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A look at Ableist Business Practices:  Creating Fair Interviews for Neurodiverse Candidates

Introduction and Intent

Fair access to opportunities for paid employment is an important contributor to social equity on a societal level, as well as financial and psychological well-being for individuals. Unfortunately neurotypical assumptions and biases permeate the hiring process, resulting in the inappropriate exclusion of many highly capable job candidates.  Job interviews are fundamentally an impression management activity that involves many political, social, and emotional nuances. This is true even when the jobs themselves do not require these skills. This can be challenging for people who are not neurotypical, or are not a member of the same culture, particularly if they process social and emotional information in ways that vary from conventional expectations in a particular culture. Autistic people in particular often report struggling with the job interview process even when they are extremely well qualified for the position. This occurs in part because human resource managers and interviewers are often unaware of the neurotypical assumptions and ableist biases built into their interviewing techniques and their interview questions.

This document is intended to be used as a teaching case to enable people to explore subtle biases in interview techniques and interview questions such that they can eliminate them when conducting recruitment and selection activities. The case is also appropriate for business and professional communication students as an in-class activity and a writing assignment. It is based on real events, although names and other identifying characteristics have been modified for privacy.

The case features a neurotypical human resource manager who has only a very basic understanding of autism. Her reactions and responses to the job candidate, and the reactions of others, are presented as they occurred and are in no way intended to represent an ideal, or reflective of all autistic people. Similarly, it is important to understand that this job candidate is an individual. She is autistic and might process social information and sensory environment different from neurotypical people. This is not intended to, nor does it, represent the full range of behaviours that are potentially associated with autism. As a result the suggestions offered in this case should not be considered comprehensive. Non-verbal candidates, for example, would have different interview needs. That said this is a good starting point for practitioners attempting to make their interviews more neurodiverse.

Please note that in order to analyze this case students are expected to have a basic familiarity with human rights law as it relates to employment discrimination, and with disability accommodation legislation. Students who have taken introductory level business and human resource management courses would have adequate exposure to core concepts to proceed. Other students should be provided with copies of the brief legal summaries that appear in the teaching note.

Where Have All The Good Inspectors Gone?

Amala, the HR Director of a large hospital, sighed deeply. She took a sip of cold coffee and stared at the papers on her desk for a few minutes, trying to suppress her frustration. After two months of searching she was starting to doubt whether their three-person hiring committee would ever find the right candidate for the Occupational Health and Safety Auditor role (see Appendix A for a job description). It was a tight labour market for safety inspectors, there simply weren’t enough experienced and qualified people available. The first three candidates they’d interviewed had been underqualified since they were only working towards their Certified Safety Professional (CSP) designation. They had not completed it yet. Two other candidates with the credential had no experience in healthcare settings.  The most recent candidate, Marissa, had her CSP, had several years of healthcare experience, and had been particularly highly recommended by a trusted colleague, so Amala had been very hopeful.

Amala was surprised and somewhat embarrassed that the interview had gone so badly. Marissa had failed to make eye contact with any of the three committee members in the interview, which one member of the committee found particularly offensive and suspicious. She had provided unexpected, surprising answers to several questions, especially questions 8 and 10. Question 8 had asked about her supervisor’s opinion of her writing skills and question 10 had asked what she would be doing in 10 years (see Appendix B for a list of interview questions). In addition, Marissa had paused for an overly long time and had seemed to struggle with question 2, which asked her to relate previous work experiences to the role she was applying for. She had not been able to reply to question 3, which asked about how to respond to an unspecified hazard at all, merely looking bewildered and asking for more information. Marissa had also lost the thread of her own answers on several occasions when people walked past the glass walls of the office they were conducting interviews in. It had been a bit of a disaster for Amala and she decided to call Leroy, the colleague who had originally recommended Marissa for this position

“Hi Leroy”, she said, “The committee just finished that interview with Marissa. It was, well, weird. You said she did really excellent work when you worked with her previously and I am just wondering if our committee missed something”. “Marissa can be a little different”, replied Leroy, “but she is the most competent safety inspector I’ve ever worked with. She really knows her stuff and she never misses a detail. It’s odd though. Sometimes she does have strange reactions to questions. Once I asked her to hop over and look at something and she gave me a weird look and said ‘I’ll just walk, thanks’. Another time I saw her space out in a meeting and ignore two questions in a row from the team. When I asked her about it later she said ‘the lights were too loud, she couldn’t focus’. Still though, she really is a great safety expert. I would hire her in a heartbeat.”

