Accountants with neurodivergence: How to build inclusive firms by Karbon image

Accountants with neurodivergence: How to build inclusive firms by Karbon

What if you could hire accountants with superpowers? It might sound unrealistic, but by harnessing the talents of neurodivergent accountants, you could do just that.

Posted byKarbon
onThursday, 2 November 2023

Everyone has strengths regardless of whether they’re neurotypical or neurodivergent. And neurodivergent people often have unique skills that help them perform better than neurotypical people in certain situations.

By creating an inclusive culture and making small tweaks to how work gets done, firms can ensure that all employees are able to perform at their best—and feel valued while doing it. 

But for starters, what is neurodiversity? 

At its simplest definition, neurodivergence is any deviation from typical brain functioning and processing. It’s estimated that one in five people are neurodivergent. But it’s important to note that it’s not an on-off switch—it exists on a sliding scale.

“There's no such thing as normal. Neurodiversity is more of a spectrum,” Meghan Blair of Snow & Blair says.

“Some of those varieties are going to be things like autism and ADHD. Those are the most common ones people are used to interacting with. And within ADHD, there are probably 30 different varieties.”

While there are plenty of misconceptions about accommodating neurodivergent people at the workplace, more often than not, these changes help everyone, not just the neurodivergent individual. As long as the accommodations are not harming anyone, they only serve to benefit the firm as a whole. 

Karbon’s Ian Vacin recently hosted a webinar with Meghan Blair, Embracing neurodiversity: How to build inclusive accounting firms from the inside out.

They covered Meghan’s journey as an accountant and business owner with ADHD, and how to design systems that harness—rather than exclude—the power of neurodiversity. 

Meghan’s own neurodivergent realization 

Like many cisgender women with ADHD, Meghan had a long road to figuring out why she felt different. In fact, it wasn’t until she was checking boxes on her child’s diagnosis questionnaire that she realized they applied to her as well.

“As a student, the way my neurodivergence manifested itself was different. I wasn't bouncing around a classroom. I wasn't a discipline problem,” she says. “[But] I felt like I just didn't fit. My brain didn't do the things other people's brains did in the way that they did them.”

But despite having trouble remembering to take assignments out of her backpack and having dyslexia to the point that she only read one book in high school, she managed to finish fourth in her class.

For that, she credits the superpower aspect of neurodivergence. Meghan worked around her difficulties by learning to be extremely organized. 

Still, she felt the pain of not being able to achieve in the same ways that her peers did, and that led to major depression. Through those tough times, she experienced how that struggle affects neurodivergent people in the workplace. 

“There's a lot of adults in our workforce now, as a result, that have no diagnosis, that can feel this way and function this way around us.”

Interestingly, there might be a higher percentage of neurodivergence among small business clients and accounting firm owners. Because traditional, corporate work environments can be rigid, the entrepreneurial spirit takes hold. If you own your own business, you can make the rules around what you need. 

Meghan did this without knowing it before she was even diagnosed. 

Small changes you can make to build an inclusive firm

Changing your firm’s processes can be intimidating, but by working toward everyone’s needs, you give the opportunity to improve the work environment for all. 

Meghan uses an accessibility ramp as an example:

It’s a simple addition that helps employees who use a wheelchair access the building. But it could also help an employee that is on crutches for a sprained ankle, or has a bad knee. So by helping one person, it ultimately benefits the broader community—with a system that’s already in place. 

Meghan doesn’t offer any specific recommendations for what accommodations will work, because every firm is a little different. But she shared a few broad ideas to test:

1. Check the lights

Fluorescent lighting’s flicker rate can be exhausting for neurodivergent people. Maximizing natural light and LED lighting can reduce that strain.

2. Consider flexible work hours

If some employees find that they do their best work earlier or later in the day, offering flexible start times lets them choose what’s best for their minds. 

3. Move to a single sign-on

Do your employees have to sign in to several systems just to do their jobs every day? That process alone can be enough to derail the most productive employee. By using a single sign-on tool to log in to all systems, that complex barrier can be easily eliminated. 

Recommended reading: 5 digital habits to work better, faster, and more creatively

Accommodations: What not to do

Meghan is very clear on this: do not diagnose employees without consent. And if you suspect employees have some form of neurodivergence, refrain from giving them unsolicited advice.

“There's an awareness of behavior in people and we can accommodate that and build systems for that without diagnosing,” Meghan shares. “I see a lot of commonalities in people around me, and I don't need to diagnose them to recognize similar behaviors and just operate accordingly.” 

The good news is, by making accommodations for everyone and applying policies across the board, there’s no reason to single out any one person or group for their differences. 

Think of I-9 forms in the US to prove legal eligibility to work. If you only gave the form to someone you suspect of not having eligibility, you’re actively discriminating against certain individuals. But if everyone has to turn in the form, there’s no discrimination present.

Similarly, Meghan asks all new employees the same key questions about their work style. What’s their ideal desk setup? What does a perfect morning look like? When during the day do they do their best work? And since everyone’s asked, no one is singled out.

Supporting neurodiverse teams with continuous improvement

As you test accommodations, check in with your staff. Feedback isn’t just for the annual review, whether you’re neurotypical or neurodivergent. 

Don’t be discouraged if your first attempt to accommodate isn’t successful. You may try a change in work hours and find that it doesn’t work for your firm. The key is trying something, learning from it, getting feedback, and resetting to what might work better. 

Before she was diagnosed, Meghan apologized for her differences, like being late to meetings. But she also built accommodations for herself, like flexible hours, so that she could perform at her best.

Post-diagnosis, she still apologizes. But she also has a whole community she can lean on for tips and tricks to work around the more challenging aspects of ADHD. 

And she finds that knowing what she’s dealing with helps her support employees and clients alike. 

“For me, as a firm owner, I realized doing the actual data entry was not my superpower, but doing the client relationship stuff was,” she tells Ian. “Picking and choosing how I spent my time was a huge superpower, and you can do that for your team.”

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