I recommend that you do not demand things like ‘good communication skills’ in job adverts. Instead, be specific about the communication skills that applicants need for the job. When communicating is not central to the job, consider not asking for communication skills at all.
Below, I explain why it is a problem to demand ‘good communication skills’ in job adverts, particularly the way it can exclude people with autism. I give recommendations on what you can do instead. I also give other recommendations on employing people with autism.
What is autism?
Autism means that a person has difficulty communicating. The level of difficulty varies widely from individual to individual. Some people with autism have no speech. Others can speak but have difficulty with things like making small talk, or contributing in a group conversation.
People with autism are varied in other ways as well. For example, some people with autism have profound and multiple learning disabilities, some have above average intelligence, and others are in between. This diversity means that autism is described as a ‘spectrum’.
The advantages of autism
People with autism can bring valuable skills and unique perspectives to the workplace. Here are some of the skills that people with autism tend to be good at:
- Attention to detail;
- Being punctual and reliable;
- Developing specialist skills and detailed knowledge.
Why you should not demand ‘good communication skills’
‘Good communication skills’ is a vague phrase. It means different things to different people.
I did some research into the way recruiters use phrases like ‘good communication skills’ in person specifications. I found that:
- Recruiters can vary widely in the way they use the words ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ with ‘communication skills’, even within the same institution;
- There is no consensus among recruiters on the relationship between ‘communication skills’ and ‘interpersonal skills’.
9 out of 10 job applicants will probably rate their communication skills as good or better than good. Over half of all job applicants will probably rate their communication skills as better than good. This is what research by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) and the Ballymun Whitehall Area Partnership suggests.
So, when recruiters ask for ‘good communication skills’ it is not clear exactly what they mean. However, the vast majority of potential job applicants will probably assume that they meet this demand. This is a problem for applicants and recruiters. An applicant might apply for a job assuming that they have the necessary ‘good communication skills’, but get rejected by a recruiter who has a different idea of what ‘good communication skills’ means. Both people had their time wasted.
Potential applicants with autism face bigger problems. They might have all of the necessary communication skills for a job, but they do not know this. If the job advert insists that their communication skills must be ‘good’, they might assume that, because they have difficulties with communicating, their communication skills are not ‘good enough’. They can rule themselves out of a job they could have done.
Recruiters can also unfairly reject an applicant with autism. A recruiter can interpret ‘good communication skills’ narrowly, ruling out applicants whose communication does not appear to be generally ‘good’. If the recruiter recognises that an applicant with autism has some communication difficulties, the recruiter can reject this applicant even if the applicant has all of the necessary skills to do the job.
According to the Equality Act 2010, it may be unlawful to demand ‘good communication skills’ in job adverts because this demand indirectly discriminates against applicants with autism. I have argued elsewhere that demanding ‘good communication skills’ may be unlawful because this demand is neither appropriate nor necessary.
Job advert: What to do when communication is central to the job
If communicating is central to the job, you will want to make sure that all applicants have the right communication skills. So, be specific about the communication skills that applicants need. Ask yourself:
- Who will they need to communicate with? Colleagues, managers, clients?
- How will they communicate? Via telephone, email, face-to-face?
- What skills will they use? Explaining, instructing, active listening?
- Which processes will they use? Teaching, mentoring, interviewing?
Do not ask for ‘good communication skills’. This term is vague, and recruiters use it inconsistently. Replace it with something clearer and more concrete.
The skills you list must be measurable. Think about how you are going to measure the job applicant’s communication skills during the selection process. Will they need to demonstrate the skill? Do they have to have experience of using the skill? Do they have to be willing to undertake training in using that skill? You could ask for:
- Must be prepared to complete our management training programme;
- Experience of motivating a team;
- Able to demonstrate a task to a colleague.
Do not list every skill you can imagine. Only ask for what the job really needs. Otherwise you risk excluding strong candidates or unintentionally discriminating against disabled applicants.
Job advert: What to do when communication is not central to the job
Focus on what is central to the job. If communicating is not central to the job, consider whether you need to ask for communication skills at all. If you do decide to list communication skills in the job advert, list them as ‘desirable’ rather than ‘essential’.
Guidance by university human resources departments
I recommend reading the guidance produced by Human Resources (HR) at the University of Liverpool and the University of Essex:
Employing people with autism
There are other things you can do to improve the way you recruit and retain employees with autism.
I recommend reading ‘Untapped Talent: a guide to employing people with autism’ which you can download from the National Autistic Society’s website.
The ‘Uncovering Hidden Impairment Toolkit‘ might be useful. It provides guidance on making
reasonable adjustments for individuals with hidden impairments, including autism. The Hidden Impairments National Group (HING, UK) produced the toolkit. They also offer free training.
If you employ someone with autism you might need to make reasonable adjustments to your workplace. Do not be put off by this. Research shows that:
- Most businesses with disabled employees do not need to make any adjustments;
- Most adjustments that are made are to working patterns, working hours, or the way that work is organised;
- Most adjustments do not cost anything;
- Most businesses say that they find it easy to make adjustments;
- The average cost of making a reasonable adjustment is £184 per disabled employee.
If you are worried about the cost of providing extra support for an employee with autism, look into Access to Work. This programme can help fund things like specialist equipment and job coaches. This could be particularly useful to smaller workplaces.
Finally, do not underestimate people with autism. One of us might just be the best person for the job.
Want to know more about autism and work barriers? Check out my article on ‘good communication skills’.