Difficulty communicating is a core feature of autism. Most jobs demand things like ‘good communication skills’. For people with autism, this demand acts as a barrier to finding work.
In 2011, I downloaded job adverts from universities across the UK. I analysed 1,662 of these job adverts, and found that 56% demanded that applicants have:
- ‘good communication skills’,
- ‘excellent communication skills’,
- ‘good interpersonal skills’,
- or ‘excellent interpersonal skills’.
1 in 3 of these job adverts demanded that applicants have ‘excellent communication skills’.
I found that these job adverts were inconsistent in how they used the words ‘good’, ‘excellent’, ‘communication skills’, and ‘interpersonal skills’. There was no consensus on the relationship between ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’.
In this article, I look at how people with autism are excluded from many jobs because recruiters demand ‘good communication skills’. I argue that this is a problem for people with autism, for society, and for employers.
Guidance for recruiters
I have a short article for recruiters, explaining the problem and how they can easily fix it.
Autism and communication
The autism spectrum is highly diverse. There are many diagnostic labels for people on the autism spectrum including childhood autism, atypical autism, and Asperger syndrome. People with autism can have profound and multiple learning disabilities, have above average intelligence, or be somewhere between those extremes. We can be highly skilled or underskilled, highly qualified or have no qualifications, live independent lives or need 24-hour care, and everything in between. However, a characteristic that all people with autism have in common is difficulty communicating.
Difficulty communicating means different things for different people with autism. For some it means having limited speech or no speech at all. This can mean that the person communicates in writing or through sign language instead. Many people with autism can communicate verbally. However, they will have other difficulties, such as difficulty interpreting facial expressions, difficulty recognising sarcasm, or not knowing when it is their turn to speak. Some people with autism learn to hide these difficulties in order to fit in socially.
How big is this barrier to work?
There are many barriers to people with autism finding work. One of the first barriers is jobs demanding ‘good communication skills’. Because of difficulties with communication, people with autism can be excluded from these jobs. Later on in this article, I explain why this is a problem for employers, as well as for people with autism, and for society in general. First, I want to show how big this barrier actually is.
Selecting and downloading the job adverts
To work out how many jobs demand things like ‘good communication skills’, I decided to collect jobs from universities and university colleges in the UK. I chose university jobs for the following reasons:
- Universities have a broad range of jobs, including elementary jobs (cleaners, security guards, catering assistants), skilled trades (electricians, printers, chefs), administrative staff, technicians, professionals (accountants, lecturers, librarians), and managers;
- Universities have to have a strong understanding of disability law because they are employers and education providers. They know that they should avoid discriminating against people with autism in their job adverts. If many of their job adverts demand things like ‘good communication skills’, then this indicates that the problem is real;
- Some university human resources (HR) departments give excellent guidance on not using the phrase ‘good communication skills’ in job adverts. This suggests that universities are aware of the problem and want to avoid it. Again, if phrases like ‘good communication skills’ are common in university job adverts, then this problem is clearly widespread.
I collected the job adverts over 4 days in June 2011. I downloaded every job advert posted on every university and university college website. In total, I downloaded adverts for 2,417 jobs.
Preparing the data
The part of the job advert I wanted to analyse was the person specification. This is where the recruiter lists all of the criteria that job applicants have to meet.
I excluded some job adverts from my analysis because there were problems with the person specification. 191 job adverts did not have a person specification. 567 job adverts did have a person specification, but they had 1 or more of the following problems:
- The format of the person specification was irregular, or it used irregular labels (460 jobs);
- The advert contained more than 1 person specification (123 jobs);
- The person specification was only available in Welsh (2 jobs);
- The job was internal, honorary, or voluntary, or it was a studentship, or a non-university job (20 jobs);
- The job advert was a duplicate of another job advert (8 jobs).
These problems were not necessarily errors made by the recruiters. I excluded jobs containing these problems because they would have been difficult to include in the analysis. Some of them would have distorted the results.
Excluding these problem jobs left 1,662 jobs that could be analysed (69% of the total).
Before analysing the data, I processed it. First, I extracted all of the relevant data from the job adverts (i.e. the criteria listed in the person specifications). Then, I corrected any errors in the data (mainly spelling errors) so that I could analyse it reliably. Finally, I separated the essential criteria (the criteria that applicants have to meet) from the desirable criteria (the ones applicants do not have to meet). So, through this process, I created a data set filled with all of the criteria that the job applicants had to meet.
Searching the data
After processing the data, I explored it to see how recruiters phrase their demands for ‘good communication skills’. I discovered 4 patterns:
- Recruiters usually ask for ‘communication skills’ or ‘interpersonal skills’, rather than things like ‘verbal skills’ or ‘written skills’;
- Recruiters tend to use the adjectives ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ when demanding communication/interpersonal skills (adjectives like ‘strong’ and ‘high level’ are used less often);
- Recruiters usually place adjectives like ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ before the nouns ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’;
- Recruiters often place other words before, in the middle of, or after these phrases (e.g. ‘evidence of excellent oral and written communication skills’; ‘good communication skills, both written and oral‘). Some combine communication and interpersonal skills in the same phrase (e.g. ‘good interpersonal and communication skills’).