Huh, thought Amala to herself. She knew Leroy to be an honest, capable person with impeccable judgment. She began to wonder if she had missed something. A comment that Leroy had mentioned kept coming back to her. It was Marissa’s comment about the “lights being loud”. She had heard that remark before but couldn’t quite remember where.

Later, while driving home, it came to her. A high school friend who she kept in touch with on Facebook had been blogging about her experiences raising an autistic child. She had mentioned once that florescent lights upset him since they were overly loud. Was it possible that Marissa was experiencing the same thing? And if she was autistic, could that alone explain why Leroy thought she was capable but she did not interview well? It was all speculation of course, and Amala wondered if she should really be trying to identify Marissa’s disability in this employment situation. Was she not supposed to focus on the candidates’ qualifications and their suitability for the position? On the other hand, she was also supposed to be fair, non-discriminatory, and inclusive when hiring. This apparent dichotomy had her confused. But was there really a conflict between those goals? After all, if the hiring process was unfair then she might not properly assess qualifications and suitability. Just thinking about it made Amala anxious but more than anything, she wanted to do the right thing. Amala decided she needed to do some research to understand the situation. She hoped that a greater level of understanding could help her decide whether she was inappropriately playing amateur psychologist or merely being thorough in ensuring there were no biases in the hiring process.

Autism and Interviews

Amala found several sources to help her educate herself. She visited a website managed by a disability advocate, teacher, and author with autism named Chris Bonnello. His “Autistic Not Weird” site gave her a lot of insight. She also consulted the extensive online resources offered by the American Autism Society and a group called the Autism Self Advocacy Network. 

Amala quickly learned that autism can present in many, many different ways and signs of autism can be subtle or obvious, depending on the person and the situation. Some autistics may be non-verbal and need assistive devices for communication. Others may communicate clearly but have information processing issues, or struggle to control their muscles willfully, or engage in repetitive behaviours.  Many autistics report sensory processing issues, meaning they can be sensitive to things like noise, scents, and touch.  They may also have difficulties understanding body language, facial expressions, vocal tone, and social norms. There is a tendency to take things very literally, meaning some people may miss analogies, metaphors, irony, etc. This can negatively impact communication. She also learned that autistics sometimes have a heightened ability to focus and an extreme attention to detail.

“Those are good traits for a safety auditor,” she muttered to herself. After some thought Marissa began to wonder if their interview questions themselves may get in the way for someone who processes information and social cues differently. She decided to do a little more research.

Amala discovered that the location of the interview can be important since sensory input may trigger extreme difficulties with focus. It was important to pick spaces without sensory distractions.  In addition, she learned that having to pay attention to the non-verbal communication of multiple people at once can be a strain. Finally, some known best practices in question design can help autistic people respond to the interview process in a manner that permits a more accurate assessment of skills. Specifically, she needed to avoid vague questions or trendy pop-psychology questions that have no discernable connection to job tasks and responsibilities (for example, “if you could be any animal what animal would you be and why”). She also needed to avoid overly socially biased (people-pleasing) questions, especially when they are unrelated to job tasks and context.

Finally, Amala realized that it would be better to ask about their own, direct experiences instead of asking about other people’s opinions, fictional scenarios, or hypotheticals. She also needed to be mindful of their literal interpretations of language.  As she was trying to digest this advice, she wondered if this advice should not be a part of best practices for all interviews. After all, not everyone processes language the same way and people’s cultural backgrounds can differ widely.

After considering all of this, Amala decided to create a more “autism friendly” interview and try interviewing Marissa a second time. At worst she would end up in the same position she was in now. At best she would be able to hire a capable worker. After much consideration she decided to make the following changes:

Discussion Questions

Appendix A: Job Posting with Job Description

Job: Occupational Health and Safety Auditor in a large urban hospital with a well-established, mature health and safety program.

Main Duties:


Appendix B: Interview Questions Amala’s Committee Used

Case References

Autism Society (2019) “Autism Society”, accessed Sept. 4, 2019

Autism Self Advocacy Network (2019) “Autism Self Advocacy Network”,, accessed Sept. 21, 2019

Bonnello, C. (2019) “Autistic Not Weird”,, accessed Sept. 4, 2019

Teaching Note

Learning Objectives

Background Information for Instructors

Both Canada and the US have human rights legislation that prohibits discrimination. In the US this is covered under federal and state Constitutions and Title V11 of the Civil Rights Act. In Canada it is covered by the Constitution and federal, provincial, and territorial human rights legislation. It is important to note that discrimination does have to be deliberate in order to result in sanctions. Inadvertent discrimination and adverse impact created by, for example, poorly designed hiring tests that systematically disadvantage an identifiable group, are still offenses.

The community of people with disabilities also have some specific legislative protections, including the right to reasonable accommodation in employment settings.

