How to conduct job interviews with candidates who have autism
by: Katherine Breward, Associate Professor, Business and Administration, University of Winnipeg
The unemployment and underemployment of capable workers with autism is a well-documented phenomenon, as a British study showed.
Employers are gradually getting better at recognizing the value of including neurodiverse people in their organizations, and information about accommodation strategies is starting to become more readily available.
That said, these accommodations aren’t helpful to workers if they are unable to land a job in the first place. Recruitment and selection practices can inadvertently negatively impact candidates with autism.
The job interview in particular can be problematic since people with autism often struggle to understand unstated communication and social norms. Their difficulties in these areas can result in poor ratings during interviews, even when the candidate would be an excellent fit for the job, which puts both the candidate and employer at a disadvantage.
Some simple tactics can help lessen the likelihood of this happening.
People with autism often have sensory processing issues as well as difficulties understanding body language, facial expressions, vocal tone and social norms.
Panel interviews in which multiple people interview the candidate at once magnify these issues since the candidate has to focus on several people’s non-verbal and verbal communication at once. This is both challenging and exhausting for many with autism, resulting in underperformance.
Employers often prefer panel interviews over individual interviews, however, because they have been proven to minimize non-conscious biases in hiring. But organizations can achieve the same goal with sequential interviews.
During sequential interviews, candidates see multiple interviewers, but not all at the same time. Candidates with autism can be more fairly assessed using this method, although caution needs to be taken not to schedule too many interviews too closely together. Having interviews on separate days would be ideal when practical.
The location of the interview can also be important. Employers should select quiet spaces without visual distractions, heavy scents or fluorescent lighting. Avoid interviews conducted over meals since managing the unspoken etiquette of dining can be a substantial distraction for those with autism.
The nature of the questions asked in interviews can also systematically disadvantage candidates with autism. Avoid vague questions or trendy pop-psychology questions that have no discernable connection to job tasks and responsibilities.
For example, questions like: “If you could be any animal, what animal would you be and why?” are simply bewildering for people with autism (and many others). Also avoid testing skills obliquely.
Some employers use questions like: “How many red jelly beans are in this jar?” and expect a candidate to demonstrate their numerical reasoning and estimation skills. A person with autism may take this question very literally, however, and believe that the only way to answer is to actually count the beans.
Instead, test relevant job skills directly using objective, scientifically validated tests.
It’s also important to avoid overly socially biased (people-pleasing) questions, especially when they are unrelated to job tasks and context. Don’t ask what someone else might do or think (“What would your supervisor say about you,” for example). Ask more direct questions — people with autism respond well to questions related to things they have actually experienced.
Phrase behavioural questions, such as “tell me about a time you experienced a disagreement about process flow with a coworker and how you handled it” accordingly. A hypothetical situational scenario can be tough. Avoid any question that starts with “imagine;” instead use “describe a time.”
There are also some general communication guidelines to observe when interviewing people with autism. Avoid the use of confusing language that could be taken literally (for example, “land a job”).
Be aware that norms around sensitive matters such as salary negotiations may not be clear, so the candidate may not react as “expected.” That should not impact a candidate’s interview score unless salary negotiations are actually part of the job description for the job they’re applying for.
Be aware that a subset of people with autism are highly adept at noticing micro expressions, the very quick expressions that flit across someone’s face before they “rearrange” into a socially acceptable reaction. The people able to perceive this, however, are often unaware that they are supposed to ignore those expressions and respond to the “public face” instead. This can lead to social awkwardness.
Once again, that should not impact the candidate’s interview score unless understanding social nuances is a key job requirement.
These practices can help employers hire highly capable skilled workers with autism.
And that means organizations can positively impact their bottom line and competitiveness while also achieving social justice and equity goals — a worthwhile effort indeed.