I used these patterns to create 4 searches that I could apply to the data:
Each search looks for that sequence of words. The gaps (
_____) could contain spaces, words, and/or punctuation. The gaps could also be completely empty (no spaces, no words, and no punctuation).
How many jobs have criteria like ‘excellent communication skills’?
The searches above proved to be effective at only selecting relevant results. However, they do not find every relevant result. Phrases like ‘presentation and communication skills of high level’ and ‘strong interpersonal skills’ are missed. Also, some job adverts demand things like ‘good communication skills’ in the job description or other parts of the advert (i.e. not in the person specification). By only looking at criteria listed in the person specification, I missed other relevant results. This means that any results I find will probably underestimate the problem.
Using these searches, I found that 927 out of 1,662 jobs (56%) demanded:
- excellent communication skills,
- good communication skills,
- excellent interpersonal skills,
- good interpersonal skills,
- or a combination of these.
More jobs demanded excellent or good communication skills (819 jobs, or 49%) than excellent or good interpersonal skills (434 jobs, or 26%). The most common criterion was excellent communication skills (553 jobs, or 33%).
Data for the communication and interpersonal skills graph.
Only 16 jobs (1%) listed these criteria as desirable and not essential (i.e. they did not demand that applicants meet these criteria). A further 8 jobs (0.5%) listed these criteria as both desirable and essential.
These figures show that most university job adverts demand 1 or more of these criteria. I explained above how these results will be conservative estimates. I also explained above why universities will probably be better than other employers at not making these demands. For people with autism, this means that these types of demands are a substantial barrier to getting a job.
‘Excellent communication skills’ has become a stock phrase
I wanted to explore these criteria in more depth. I wanted to know if there was anything interesting or unusual about these phrases. So, I analysed how the following words appear in the job adverts:
These words appear together far more often than would be expected by chance alone. In fact these words are very strongly and significantly associated with one another. Wherever you find the word ‘communication’ or ‘interpersonal’ in these job adverts, you can expect to also find the words ‘skills’ and ‘excellent’/'good’. Not only that, if you look for the word ‘excellent’ or ‘good’, you will probably find the words ‘skills’ and ‘communication’/'interpersonal’ close by. And, searching for the word ‘skills’ in these job adverts, means that you are likely to find the words ‘excellent’/'good’ and ‘communication’/'interpersonal’.
All of these words occur unusually often in the person specifications. Far more often than you would expect to find in a regular document. That should not be a surprise. After all, you expect to find words like these in a job advert. However, it is interesting just how common these words are in the person specifications. I made a list of the words that appear more often in the person specifications than you they do in regular documents. The words ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘communication’, ‘interpersonal’, and ‘skills’ all appeared near the top of this list.
These words are remarkable in how unusually common they are. They are also very ‘sticky’, frequently appearing together. This means that set expressions like ‘excellent communication skills’ have become stock phrases for recruiters. They are regularly ‘rubber stamped’ onto job adverts.
At the beginning of this section, I asked ‘how big is this barrier to work?’ It is now clear that this barrier is substantial: 56% of job adverts were ‘rubber stamped’ with demands for things like ‘excellent communication skills’.
What does ‘good communication skills’ mean?
Lack of consensus is unfair and bad for business
Recruiters list essential criteria in job adverts so that they can discriminate between job applicants. This is a good thing. Listing the attributes that applicants need is helpful for both recruiters and applicants. Potential applicants can check the list to see if they are able to do the job. Recruiters can check the list to see whether the applicant has given enough evidence that they can do the job. Because all applicants have to meet the same demands, everyone is treated equally and fairly. At least in theory.
There are things that can go wrong with job adverts. If recruiters demand attributes that are not essential to the job, they will exclude people that can do the job. This is unfair on the barred individual, and bad for business (they might exclude the best person). Sometimes, recruiters demand attributes that they cannot measure consistently. When this happens, recruiters risk treating applicants inconsistently. Again, this is both unfair and bad for business.
Fair and sensible job adverts only demand those attributes that are necessary for the job. They only demand attributes that recruiters can measure consistently. I will show below that there is no consensus among recruiters, scientists, and applicants on the meaning of ‘good communication skills’. This lack of consensus makes it unwise and unfair for recruiters to demand this attribute.
What recruiters think ‘good’ means
To know what the word ‘good’ in ‘good communication skills’ means, I will look at how recruiters use it in job adverts. This should give an idea of what they think it means.
Looking at the job adverts, it seems that different recruiters have very different ideas about what the words ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ mean in phrases like ‘good communication skills’. Even recruiters working for the same university seem to disagree on what these words mean.
