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How HR can support employees with hidden learning needs

Chris Quickfall

Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

Unleash Your People HR should celebrate the diversity of employees’ different ways of thinking and demonstrate they are willing and able to support the range of needs that they may have.

  • Many organizations do not realize the extent of neurodiversity in the workplace and therefore don’t provide adequate support at work.
  • Conversations about how best to work with others who think and learn differently need to run through the employment process into onboarding and retention.
  • Understanding where people have hidden needs in these domains can be very useful for HR professionals when devising support strategies at work.

While 1 in 3 people are thought to be neurodiverse in some way, many organizations do not realize the extent of neurodiversity in the workplace and therefore don’t provide adequate support at work.

Neurodiversity is an inclusive term that acknowledges the fact that people with learning difficulties have a unique experience of the world that can bring many benefits — they may struggle in some areas but excel in others.

Companies should celebrate the diversity of their employees’ different ways of thinking and demonstrate they are willing and able to support the range of needs that they may have.

Conversations about how best to work with others who think and learn differently need to run through the employment process into onboarding and retention, in order to create a more open culture where employees are free of worry about being ‘judged’ or seen differently.

When we assess individuals for hidden needs, we look at the different cognitive domains – a term used to describe particular cognitive processes that are essential for thinking and learning. People will often have strengths in some of these domains but may struggle more in others.

Understanding where people have hidden needs in these domains can be very useful for HR professionals when devising support strategies at work; below are some specific actions they can take to support individuals with needs in some of those areas.

Verbal Memory

Verbal memory is a type of long-term memory involved in remembering and recalling spoken or written information.

It also includes our internal spoken thoughts. Difficulties with verbal memory can cause noticeable behaviors, like having to ask someone to do something more than once, losing concentration during tasks, difficulty memorizing information, or missing deadlines.

How can HR support?

  • Break down tasks and present information in small chunks

It can be helpful to be aware of how we present information to those who may struggle with verbal memory. Try not to speak too fast, ensure you pause before changing topics, and avoid using lots of text in presentations. Breaking information down into smaller chunks can help us process verbal information more easily.

  • Provide supporting visual cues or instructions

When we find it difficult to process verbal information, it makes sense to rely on visual abilities that we may be stronger in.

If they are learning something new, try showing an employee the step-by-step process for tasks in advance or show them what the end result should look like for reference.

Diagrams and pictures can also reinforce written or spoken information, but they should be related – take it easy on the memes and cat photos!

Non-verbal memory

Non-verbal memory is our ability to remember visual information, such as body language, facial expressions, recall of events, and sense of direction.

Difficulties with non-verbal memory can cause noticeable behaviors, like being less likely to remember how to do tasks they’ve previously completed, anxiety around navigating new situations, or finding their way to new meeting locations.

How can HR support?

  • Use a consistent visual structure

When designing presentations or document templates, it can help to create a consistent layout. Using bullet points to emphasise points, changing the font size or highlighting the main points in bold – and ensure this is applied across templates. Creating consistency helps mitigate some difficulties employees may have in processing visual information. With time, they will come to know and intuitively understand this visual structure, meaning they can focus on the content of the document instead.

  • Clearly outline objectives or aims

Providing employees with clearly outlined aims and objectives can help them to visualise expected outcomes and decide whether they have met these aims. Providing weekly or monthly aims can help people visualise what they need to be doing. If someone is struggling more than their colleagues, try giving specific actions to take when completing each task, and ask them if there are any terms or tasks they don’t understand. Project management software can also help individuals who struggle with non-verbal memory to visualise and keep track of their tasks more effectively.

Executive function

Executive function covers a range of processes that allow us to perform some of our more complex cognitive tasks, like maintaining concentration, reasoning and analysis and multi-tasking. These are clearly vital skills for learning and work. Difficulties with executive function can cause noticeable behaviours like consistent trouble focusing attention or being easily distracted, and problems with prioritising or working to multiple deadlines.

How can HR support?

  • Encourage them to make a checklist or to-do list for a task

This can be a great way for employees to visualise a task from start to finish, which helps them to maintain their attention on a task and see it through until the end. It also breaks it down and helps learners to analyse the task and potentially see where they may have missed a step.

  • Suggest changes to focus attention

There are many small ways in which we can remove distractions and improve our attention control. This can include working in a quiet room, meditating for 10 minutes a day or focusing on one task at a time. Another handy trick that we can all use but is particularly useful for people who may need support with their executive function is to try out social media restriction apps, which prevent us from accessing our preferred social media platforms within stated hours. Encouraging employees to implement any of these options is likely to be more effective than simply telling them to “stop getting distracted.” With a greater shift to remote working, it may even be better to let these employees work from home, where they may experience less distractions than a busy office environment.

Literacy

Literacy doesn’t just refer to our reading or spelling skills. It encompasses everything we perceive about language, including vocabulary, reading fluency and comprehension, clearly explaining ideas, and spelling and grammar. All job roles will have some form of language included, and therefore having an additional need in literacy can undoubtedly make employment more challenging.

How can HR support?

  • Provide a glossary of terms

Every discipline and industry has its own terminology. To help employees who may struggle with some of the vocabulary used in their working environment, it can help to have reference materials like a glossary of terms to improve comprehension. It’s also good practice for new employees who may be less familiar with the language around their new role.

  • Keep internal emails short and to the point

It can be easy to send an email to a colleague that unintentionally bombards them with written information. Onboarding information or the introduction of a new company policy can mean notoriously dense documents. Giving individuals who struggle with their literacy extra support and time to respond to such information is important, and it’s also helpful to keep the information as concise and accessible as possible.

Numeracy

Numeracy skills often get reduced down to our ability to do sums in our head. Numeracy, however, informs some of the fundamental skills of working life. Difficulties with numeracy can cause noticeable behaviours like avoiding mathematical work, poor time management leading to being late for lessons or meetings, or anxiety around data, spreadsheets and budgeting.

How can HR support?

  • Use diaries and schedule reminders

Employees may find it helpful to use a diary to write down all appointments and deadlines, with progress reminders to help them manage their time. Alternately, they should be encouraged to make good use of the calendar on their phone or laptop. It can also help for line managers and HRs to remind them of any appointments and check in on their progress targets.

  • Discuss numerical concepts with real-world examples

Whether it’s with a physical object or real-life scenario, it can be useful to explain and ground abstract mathematical concepts in different ways that may be easier to process. Visual cues like graphs and diagrams can also aid an employee’s comprehension. It also helps to have internal guides, with clear step-by-step examples, for certain financial or budgeting processes, such as invoicing.

There are multiple ways to support employees, but the important thing is to be aware that everyone is different. Identifying hidden needs and knowing what support employees require in specific areas can build more personalized support strategies, provide effective reasonable adjustments, and help all employees reach their full working potential.

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