Friday February 17, 2023

Improving public sector workplaces for neurodivergent staff

  • Improving public sector workplaces for neurodivergent staff image

In Work with Purpose’s first instalment of 2023, neurodiversity thought leaders Lee Steel, Robin Edmonds, and Andrew Pfeiffer tell the story of an imaginary future set in 2028, when Australia’s public sector has created inclusive and diverse work environments. They also give some tangible tips on how to make workplaces more accessible right now. 

If all goes well, much will have changed for the better for neurodivergent staff by 2028. Andrew, Lee, and Robin are hopeful about levels of accessibility, shifts in recruitment processes, and neurodivergent representation across the public sector.

“For me, what that looks like in 2028 is just accessibility by default. Whether that’s a matter of the communications being accessible, whether it’s the workplace itself, the office, or whether it’s just our modes of work,” Robin Edmonds, diversity and inclusion adviser at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) says.

“I think we can see in 2028 recruitment processes that actually test a candidate’s aptitude for the job, recruitment processes that don’t massively overvalue the ability of candidates to write job applications in a very specific way, or to answer interview questions in a very specific way,” Andrew Pfeiffer, Ability Network executive at PM&C adds.

“I’d like to see a more capable APS that reflects the public we serve, including more representation of neurodivergent people at senior levels, but also managers and senior leaders who model inclusive behaviours. This need is to be enabled by a stronger focus on outcomes and impact rather than discreet behaviours and styles,” Lee Steel, Ability Network Champion at PM&C says.

Today’s workplaces still have some way to go

Looking at today’s public sector, challenges for neurodivergent staff are still plenty and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling these issues.

“When you’ve met one neurodivergent person, you’ve met one neurodivergent person, and that’s never truer than when you’re trying to organise a good environment for them in the workplace,” Robin Edmonds says.

“For every individual, the layers of diversity and experiences form a complex shading or colour that gives you their intersectionality, so you might have additional challenges if you are neurodivergent and you are also a woman, or maybe you’re a younger manager and you’re trying to really sort of establish yourself in the workplace.

According to Robin, prejudice around neurodiversity in the workplaces persists – with people not receiving the backing they need as a result.

“The biggest barrier at the moment to getting support for a lot of people is that they’re really scared about the stigma around sort of coming out as neurodivergent or as disabled, if they identify that way, and how their manager’s going to respond.”

Be flexible and train your recruitment staff

Stigma around neurodiversity is not just an issue when speaking to managers, but also during recruitment processes.

According to our panel, workplaces need to highlight that just because someone’s not giving you eye contact, it doesn’t mean they’re not a good fit for a particular position.

Instead, they should look at matching an applicant’s skills and strengths with the requirements of the job by asking some essential questions.

“Many neurodivergent people struggle to give eye contact, myself included. And I think one of the things that we could very easily do is make it the default to give candidates the interview questions a short time before the interview, so that that way they’ve got something to prepare from,” Andrew says.

“Figure out how to harness their strengths, even think about how you can design the role that they’re in to make the most of their strengths.”

“It is like many things where you’ve got to invest up upfront to get the benefit. And that can be as simple as with every new team member, ask: What is it that enables you to be at your best? How do you like to work? How do you communicate? Where are your skills and where are your weaknesses?,” Lee adds.

Build with neurodivergent staff for neurodivergent staff

Andrew encourages managers to speak openly to their staff about challenges, instead of reflexively jumping to performance management tools.

“There’s a phrase that I really love, and it says nothing about us, without us. One of the great things that managers can do is listen to neurodivergent employees and to learn from us.”

Last but not least, Andrew says that managers could consider joining the employee networks of their local agency to take some of the pressure off neurodivergent staff.

“Many neurodivergent staff are members of an ability network or a neurodiversity network, but that’s self-advocacy, that’s an emotional labour. It’s something we’re passionate about, but it’s also an emotional labour. I’d really encourage managers to join your local networks and take the onus off neurodivergent staff,” Andrew says.

Piqued your interest? Listen to the full conversation here.


  • Andrew Pfeiffer image
    Andrew Pfeiffer

    Ability Network Executive and Adviser, BETA
    Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
    Co-founder and Co-chair of the cross-agency APS+ Neurodiversity Community of Practice

  • Robin Edmonds image
    Robin Edmonds

    Inclusion and Diversity Adviser and co-chair of the Ability Network at PM&C, and
    co-founder and co-chair of the cross-agency APS+ Neurodiversity Community of Practice

  • Lee Steel image
    Lee Steel

    Ability Network Champion and First Assistant Secretary,
    Intergovernmental Relations and Reform at PM&C (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet)

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