At one university, an administrative officer needs
excellent written and oral communication skills, while a counsellor does not need good communication skills or good interpersonal skills. And yet, a university counsellor needs to be able to communicate with people in severe distress. They will need specialised communication skills. There is no reason to believe that an administrative officer needs excellent communication skills, but a counsellor does not. Meanwhile, at another university, a job advert for a senior counsellor says that they need
good communication, interpersonal and presentation skills. It is not clear why this senior counsellor’s communication skills only need to be ‘good’.
At another university, a shelving assistant in the library must have
excellent interpersonal skills, but a teaching fellow only needs
good interpersonal skills. Let us look at the parts of these jobs that involve using interpersonal skills:
The shelving assistant is responsible for:
- Answering basic enquiries (about the location of books);
- Referring other enquiries to other members of staff;
- Reporting health and safety issues;
- Assisting with dealing with inappropriate behaviour in the library;
- Undertaking fire warden duties.
The teaching fellow is responsible for:
- Giving lectures, seminars, tutorials, and classes;
- Supervising dissertations and projects;
- Instructing tutors;
- Responding to student enquiries;
- Giving personal tutoring and mentoring to students;
- Seeking feedback from students and giving constructive responses;
- Providing pastoral care to students;
- Attending meetings, committees, and working groups.
The shelving assistant will clearly use some interpersonal skills some of the time during their job. However, the teaching fellow would probably need to be able to do all of the things that the shelving assistant needs to do in terms of using interpersonal skills (e.g. dealing with inappropriate behaviour in a lecture unassisted; evacuating a lecture theatre when a fire alarm goes off). Furthermore, the teaching fellow would use a broader set of interpersonal skills with a wider range of people in more types of settings. Demanding that the shelving assistant has better interpersonal skills shows how inconsistent recruiters at the same university can be.
There is also a lot of variety between universities when demanding communication and interpersonal skills. For example, an evening cleaner at one university has only one duty that suggests communicating with other people:
to keep cleaning equipment and cupboards clean at all times and report any faults to the Supervisor
Yet, the job advert demands
excellent oral and written skills.
Meanwhile, at another university, an international admissions assistant has to:
deal with visitors and callers to the office and enquiries to the office by email, telephone, and fax and in person
The job advert says that they would like someone with the
ability to communicate effectively with a wide range of people. However, it says that this is desirable, not essential.
These are just a few examples of how inconsistent recruiters are in using the words ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ when demanding communication or interpersonal skills. There are many more examples I could give, including numerous universities that are inconsistent even when advertising jobs with identical job titles. It seems that there is little consensus on when to use the word ‘good’ when demanding communication skills.
What recruiters think ‘communication skills’ means
A job applicant might ask “what is the difference between ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’?” Are they different ways of saying the same thing? Or is there a real difference?
It is not always obvious what recruiters mean by ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’. Most jobs that demand these criteria do not list the specific skills involved. However, recruiters do often combine both into a single demand (e.g. “excellent interpersonal and communication skills”). Also, when recruiters do list the specific skills involved they sometimes list them under headings like ‘Communication and Interpersonal Skills’. This suggests that communication and interpersonal skills are somehow different but related.
This idea of ‘different but related’ makes sense intuitively. There is a relationship between communicating and doing things interpersonally. But how do recruiters see this relationship?
When recruiters do list criteria under headings like ‘Communication’ or ‘Communication Skills’, they include ‘interpersonal skills’ in the list around a quarter of the time (30 out of 119 jobs). That is, 1 in 4 of these job adverts list ‘interpersonal skills’ as a type of communication or communication skill. This suggests that recruiters think that communication skills contain interpersonal skills.
Some recruiters list criteria under headings like ‘Interpersonal Skills’ or ‘Interpersonal Qualities’. A third of these recruiters list ‘communication skills’ under these headings (18 out of 53 jobs). This means that 1 in 3 of these job adverts list ‘communication skills’ as an interpersonal skill or interpersonal quality. This would imply that recruiters think that interpersonal skills contain communication skills.
86 job adverts list ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’ separately. So, in one job advert, one of the criteria might be ‘excellent interpersonal skills’, and another might be ‘good communication skills’. For the recruiters writing these job adverts, it seems that ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’ are two separate things.
A further 5 job adverts demand ‘interpersonal communication skills’. This phrase creates the impression that there is a set of skills that people can use for both communicating and interacting interpersonally. There is an overlap between communication and the interpersonal. Perhaps the recruiters who wrote these job adverts think that communication skills and interpersonal skills can be the same thing.
There are 4 different ways that recruiters see the relationship between ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’:
- They are 2 distinct sets of skills;
- They are 2 overlapping sets of skills;
- Interpersonal skills are a type of communication skill;
- Communication skills are a type of interpersonal skill.
