SHRM Inclusion 2021: Unlocking the Potential of Employees with ADHD

Author: Emily Scace, Brightmine Legal Editor

October 27, 2021

Individuals with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD, make up at least 4% of the adult population. According to HR expert and podcaster James Davis, speaking at SHRM's Inclusion 2021 conference, these individuals can be high performers and make valuable contributions in a variety of workplaces with the right support. But many organizations struggle to identify and meet the needs of employees and applicants with ADHD - a lost opportunity for employers and employees alike.

Individuals with ADHD are often highly creative, according to Davis, contributing unique perspectives and excelling at innovation. They can also be excellent at crisis management, he noted, because of their ability to "see the world in slow motion, gather resources, enact plans, and correct mistakes rapidly." Many are also excellent communicators with the potential to excel in roles ranging from customer service to marketing to human resources. But for an organization to capitalize on these unique talents, Davis stressed, it must implement strategies to ensure that these employees have the structures and tools they need to succeed.

A common challenge for people with ADHD is known as the "failure cycle," Davis explained. Individuals with ADHD are often highly motivated to prove themselves and succeed in the workplace. But sometimes what may seem like a small mistake or setback - either in the workplace or in the employee's personal life - can set off a cascade of additional errors, even if the employee previously appeared to be performing well and effectively managing their workload. Coworkers and managers may find this alarming, particularly if the employee has not disclosed their ADHD. But Davis stressed that the failure cycle can be avoided - or at least mitigated - if managers approach missteps with compassion and help the employee to get back on track before issues spiral out of control.

ADHD is not one-size-fits-all, Davis emphasized; it manifests differently in different individuals and often appears differently in adults than in children. And because of pervasive misconceptions surrounding the commitment, abilities and work ethic of individuals with ADHD, people often avoid disclosing the condition. Thus, even if an employer is willing to provide the support an individual with ADHD needs to succeed in the workplace, it may be unaware of the need to do so. But, Davis noted, many of the steps that help individuals with ADHD to thrive at work are best practices that are also likely to aid neurotypical people and those with mental health challenges such as anxiety.

For example, Davis stressed the importance of clear communication and breaking tasks down into smaller, more manageable steps. This approach is likely both to help an individual with ADHD meet a deadline and to generate a better end product that is not rushed as a result of procrastination. And while these tactics are specifically useful to support employees with ADHD, it is difficult to imagine a workplace that would not benefit from their implementation more broadly.

Additional support strategies Davis recommended include:

  • Practice kind accountability. People with ADHD are often hypersensitive to criticism as a result of their prior experiences, even when that criticism is intended to be constructive. Consequently, feedback that is delivered harshly is more likely to cause an employee to shut down than to motivate positive change.
  • Check in frequently. Regular check-ins to help ensure that an individual is on track and to address challenges as they arise may be a more effective way to manage the performance of an individual with ADHD than formal performance reviews that are primarily backwards-looking in nature.
  • Communicate mental health support and resources. Managing ADHD often requires various logistical hassles, such as scheduling medical appointments and navigating insurance systems. Employers can help by allowing employees the flexibility to attend to these matters as needed, in addition to communicating any available employer-provided resources such as employee assistance programs (EAPs) and employee resource groups.
  • Avoid interview surprises. An applicant with ADHD is unlikely to perform at their best if presented with a task or situation during the interview process that was not previously communicated. "The clearer you can be with candidates about what the interview process will look like in detail up front, the better," Davis noted - a courtesy likely to be appreciated by other candidates, as well.

"Remember, people with ADHD have the same goals, motivations and aspirations as anyone else - they just have more barriers to realizing them," says Davis. "When employers create supportive and psychologically safe workplaces and cultures, these hardworking, dedicated individuals will thrive."