Canadian Legislative Requirements and Workplace Accommodation

Please note that this reflects a Canadian (Ontario) legal environment, which is where the case is situated. Very similar legislation exists in other jurisdictions. Key issues in disability law that are relevant include definitions of disability, the concept of “duty to reasonably accommodate”, and the criteria for undue hardship used to determine if an employer is required to provide an accommodation.

Definition of Disability

A legal definition of disability is presented in section 10(1) of the Ontario Human Rights Code. It states that disability means:

Any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation, or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical coordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,

a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,

a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,

a mental disorder, or

an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997.

Duty to Reasonably Accommodate

The Canadian Human Rights Commission states that “duty to reasonably accommodate” means that an employer must take all reasonable measures to enable candidates with disabilities to apply for a job and to allow employees with disabilities to keep working. Employers are not able to deny employment due to disability accommodation related need without proving undue hardship. In order to do this a detailed medical assessment would be required that proves an individual cannot complete essential operational requirements of the job. (Canadian Human Rights Commission, 2019).

Criteria for Undue Hardship

Alberta Dairy Pool versus the Alberta Human Rights Commission (1990, 2.S.C.R. 489) established the criteria for undue hardship used to determine if an employer is required to provide accommodation. The conditions for undue hardship include the following:

Creating morale problems with other employees is the most difficult criteria to justify and, as a result of case precedents occurring after the 1990 decision, is seldom accepted in courts (Smorang and Gisser, 2019). 

American Legislative Requirements and Workplace Accommodation

Please note that this information reflects an American legal environment. Very similar legislation exists across jurisdictions. Key issues in disability law that are relevant include definitions of disability, the concept of “duty to reasonably accommodate”, and the criteria for undue hardship used to determine if an employer is required to provide an accommodation.

Definition of Disability

The legal definition of disability comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a history of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability (ADA National Network, 2019).

Duty to Reasonably Accommodate

The ADA states that an employer must take all reasonable measures to enable candidates with disabilities to apply for a job and to allow employees with disabilities to keep working. Employers are not able to deny accommodations for disabilities without proving undue hardship. In order to do this a detailed medical assessment would be required that proves an individual cannot complete essential operational requirements of the job (Repa, 2019).

Criteria for Undue Hardship

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in its role as the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA, has listed factors that will determine whether a particular accommodation presents an undue hardship. They include the following:

Financial difficulty alone is not usually sufficient grounds to reject accommodation requests. Courts will look at tax credits and deductions available for making some accommodations and the disabled employee’s willingness to pay for all or part of the costs (Repa, 2019).

It is also important to note that in order to avoid inadvertent discrimination and adverse impact interview questions need to be valid and reliable predictors of future job performance. They must have both content validity (meaning the questions test the knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes they claim to test) and criterion validity (meaning that the knowledge, skills, abilities, or attitudes tested actually relate to job performance).

Recommended Teaching Approach

This case is best discussed in small groups, allowing students to work together to develop an alternate interview structure, format, and questions. The small group format will ensure maximum engagement and participation. Once they have completed this task their results should be shared, discussed, and evaluated in a large group format with the instructor facilitating the discussion. By assessing the strategies in a large group format student groups will be able to learn from other’ groups successes and mistakes.

This case is also conducive to written assignments. Students could be asked to develop a new interview format and edit the interview questions independently. Their work can then be graded individually (recommended for advanced students with prior experience in question design), or shared in small groups for peer feedback, or compiled by the instructor for large-group feedback.  

*Note that students should be familiar with basic HR law before working on this case so that they do not propose asking illegal questions – most notably they cannot ask Marissa if she is autistic since you cannot ask about disabilities during job interviews. Questions need to focus on her qualifications and ability to do the work. Instructors are also strongly encouraged to point out assumptions made by Amala and Leroy and their inappropriate medicalization of autism. This creates an opportunity to discuss ableism in other employment contexts. Instructors might also draw students’ attention to how disability laws medicalize disability even though the major disability legislations, such as, The Americans with Disabilities Act, recognize the social model of disability. This model of disability states that it is not the people’s impairments that disabled them; rather, the disability is the outcome of the barriers society has raised by excluding this group of people in designing its policies, laws, infrastructures, and overall human environments (Oliver, 2013; Oswal, 2018).  

Answers to Discussion Questions

What changes, if any, should be made to the interview format, location, and structure to make it more autism friendly?