This does not make much sense. It gives the impression that recruiters have an idea of what they mean by ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’, but that idea is not shared consistently.
What communication scientists think
The lack of consensus between recruiters is worrying, but understandable. Communication skills, interpersonal skills, and interpersonal communication are all very recent ideas. It was not until the 1960′s and 1970′s that these ideas started to become popular. Before the Second World War, recruiters did not ask for communication skills or interpersonal skills.
Communication science is a young discipline that took off in the 1950′s. It studies interpersonal communication, among other things. A keen researcher in this particular field was Brant R. Burleson. In 2010, he argued that there is little consensus among communication scientists on what ‘interpersonal communication’ means.1 Scholars have been aware of this problem for the past few decades. He suggested that widespread disagreement on what ‘interpersonal communication’ is creates problems for researchers, but also for those that try to apply this idea.
It is hard for the experts to decide what ‘interpersonal communication’ is at its most basic level. Perhaps it is understandable that recruiters have such varied ideas about the meaning of ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’.
What applicants think ‘good communication skills’ means
If you ask a randomly selected person whether they have ‘good communication skills’ or not, they will probably say “Yes”. 9 out of 10 people seem to think that their communication skills are good or better than good. In fact, most people appear to believe that their communication skills are better than good.
There has been very little research into what ‘good communication skills’ means to people. But, a report published in 2008 by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) gives some idea.2 HECSU asked people applying to universities in the UK how they would rate their own communication skills. Approximately 10% of applicants rated their written and spoken communication skills as less than good (i.e. adequate or not very good). The rest rated these communication skills as good (approximately 30%) or better than good (approximately 60%).
Whatever these applicants think ‘good communication skills’ are, the vast majority believe that they have them. However, you might expect university applicants to have advanced communication skills. Most of them have the privilege of a good education. What about the general population?
There are a few studies that have measured people’s ratings of their own communication skills. However, most of them have looked at professionals (e.g. nurses). There is only one study that I could find that did not look specifically at an academic or professional population. In 2002, Ballymun Whitehall Area Partnership surveyed the population of Ballymun (Ireland).3
Ballymun is an area of Dublin that has been undergoing a large regeneration project. At the time of the survey, this area had high unemployment, low educational achievement, poor health, and high rates of crime. You might expect the residents of such a disadvantaged community to have weaker communication skills than people who apply to study at university. However, both groups rated their own communication skills very similarly.
The residents of Ballymun rated their written communication skills as less than good more often than the university applicants did. 17% of residents rated their written communication skills as average, poor, or very poor. However, only 9% rated their spoken communication skills as less than good. Just over 30% of residents thought that their communication skills were ‘good’. The majority rated their communication skills as better than good.
We must use caution when comparing the self-ratings of university applicants and residents of Ballymun. The self-rating scales they used were similar rather than identical. However, it does seem that the vast majority of people believe that their communication skills are good or better than good.
I am not certain what job applicants understand ‘communication skills’ to mean. But, I am confident that recruiters would not put off most applicants by demanding ‘good communication skills’ or ‘excellent communication skills’.
Communication is a broad idea
Interacting interpersonally and communicating can involve a range of people, skills, methods, and processes.
In the workplace, you may have to communicate with:
- The general public.
In a job, you might need to:
- Listen actively;
- Diffuse aggression;
- Be assertive;
- Be precise;
- Be tactful;
- Speak several languages.
You might communicate:
- Face-to-face in meetings;
- Over the telephone;
- In video-conferences;
- Through social media;
- Via email, letter, or report.
Some jobs include processes that heavily involve communicating, such as:
Not every job requires being able to communicate with all of these people, using all of these skills, in all of these situations, during all of these processes. It helps when recruiters explain which of these are relevant to the job. They might carefully explain this in the job description. Or, they might just demand ‘good communication skills’ in the person specification, and leave applicants guessing what that means.
Demanding ‘good communication skills’ is unfair and bad for business
Recruiters used the words ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ erratically in their job adverts. They disagreed on the difference between ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’. Because ‘communication skills’ is such a new idea, it is understandable that there are inconsistencies in how recruiters used it. Not that this matters to the mass of people who believe that their communication skills are better than good. The vast majority of job applicants will be confident that they have ‘good communication skills’.
The problem with ‘good communication skills’ is that it is a vague idea. Unless the recruiter explains what they mean by ‘good’, applicants cannot be certain that they are good enough. If they do not list the necessary communication skills, applicants will not know whether you have them or not. This is a big problem for the job applicant. They might apply for the job thinking that they have the necessary ‘good communication skills’, but get rejected by a recruiter who has a different idea of what counts as ‘good communication skills’.
For people with autism, there is a bigger problem. They might have all of the necessary communication skills for the job, and they might be good enough at using those skills, but they have no idea that this is the case. They know that they have communication difficulties, so they assume that they do not have ‘good communication skills’. They then rule themselves out of a job they could have done. They might have been the best person for the job.
