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Category: Recruitment

The managers guide to understanding ADHD

(and why it’s often misunderstood for CIS women in particular)

Let’s talk about ADHD

We’ve all seen characters with ADHD on TV and in books etc, try and think of a few examples and I bet they all fit in one stereotypical box; “the naughty young white boy acting out in class”. But not only is this stereotype wrong, it’s actually really harmful!

Calvin and Hobbs
Calvin and Hobbs (Calvin is a ‘typical’ boy with ADHD

Historically ADHD was seen as only (or as least predominantly) affecting boys (often white boys, but that’s a whole other subject I’m not qualified to talk about), but evidence shows that many girls do have ADHD, however it is often the inattentive presentation of ADHD which tends to be under-recognised or under-diagnosed, because it doesn’t fit the stereotypical (hyperactive) trope and kids with it aren’t causing problems in the classroom etc; instead they’re just being labelled as ‘day dreamers’ and are left to slowly fall behind or put under pressure to sort themselves out with no support.

Ironically, whilst the Hyperactive/impulsive symptoms are more well-known, due to being more visible, they are in-fact less common than inattentive ones, both for women and adults in general. These symptoms often become more “internal” when they persist; as adults learn to manage their hyperactivity; which historically led medical practitioners to believe that ADHD symptoms decreased after childhood, which is now known to be incorrect. Currently 2.8% of adults in the UK have ADHD, but many are undiagnosed and the number of adult diagnosis’s is increasing every year; it is believed that as many as 1 in 20 adults in the UK are likely to have ADHD.   

So, what is ADHD?

ADHD as a developmental disorder that affects the brain’s executive functions. Executive functions are the cognitive processes that organises thoughts and activities, prioritises tasks, manages time efficiently, and makes decisions. They’re basically the little office manager that lives in our heads.

Research suggests that many people with ADHD tend to be perfectionists who fear getting things wrong; they struggle to cope with failure or letting others down. Most people with ADHD are seen to be extremely empathetic to others’ emotions and suffer from Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (an extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by a sense of falling short—failing to meet their own high standards or others’ expectations; being rejected or criticized by important people in their life.)

Many people with ADHD struggle with procrastination issues; at one time this was seen as people with ADHD being ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’ however, research has shown that due to issues with executive functioning, people with ADHD struggle with ‘knowing where to begin’. When the size or scale of the work needed to complete things is ‘too big’, or ‘there is too much to do’ they are unable to start for fear they won’t be able to finish and will only fail or disappoint. 

This often leads to people with ADHD leaving everything to the end when a deadline looms or the amount of work becomes overwhelming, and the work cannot be delayed any longer. From the outside it can be viewing as everything being ‘rushed’ at the end rather than logically planned and spaced out to give enough time. 

However, this ‘scramble’ to complete work before a deadline, will produce a larger dopamine release as the brain views it as a bigger win vs. a scheduled timely plan, which will produce less dopamine, and therefor offer less ‘reward’. Studies suggest that ADHD brains have lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (a chemical released by nerve cells into the brain that allows us to regulate emotional responses and take action to achieve specific rewards. It’s responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward.)

Due to this inability to regulate dopamine properly, ADHD brains are constantly seeking more; leaving people with ADHD with the constant desire to move from task to task, focusing on ‘the most interesting’ or ‘most urgent’ work which will offer the greatest feeling of reward; and struggling to start or complete ‘boring’ or ‘mundane’ tasks that aren’t interesting and don’t offer the ‘dopamine hit’. 

Many people with ADHD also have Sensory Processing Disorder, which means they could be ‘over-stimulated’ by sounds, sights or smells, with unexpected noises or changes in light levels etc. causing sensory overload and breaking their concentration or making it harder to focus.

How to best support employees with ADHD

Because ADHD is so misunderstood, many employers worry about disclosing their ADHD status; and many employers struggle to understand how to best support their staff. Studies suggest that adults with ADHD are change jobs frequently and are more likely to be fired, to miss work, and to have troubled relationships with co-workers; but employees with ADHD can thrive in the right environments and with the right support. There are many useful places out there offering advice on how to best tailor workplace environments so as to take the best advantage of people with ADHD’s strong points (such as their creativity or people skills), whilst also minimising any negative impacts of their ADHD; and I’ve captured many of the commonly agreed useful strategies below.

But as an employee or manager, there here are a couple of important things to note:

  • Many people (between 25-50%) with ADHD also suffer from sleep issues; and many ADHD medications can make these issues worse.
  • While ADHD medication can be beneficial in helping combat the symptoms of ADHD, medical titration can be a long process which can cause some symptoms to get worse before they get better and have many side effects.

The Scottish ADHD coalition wrote this guide for employers which offers helpful advice and guidance.