People with autism can have difficulties understanding body language, facial expressions, vocal tone, and social norms. Interviews in which multiple people interview the candidate at once magnify these issues since the candidate has to try and focus on several people’s non-verbal communication at one time. Generally, multiple interviewers are preferred by employers over an individual interviewer to minimize unconscious biases in hiring. Employers can achieve the same goal with sequential interviews. During sequential interviews candidates see multiple interviewers, but not all at the same time. Candidates with autism can be more fairly assessed using this method, although caution needs to be taken not to schedule too many interviews too closely together. In academia such sequential meetings are common when a candidate for a tenure line position is being interviewed by three or four administrators. Such individualized interviews are easier to schedule and also provide the candidate with an opportunity to focus on the interpersonal conversation  than juggle with multiple interlocutors and related impression management. The location of the interview can also matter. The best locations are quiet spaces without visual distractions, heavy scents, florescent lighting, or other sensory distractions.

Could her hospital’s human resources office give the candidate an option to let them know if they had any special needs at the time of interview invitation? 

It is helpful to think though access and equity issues proactively rather than only in response to a concern. It is permissible for the human resources department to ask if people are members of equity seeking groups, including if they have a disability. If you clearly and unambiguously indicate that the information is used solely for the purpose of enabling equity hiring under formal affirmative action or employment equity programs and is not shared with the interview committee, candidates will be more willing to come forth and request accommodations. This does not permit employers to ask about the nature of the disability. Even when employers ask if there are any accommodations needed for the interview, many candidates will be highly reluctant to disclose their needs, fearing stereotyping and marginalization. As such it is useful to ask but it is also important to work proactively to eliminate ableist biases throughout the hiring process, even when there is no candidate with an obvious need.

What changes should be made to the interview questions to make them more reliable and valid for all workers, including workers with autism?

Why are you interested in this job today?

This question may confuse some candidates because it may be interpreted literally (i.e. that they are only interested in the job TODAY and not at other times). The word “today” is unnecessary in this question and simply eliminating the word would render the question less confusing.

Tell me about some of your previous work experiences and how they have prepared you for this job.

This question is excessively vague. Most candidates would benefit from more specificity. For example, ask about a particular work experience on their resume and what safety program-related knowledge and skills they developed there that may be transferable to this position.

Imagine that you have just completed a safety audit and you notice a previously unrecognized hazard. What do you do next?

Any question that begins with “imagine” may create problems for some, but not all, candidates with autism. People who are very focused on concrete details (termed hyper focused specificity) do better when addressing clear, specific, real situations they have actually experienced. Since Marissa struggled with this question in her interview hyper focused specificity may be an issue for her. The question is also incredibly vague. What type of hazard? More detail is needed for any candidate, whether neurodiverse or not, to answer effectively.

What are best practices in “sharps*” management policy? *Note to readers: “Sharps” is a commonly used medical jargon for discarded, used needles. 

For the most part this question is valid and job appropriate but it depends on jargon. Non-native English speakers and the neurodiverse candidates would benefit from jargon-free plain language. Just call them used needles, not “sharps”.

Tell me about a time you had to create a new safety policy or substantially modify an existing one. How did you identify the need for change and how did you go about determining what the new policy should be?

The good thing about this question is that it focuses on concrete experiences not hypotheticals. That said it is really three questions and all candidates, including the neurodiverse candidates, may perform better if they are asked them one at a time in order rather than all at once. Otherwise part of their brain is devoted to remembering the next question instead of being wholly focused on answering.

What personal protective equipment is legally required to work as an X-ray technician?

There are no concerns about this question. It is valid for the job role and does not create inadvertent disadvantage.

What would you do if a lab supervisor did not respond to multiple requests to book an appointment for a walk through inspection?

This question is fine as long as there is not a unique company policy in place to deal with this issue.  It is  generally okay to ask about realistic work related practices as long as you do not expect candidates to have institution-specific knowledge about policy.

How would previous supervisors describe your written communication skills?

While no candidates are capable of reading the minds of others, candidates with autism are especially challenged when asked to describe another party’s thoughts, emotions, or opinions. Ask about written communication skills in a more direct manner, ask for a work sample, or provide a relevant pen and paper test.

At present the emergency room staff have expressed concerns about the potential for violent behaviour from meth addicts who are awaiting treatment in the waiting area. What sort of policies work best to address this issue?

This is a specific and valid job-related question that does not create disadvantage for neurodiverse candidates.

What do you expect to be doing in 10 years?

This question is irrelevant in that it does nothing to assess job related skills or abilities. It also disadvantages people with autism since it is a very speculative and political question and there are unspoken social norms about how to answer “correctly”. It is essentially an impression management question and politicized impression management is not everyone’s strength. That said this job role does not require a high degree of politicized impression management (in fact such behaviour could be counter-productive, leading people to hide safety problems), rendering the question even more irrelevant. Eliminate it entirely.