An important question for job recruiters is: How do you measure ‘good communication skills’? If a recruiter does not know exactly what they mean by ‘good communication skills’, they risk assessing applicants inconsistently. Of course, if they do have a clear understanding of what ‘good communication skills’ means then they should share that understanding with the applicants.
There is a worse problem than these though. Once a recruiter has demanded ‘good communication skills’, they have to assess every job applicant against this criterion. A recruiter who decides to interpret ‘good communication skills’ very narrowly will rule out anyone whose communication does not appear to be generally ‘good’. This recruiter could receive an application from someone with autism who has all the necessary communication skills. But, the recruiter could recognise that this applicant has some communication difficulties and then reject them.
It is hard to see how having ‘good communication skills’ is necessary for a job. There might be specific communication skills that are necessary, but these will be limited. It is also difficult to imagine how recruiters can measure something as vague as ‘good communication skills’. If recruiters do not know how to measure it, how can they assess applicants consistently?
Earlier, I said that a fair and sensible job advert will only demand attributes that:
- Are necessary for the job;
- The recruiter can measure consistently.
I have argued that demanding the attribute ‘good communication skills’ breaks both of these rules. This is unfair on job applicants, and particularly those with autism. But, it is also bad for business. This demand is an unnecessary barrier to potential applicants who can do the job. It could even prevent the best person for the job from getting it. It also fails to rule out those people who believe they have ‘good communication skills’ but do not have the exact necessary communication skills. These people might still apply, unintentionally wasting everyone’s time.
Communication skills are important
I do not want to argue that communication skills are unimportant. I believe that recruiters should continue demanding communication skills in their job adverts (but do it appropriately). Communication skills are definitely important, especially in the workplace.
The UK Commission for Employment and Skills reported in 2012 on skills shortages and skills gaps in the UK.4 They found that communication skills are among the skills that are most often lacking in the UK labour force. I summarise their findings below.
What are skills shortages and skills gaps?
A skills shortage is when there are not enough people available with certain skills. Recruiters find it hard to fill jobs that require those skills.
A skill-shortage vacancy is a job vacancy that recruiters find hard to fill. There are not enough people available with the necessary skills.
A skills gap is when an employee lacks some of the skills that they need to do their job.
Skill-shortage vacancies are usually hard to fill because applicants lack job specific skills. However, more than a third of these jobs are difficult to fill because applicants lack communication skills. 62% of elementary jobs that are hard to fill are hard to fill because applicants lack oral communication skills. Fewer jobs are hard to fill due to a lack of literacy or numeracy skills. This is true across all types of occupation.4
It is not just job applicants that lack oral and written communication skills. These skills are often lacking among employees with skills gaps. 34% of employees with skills gaps lack oral communication skills. For professionals, written communication skills are the 2nd most common set of skills that are lacking. More employees lack communication skills than literacy or numeracy skills (across all occupations).4
Skills shortages and skills gaps can have a substantial impact on a business. The most common result of this lack of skills is that other employees have a greater workload. But, it can also increase costs and make it difficult to meet quality standards.4
Employers and educators need to do more to teach and train people in communication skills. This would ensure that more employees can communicate effectively. It would also reduce the number of job vacancies that are hard to fill. There is clearly a need to improve the oral communication skills of people who will apply for elementary jobs. Similarly, many people in professional roles need training in written communication skills.
There is a lack of literacy and numeracy skills in the UK labour force. But, the lack of communication skills is greater. Perhaps educators and trainers should give more attention to improving communication skills.
Because communication skills are so important, I believe that recruiters need to think carefully about the communication skills that are necessary for a job. If the job requires specific skills, then the recruiter needs to be specific about those skills in the job advert. Demanding something as vague as ‘good communication skills’ is not good enough.
The problem for people with autism
Barriers to work are causing a number of problems for people with autism. Most of us are unemployed or underemployed. This causes many of us to lose skills that we cannot practice outside of the workplace. Some of us struggle to keep our independence. The consequences can be severe. We have a higher rate of mental health problems and homelessness than people without autism.
Unemployment and under-employment
According to research by the National Autistic Society:5
- 15% of people with autism have full-time jobs;
- 9% have part-time jobs.
These rates are far lower than those for both non-disabled people and disabled people:6
- 57% of non-disabled people are in full-time employment; 19% part-time;
- 31% of disabled people are in full-time employment; 16% part-time.
No one can blame individuals with autism for this high rate of unemployment. 79% of those on benefits want to work.7
People with autism who do find work are often employed below their skill level. A recent review by scholars at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands) found that most people with autism end up in low level, low pay jobs that require little skill.8 The UK Commission for Employment and Skills argues that the under-use of skills is a problem for employees and employers.4 Employees can have low job satisfaction. This can lower their motivation, which can lead to lost productivity.
