fact, management had failed to recognise that Rita was communicating in a style that worked for her and her neurodivergence. M&S not only suffered a financial blow for their shortsightedness, but also lost an asset of an employee.

The term ‘neurodivergence’ has grown in popularity on corporate EDI statements, but like other diversity initiatives it is at risk of losing impact in the sea of corporate buzzwords despite its gravity. 1 in 5 people have dyslexia, which means you are likely to have at least one dyslexic colleague for whom a mental task might take 5 times more energy to complete. Perhaps less known is that those with dyslexia often have a creative propensity and above average intelligence levels – with Steven Spielberg and Albert Einstein being two excellent examples. The picture is mixed, but all too often dyslexic people weather a storm which begins in the application process and continues throughout employment. Emma Freivogel, founder of Radical Recruit, believes we should see difference as a strength to be leveraged, instead of viewing people through a deficient lens. Fortunately, with a little empathy and curiosity, employers can make this process far easier and reap the rewards of accommodating and welcoming their team’s neurodivergence.

To deepen my understanding of the experience of people with dyslexia, I spoke with undergraduates who are considering their career paths and joined Radical Recruit’s virtual webinar on the topic of supporting dyslexic employees. My eyes were opened to a world of adversities I would otherwise be ignorant to.

Inside the mind of a dyslexic student

 Charlotte was diagnosed with dyslexia at university, long after the average age of 5-6 years old. Having always been in the highest sets throughout school, achieving an A* in GCSE English and getting into a Russel Group university to study Psychology, she went under the radar. It was only when she moved in with other dyslexic people who remarked on her texting style that she questioned why it felt like she was working 10x harder than everybody else. Despite a sense of relief, she was understandably frustrated that her dyslexia had not been diagnosed sooner.

Charlotte is completing a 12-month placement and didn’t inform the company of her dyslexia initially. She was worried the stigma of being lazy, slow and ‘thick’ would reflect negatively. Since telling her line manager there have been offers of help, but there are currently no structures or procedures in place. She has also found that dyslexia and neurodiversity are not openly spoken about at work – it remains a taboo.

Charlotte proposes organisations remove cover letters from the application process and use recorded video interviews instead. This switch may give dyslexic applicants the chance to present themselves in the best way as they’ll no longer have the pressure of heavily word based submissions. It also facilitates time to process questions before recording an answer. Within the workplace, she finds software that reads text automatically very useful.

Maxime’s story is a slightly different. He was diagnosed at a much younger age and received support throughout his time in education. However, entering the world of work has posed new challenges. In the application process for example, he finds it helpful to have thorough proof reading done by his peers and family as he may miss entire words and sentences. It also takes him a significant amount of time to complete said applications and he is required to plan whole days around this whilst studying.

Time pressured tasks are difficult, whereas collaborative ones can ease the stress he feels. Since he has trouble focusing on reading, software which highlights words as an audio is played is something Maxime suggests. Like Charlotte, he believes disclosing he is dyslexic may disadvantage him when applying to jobs. He speaks of a stigma whereby neurodivergent people are seen as excuse-makers and notes that if a company were open about their accommodations, he’d be far more likely to apply.

Maxime thinks the application process could be made more dyslexic-friendly by removing large blocks of text and using visual aids. He also found the option of recorded video interviews appealing.

Ford’s approach 

Ford’s International Pensions and Data Analytics Manager Oliver Payne created the world’s first dyslexic friendly pensions communication using a human centered design project which involved:

‘Deep empathy. Embracing ignorance and learning from every angle.’

Oliver started by trying to really understand dyslexia, grabbing the opportunity to learn from Ted Talks, news articles and focus groups with dyslexic people from a range of generations. This deep dive into the world of dyslexia uncovered a few easy-wins and surprises to improve communications. For example:

  • Black font on white background is the hardest combination for dyslexics to read.
  • Too much visual noise (e.g. coloured boxes, different sized fonts etc.) is a problem so adjusting the white space on a page and keeping colour coding consistent is crucial.
  • Those with dyslexia are often great communicators with an extraordinary ability to imagine, explore, connect and visualise.

Before the project it was thought that reducing jargon and shortening sentences would be the key, but this wasn’t the case. The solution was far simpler. Improving style, humanising wording and keeping consistent colour lead to dramatic improvements. Using paper that wasn’t bleached was another easy win to improve legibility. It happened to be the cheapest and recyclable kind too! The last surprise from this project was how much better the communications were for all readers and that the research could inform how to improve every type of communication (not just those relating to pensions or for dyslexics) – a phenomenon known as the ‘curb cut effect’ where accommodations intended to help those with a disability end up benefitting the wider population.

How to help 

Through my research and conversations, I have developed some key takeaways that can help employers feel more confident supporting their colleagues with dyslexia:

  • No voice notes

Dyslexic people may find it useful to have information to reread and get familiar with. The ephemerality of voice notes does not facilitate this.

  • Use one font

Using multiple fonts in comms creates visual noise and makes processing information more difficult.

  • Accommodations shouldn’t be an inconvenience

When an employer won’t purchase an ergonomic mouse that would help an employee complete their job to the best standard and in a more time-efficient manner, what message does this send?

  • Send meeting agendas in advance

Make meetings as simple as possible by sending agendas in advance to allow time to process information and reread. People with dyslexia may feel more confident and open to contributing if they feel prepared beforehand.

  • Signpost major meetings in the office

Have a whiteboard in the office with important dates visible to act as helpful and frequent reminders.

  • Check-in

Schedule check-ins to monitor stress levels and discuss whether anything can be done to help in a reflexive manner, rather than letting problems spiral.

  • Consider software

Dragon software is often used by dyslexic university students to convert the spoken word into written word. It may prove useful if employees struggle with writing prose. Provide adequate training for the software so employees feel confident capitalising on the benefits.

  • Interview and application recommendations

The application and interview process can either be reassuring or deterring for dyslexic people. Ensuring it is as friendly and accessible as possible will not only increase the quality of applications, but help build neurodivergence within an organisation, which ultimately benefits everyone. 

  • Provide alternatives to cover letters

Consider a video recorded option or short form questions to answer instead.

  • Help plan a candidate’s route

Providing a detailed map or simple, listed instructions on how to arrive at the interview location from the nearest travel routes can help relieve pre-interview stress. Supply visible landmarks and make allowances for late arrivals within reason.

  • Format invites to embed in calendars

This makes it far easier for dyslexic people to manage time and focus on the interview itself.

  • Provide a timer for assessments

Having visual representation of the remaining time in an assessment rooms helps those with dyslexia manage their time.

Final thoughts

We all know at least one person with dyslexia and chances are we work alongside them too. If we truly value diversity in all its forms, then workplace culture and provisions should account for neurodiversity. As demonstrated by Ford, part of the solution lies in simple acts such as printing on non-bleached paper or adjusting the white space on a page, informed by consultation. Though, internal changes can only do so much… Attracting and recruiting those with dyslexia is a key part of building an inclusive environment. Undergraduates mention that if an organisation is open about the accommodations they are willing to make, the students are far more likely to apply. Discussing neurodivergence in the workplace will also help remove the taboo and help colleagues learn how one and other work. Hopefully the recommendations noted above prove useful for those who recognise the merit of neurodiversity.

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