Is there any evidence of subconscious biases among committee members? Be specific about the nature of the subconscious bias and what might be done by the hospital to prevent it in the future.

There is one glaring indicator that potential bias may exist because a committee member was extremely judgmental about Marissa’s lack of eye contact, which is common among people with autism. Unfortunately, a lack of eye contact is stereotypically associated with undesirable traits such as a lack of trustworthiness. This negatively impacts people with autism, who often find eye contact overwhelming and distracting. Education about neurodiversity would help. An opportunity to meet and personally interact with professionals with autism would be even better since it is extremely well established that positive contact and familiarity reduce stereotyping.

It is also worth noting that the perceived desirability of direct eye contact is culture specific and primarily applies to low context cultures. In high context cultures, eye contact might be avoided with a downward gaze in the presence of elders, strangers, and someone not familiar with the norms of the high context society (Lebaron, 2003; Loosemore & Muslmani, 1999). In these situations, the lack of eye contact signifies general humility, respect for the elders, a deference for strangers, and a cop out for those who are breaking a norm of the high context culture by either being too direct, or showing confrontational behavior. Behaviors, such as, eye contact are also context specific (Oslander & Bird, 2000). As such the hiring committee may inadvertently create ethnic and cultural biases in addition to ability-related biases if they rely on eye contact as a measure of candidate worthiness.

*Note that Instructors who wish to further broaden the classroom discussion about anti-bias training for interviewers may wish to assign an additional reading: Bohnet, I. (2016) “How To Take the Bias Out Of Interviews”, Harvard Business Review, accessed Sept 5 at

Teaching Note References

ADA National Network (2019) “What is the Definition of Disability Under ADA”, accessed May 2nd from

Canadian Human Rights Commission (2019) “What is the Duty to Accommodate:, accessed April 21st at

LeBaron, M. (2003, July). Culture-Based Negotiation Styles.” Beyond Intractability. G. Burgess

& H. Burgess (Eds.), Conflict Research Consortium. Boulder, CO:  University of Colorado.>

Loosemore, M., & Muslmani, H. A. (1999). Construction project management in the Persian Gulf: inter-cultural communication. International Journal of Project Management, 17(2), 95-100.

Oliver, M. (2013). The social model of disability: Thirty years on. Disability & society28(7), 1024-1026.

Oswal, S. K. (2018). Can Workplaces, Classrooms, and Pedagogies Be Disabling?. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 81(1), 3-19.

Ontario Human Rights Code (2019) “Discrimination Based on Disability and Duty to Accommodate”, accessed April 21, 2018 at

Osland, J. S., & Bird, A. (2000). Beyond sophisticated stereotyping: Cultural sensemaking in context. Academy of Management Perspectives, 14(1), 65-77.

Repa, B. (2019) “Your Right to a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA”, NOLO, accessed May 2nd

Smorang, G. Gisser. (2019) “A Human Rights Overview”, presented at the Mel Myers Labour Conference, March 14, 2019, Winnipeg, Canada.

Recommended Readings

Beardon, L. (2017). Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults, Sheldon Press, London, UK.

Beaver, C. (2011) “Designing Environments for Children and Adults on the Autism Spectrum”, Good Autism Practice, vol 12, no 1, p. 7-11.

Bohnet, I. (2016) “How To Take the Bias Out Of Interviews”, Harvard Business Review, accessed Sept 5 at

Bonnello, Chris. (2018) “50 Important Facts About Mild Autism?” Blog retrieved Dec. 12, 2018 from

Murray, Fergus. (2018) “Me and Monotrophism: A Unified Theory of Autism” The Psychologist, Nov. 30th, retrieved from

Smith et al. (2014). Virtual Reality Job Interview Training in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Author Biography

Katherine Breward is an Associate Professor at the University of Winnipeg. Her research is centered around labour market entry for historically disadvantaged populations, with a particular focus on best practices in disability accommodation. Her research has appeared in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, the Case Research Journal, and Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion: An International Journal. Dr. Breward is also a strong advocate of case-based teaching and an award winning case writer. Cases designed to allow for practice of applied skills and cases designed to increase empathy for “the other” feature strongly in her teaching, particularly in human resource management courses such as “Recruitment and Selection” and “Leadership and Fairness in Complex Organizations”. When not working Dr. Breward enjoys spending time on her 25 acre orchard with her family and a menagerie of pets and reading inclusive science fiction and fantasy.

Recommended Citation: Katherine Breward. (2019). A look at ableist business practices:  Creating fair interviews for neurodiverse candidates. the Western ABC Bulletin, 1.2.

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