Being employed allows people to make use of their work-related skills. It is only by using their skills that people can keep or develop them. Unemployed people lack opportunities to practice their skills. Staff employed below their skill level also miss out on these opportunities.
There is a serious risk for people with autism who are unemployed or under-employed that they will lose work-related skills. The UK has a problem with skills shortages and skills gaps. Our society cannot afford to waste the skills that people with autism have.
There is a strong link between unemployment and homelessness. According to Crisis (the UK national charity for single homeless people), being out of work is a significant cause of homelessness.9 Without a job you can lose your home. This in turn makes it much harder to find work. Homelessness also leads to a loss of skills and to social isolation.9
Homelessness is a serious threat for people with autism. The National Autistic Society (NAS) Cymru surveyed people in Wales with autism and their families in 2010. 12% of the adults with autism had been homeless at some point.10
In August 2012, the then Minister for Housing (UK Parliament) said that:11
Unemployment and low skills are significant issues for many homeless individuals, and are a risk factor in future homelessness. […] Wherever possible, the best route forward for homeless households is for them to gain confidence, skills, and the means to support themselves, through paid employment.
Government, employers, and educators need to address the issues of unemployment, loss of skills, and homelessness among people with autism. Tackling the demand for ‘good communication skills’ will not solve these problems. It is just one small step in the right direction.
Demanding ‘good communication skills’ is one of the first barriers to employment, and the easiest to solve. It is not just people with autism who would benefit from solving this problem. Society and employers would also benefit.
The problem for society
The UK cannot afford to waste the skills of unemployed people with autism. Our society needs as many people in work as possible. This is not just about the current global recession. It is also about our long-term future with an ageing population.
Scientists at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands) argue that it is essential that society includes more people in the labour force, including people with autism.8 They note that participation is difficult for disabled people because of work barriers. If our society is going to build the labour force that it needs, it will have to remove these barriers.
Getting people with autism into work might sound expensive. But, there is evidence that giving people with autism the support they need would pay for itself.
Liz Sayce, the Chief Executive of Radar, reviewed disability employment support in 2011 for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). She pointed out that the UK Government spends £7 billion on out-of-work benefits for disabled people, and only £330 million on specialist support to help disabled people into work.12 Yet, the Government gets £1.48 back for every £1 they spend on the Access to Work programme. She questions whether
might it be more effective to spend more on disability employment support in order to help more disabled people into work, thereby reducing the need for out-of-work benefits?
From my experience of reading articles online, most people who talk about getting people with autism into work seem to have higher functioning individuals in mind. People seem to forget about those individuals with autism who also have learning disabilities. The research team at the University of Groningen found that people with autism with lower IQs are much less likely to be employed.8 Those that do have a job are usually in sheltered employment. The researchers concluded that there is too much emphasis placed on the weaknesses of people with autism,
leading to low expectations. Employers and society must not use low expectations as an excuse to ignore lower functioning people with autism.
Supported employment is becoming the new standard in helping people with moderate and severe learning disabilities into work. Rather than segregate people into sheltered employment, supported employment helps them get mainstream jobs. This approach is working well in the USA, but it is less well known here in the UK. There is some evidence that suggests that supported employment pays for itself.
Stephen Beyer at the Welsh Centre for Learning Disabilities (Cardiff University) looked at the effectiveness of a supported employment programme in North Lanarkshire (Scotland).13 He estimated that for every £1 spent on this programme, the Government could save between 20p and 25p. This is an encouraging finding, but would this work for people with severe learning disabilities and autism?
The team at the University of Groningen reviewed research into supported employment and autism.8 They concluded that local authorities need to improve access to supported employment and improve the way it works. Nevertheless, the research does suggest that people with autism do better in supported employment than in sheltered employment.
This does not mean that every person with autism will need support at getting a job. It is important to remember that some individuals live successful independent lives with little or no support. It is also worth acknowledging that some individuals might never experience work. For some disabled people the barriers to work are too great. Our society needs to be more imaginative in overcoming these barriers.
For those people with autism who can work but who need support, government, employers, and society should give the necessary support. It makes sound economic sense.
Sayce reported another important fact. According to research by the Social Market Foundation (SMF),
closing the employment rate gap between disabled and non-disabled people would boost economic growth by £13 billion. So, removing barriers to work for people with autism is not only affordable (it pays for itself) but everyone in society benefits financially.
‘Expanding our horizons’
Perhaps the biggest barrier to work for people with autism is other people’s expectations. This is especially true for people with autism who also have a learning disability.
Most people are comfortable with the idea of having a person with a learning disability move in next door. Far fewer are comfortable with the idea of having a boss with a learning disability. According to a 2011 report by the Office for Disability Issues (ODI), 52% of people said that they would be very or fairly comfortable interacting with a boss with a learning disability.14 This is far lower than the percentage of people who would be comfortable interacting with a boss with a physical disability (92%) or a sensory impairment (89%).
Working with people who are different to us is a good way to ‘expand our horizons’. Interacting with different people allows us to become comfortable and confident around them. This is how people learn whether their expectations of others are realistic or not. Excluding people with autism from the workplace is a missed opportunity. As I will show, everyone benefits from working in a more inclusive workplace.
The problem for employers
Excluding the best candidate
Earlier, I explained how demands for ‘good communication skills’ exclude people with autism. A potential applicant with autism might have all the necessary skills to do a job. But, because the recruiter demands that all applicants have ‘good communication skills’, the potential applicant with autism is excluded. This can happen in one of two ways.
- The potential applicant with autism might not apply for the job because they do not believe that they have ‘good communication skills’ in general.
- The individual with autism might apply for the job, but the recruiter rejects them. This can happen if the recruiter recognises that the applicant with autism has some communication difficulties.
Occasionally, this will mean that the recruiter excludes the best candidate for the job.
Inclusion is important for business
Most employers see a link between workforce diversity and business success. Research by Adecco UK & Ireland published in 2012 found that 69% of employers believe
that companies with diverse workforces are best placed to succeed.15 They discovered that 70% of employers think that inclusion improves company culture. 54% think that it improves relationships with customers.
Employers recognise the benefits of including people with different backgrounds in their workforce. However, 55% of employers do not believe that there are any barriers to inclusion.15 This suggests that many employers will be unaware of the barriers to work that people with autism experience. Employers will need to learn that barriers do exist if they are going to employ more people with autism. They will also need to learn what they can do to remove those barriers.
Adecco UK & Ireland argue in their report that employers need to move away from a culture of ‘box ticking’. They say that:15
What emerged strongly from our research is that diversity is too often a ‘tick the box’ exercise in many organisations. Rather than creating inclusive cultures to drive effective working, there’s an emphasis on meeting the demands of regulation. Thus diversity becomes an addon, an HR process, rather than inclusiveness becoming a way of making business better.
I think that this is a good critique. It makes more sense to see inclusion as a business opportunity, as a way to improve the business, rather than as a need to be politically correct. Businesses should employ people with autism because of what we can add to their business, not because it is a bureaucratic or politically correct requirement.
Unique skills and perspectives
People with autism tend to be above-average in certain areas of ability. We can also bring unique perspectives to our work.
In 2012 the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), in collaboration with the National Autistic Society and the Employers’ Roundtable on autism, published a guide to employing people with autism.16 In it, they list some of the skills that people with autism tend to be good at. Here are some examples:
- Attention to detail;
- Being punctual and reliable;
- Developing specialist skills and detailed knowledge.
These are all valuable skills for the workplace. Excluding people with autism from jobs means that employers are missing the opportunity to harness these skills for their business. Demanding ‘good communication skills’ in the job advert can mean excluding potential applicants with unique skills and perspectives.
What does the law say about demanding ‘good communication skills’?
This section is not comprehensive and is not intended as legal advice. I have tried to make this section as accurate as possible, but I will not accept responsibility for any errors or omissions. You should not think that this section amounts to legal advice that you can rely on. You should seek independent legal advice yourself if you need it.
Demanding ‘good communication skills’ in job adverts indirectly discriminates against potential job applicants with autism. I believe that this discrimination might be unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 (England, Scotland, Wales).
Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010 replaces several anti-discrimination laws in Great Britain (the Act has very limited application in Northern Ireland). Recruiters must comply with the Act when recruiting staff. This includes making sure that the attributes they demand in job adverts do not exclude disabled people without good reason.
The UK’s Office for Disability Issues (ODI) gives guidance on how the Equality Act 2010 defines disability. The ODI says that a disabled person is someone with:17
- a mental or physical impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
The ODI gives the following example of a disabled person:18
A man has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. He finds it hard to understand non-verbal communications such as facial expressions, and non-factual communication such as jokes. He takes everything that is said very literally. He is given verbal instructions during office banter with his manager, but his ability to understand the instruction is impaired because he is unable to isolate the instruction from the social conversation.
This has a substantial adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day communication.
To receive a diagnosis of autism, a person must have difficulty communicating. The ODI’s guidance suggests that the majority of people with autism (if not all) would be protected by the Equality Act 2010.
Indirect discrimination is when a person appears to be treating everyone equally, but they are actually treating certain people less favourably than everyone else. According to the Equality Act 2010, treating someone less favourably because of their disability is discrimination.
Sometimes it is lawful for a recruiter to indirectly discriminate against disabled job applicants. A recruiter is allowed to demand criteria that put disabled applicants at a disadvantage. But, they must not break the rules.
The Equality Act 2010 says that a recruiter is breaking the law when they do all 4 of the following things:
- The recruiter applies a criterion in a job advert (e.g. ‘good communication skills’) to all potential applicants, including disabled and non-disabled applicants,
- the criterion puts people who share a disability (e.g. autism) at a particular disadvantage (e.g. less likely to get the job),
- there is an actual potential job applicant with that disability (autism) who is put at that disadvantage (less likely to get the job), and
- the recruiter cannot show that applying the criterion (‘good communication skills’) is ‘objectively justified’.
When recruiters demand ‘good communication skills’ they meet all 4 of these conditions. I will now go through each of these conditions, one at a time.
Condition 1: The recruiter applies the criterion ‘good communication skills’ to everyone
The criterion ‘good communication skills’ is clearly intended to apply to all applicants (not just those with autism). Therefore, demanding ‘good communication skills’ in a job advert meets condition 1.
Condition 2: The criterion puts people with autism at a particular disadvantage
When recruiters demand ‘good communication skills’ they place people with autism at a particular disadvantage.
The vast majority of people (9 out of 10) believe that they have ‘good communication skills’. In fact, most believe that their communication skills are better than ‘good’. This contrasts with people diagnosed with autism. To get an autism diagnosis, a person has to have difficulty communicating. People with autism are much less likely to grow up believing that their communication is ‘good’. For this reason, people with autism are less likely to apply for a job that demands ‘good communication skills’.
When recruiters assess applicants, they have to use the criteria they specified in the job advert. If they demanded ‘good communication skills’ they will have to judge whether each job applicant’s communication is ‘good’. A job applicant with autism might have all the necessary communication skills to do the job. Nevertheless, the recruiter is less likely to think that a person with autism is ‘good’ at communicating.
Because applicants with autism are less likely to judge themselves as having ‘good communication skills’, and because they are less likely to be judged by a recruiter as having ‘good communication skills’, this criterion puts people with autism at a particular disadvantage. Therefore, demanding ‘good communication skills’ in a job advert meets condition 2.
Condition 3: There is a potential job applicant with autism who is put at that disadvantage
Whenever a recruiter demands ‘good communication skills’ there will always be a risk that an individual with autism could be disadvantaged. It is not possible for a recruiter to know whether there will be any potential job applicants with autism or not. Demanding ‘good communication skills’ in a job advert meets condition 3 whenever it puts a potential job applicant with autism at a disadvantage.
Condition 4: The recruiter cannot show that applying the criterion is ‘objectively justified’
Indirect discrimination is unlawful unless the recruiter can show that it is ‘objectively justified’. In order to be objectively justified, the discrimination must be:
- trying to meet a legitimate aim, and
- it must be a proportionate method of achieving that aim.
A legitimate aim is a genuine need that the recruiter is trying to meet. The recruiter has to be able to show that when they demand ‘good communication skills’ they are trying to meet a genuine need. This will usually be straightforward. If the job requires communication skills the recruiter will be able to show that they are trying to meet that need.
A proportionate method is a method that the recruiter uses that is both appropriate and necessary. The recruiter must not have any other reasonable alternative to doing what they are doing. So, when a recruiter demands ‘good communication skills’ they have to be able to show that this demand is appropriate and necessary. They have to be able to show that there is no reasonable alternative to making this demand. This will be impossible for the recruiter.
Earlier, I asked what does ‘good communication skills’ mean. In my research I found that recruiters use the words ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ and ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’ in different ways. There is no consistency between recruiters in how they use these words. This is because ‘good communication skills’ is a vague idea that means different things to different people. Recruiters should make clear demands. It is not appropriate to demand something so vague.
Recruiters do not have to demand ‘good communication skills’. There is a reasonable alternative available. They can ask instead for the specific communication skills that applicants need.
It is not appropriate or necessary for recruiters to demand ‘good communication skills’. They can ask for specific skills instead. This means that it is not proportionate for recruiters to demand ‘good communication skills’. Therefore, demanding ‘good communication skills’ in a job advert meets condition 4.
Is it legal?
I have shown above that when recruiters demand ‘good communication skills’, and there is a potential job applicant with autism, they meet all 4 conditions of unlawful indirect discrimination. However, we cannot be completely certain that it is unlawful to demand ‘good communication skills’. The Equality Act 2010 is still young and we do not know yet how the courts will interpret it. Once case law has developed on discrimination against disabled people we will have a clearer idea of what is lawful.
I have argued that it might be unlawful to demand ‘good communication skills’ because it discriminates against people with autism and because there is a better alternative available. I believe that this is one more reason why recruiters should not demand ‘good communication skills’.
If you are a recruiter, you can read my recommendations for recruiters. This short article is also relevant to employers and human resource (HR) managers.
Want to know more about homelessness and autism? Check out my article on autism, homelessness, and unemployment.
The following links might be useful for people with autism in the UK who need help with employment:
I am grateful to Richard Adams and my partner Cédric Krummes for reviewing this article.
Cédric also gave me guidance on corpus analysis, and supported me through the long process of putting my thoughts into words. Villmools Merci fir deng Ënnerstëtzung.
All links are correct as of 7 April 2013.