Some helpful strategies people with ADHD use: 

  • Having clear priorities, reviewed daily; with no more that 5 items on to complete at any one time. 
  • Making colour-coded lists and notes, to make it easy to find information easily. 
  • Breaking tasks down into smaller chunks that can be tackled independently rather than all at once. ADHD brains tend to work best in 15 minute intervals; many people with ADHD find setting a timer for 10 to 15 minutes to focus on one task; then when the timer chimes, deciding if they have the energy to continue on that task or, if completed, start a new timer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. If they still feel motivated, resetting the timer and continue working in short intervals for as long as they can.
  • Avoiding multi-tasking. This is more likely to lead to distraction; only work on one thing at any time (working in 15 min chunks where possible). 
  • Setting time-limits for decision making. 
  • Setting a ‘WIP limit’ to avoid over-committing to work, For each new commitment made, giving up an old one.
  • Associating ‘rewards’ with mundane task completion, “if I complete X then I can spend 5 minutes doing Y before I move onto Z”
  • Clustering similar tasks together under the same time umbrella, i.e. Answering emails and returning phone calls once in the morning and once in the afternoon, instead of throughout the day, to avoid getting side tracked from priority work; 
  • Replaying instructions, repeating back verbal instructions, or confirming in writing to ensure they have been understood correctly. 
  • Setting electronic alarms and reminders, to remind them to move onto the next task or meeting. 
  • Setting aside time each day to deal with ‘additional thoughts and ideas that have popped up’ to avoid getting side tracked when completing tasks. 
  • Using noise-cancelling headphones or listening to music when focusing on a task. Research shows that music structure helps the ADHD brain stay on a linear path and address timing deficits.
  • Overestimating how long it will take to complete something, adding at least 10 minutes to how long it will take to finish a task.
  • Building in a 5 minute break between tasks to allow the brain time to reset before focusing on the next thing. 
  • Using a “body double.” Many people with ADHD find when tackling mundane or boring tasks, sitting with someone else who is quietly doing another ‘mundane’ task creates a productive atmosphere.

So, to sum up; Not all folks with ADHD are hyperactive boys. If you have a member of staff who has (or you suspect has) ADHD; great! Research shows employees with ADHD can be more curious, creative, imaginative, innovative, and inventive. They tend to be out-of-the-box thinkers, with an approach that can be highly prized in the workplace.

Any potential weaknesses can be overcome with just a little bit of effort and some open, honest conversations; talk to them, focus on their strengths (there are lots of them) and what they do well; and put some plans in place to help them succeed and you’ll all be happy!

5 positive traits of ADHD.

Making User Centred Design more inclusive

How do we support people from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds to get a career in User Centred Design?

If you look around for ways to get a careers in Digital/Tech, you would probably trip over half a dozen Apprenticeships, Academies or Earn as you Learn Schemes; not to mention Graduate Schemes; without even trying. However, all those opportunities would probably be within Software Engineering.

If you want to move into a career in Research, Product or Design; opportunities to do that without a Degree, or years of experience, are sparse.

Paper Prototypes/ Wireframes

When trying to find Design Apprenticeship or Entry Level schemes ahead of a talk I was giving to some sixth formers last month; I really struggled to find any opportunities that didn’t requite a Degree. In 2019 Kainos ran it’s first Design Academy, but for placements and Entry Level roles there was still the expectation you’d have a degree in Design; and its Earn as You Learn programme is for people looking for a career as a developer. Hippo are about to run their first Academy for Digital Change Consultants; which will then facilitate graduates moving into Product or Design careers etc, but it’s only for those with existing work experience looking to change careers; not young adults looking for their first career. FutureGov have previously run Design Academies but again these have been focused at Graduates. MadeTech’s Academy accepts people without a Degree, but is only for those interested in Software Engineering. Even the Civil Service Apprenticeships Scheme is focused on Software Engineering roles; with no opportunities within Product or Design. The National Apprenticeship Service does have a section for Design apprenticeships; but all the roles are focused on Content Marketing etc. rather than User Centric Design; and within the Digital Section, all the opportunities are for Technical Apprenticeships. Google have many Apprenticeship options, but their UX Design one only runs in the US.

After hours of searching I did find several opportunities; the first I found was with Amazon; who are now running their own User Experience Design and Research Apprenticeship, sadly however the criteria for candidates specifies that they must be working towards their Bachelors degree, or be an existing Amazon employee. The Second was a previous apprentice discussing their UX Apprenticeship with Barclays Bank, however when I searched for the Apprenticeship with Barclays itself, I could only find Technical ones, and none for Design, so if it does still exist, it’s not easy to find! While I could find plenty of Design Internships; they were all like the Amazon one; designed for students currently studying for the Bachelors degree.

I finally, FINALLY, found one actual opportunity I could share with the students I was speaking to, so well Done AstraZeneca, who seem to have the only real Research and Design Apprenticeship Programme available in the UK. But that was the only opportunity I found at the time of looking.

(EDITED TO ADD: The NHS Business Service Authority have just recruited their very first UCD Apprentices; all being well this programme will continue!)

group of fresh graduates students throwing their academic hat in the air

So, if you’re a budding 17 year old passionate about User Centred Design (UCD), is graduating from University your only real option? And if so, how many of our potential rising star researchers and designers are we losing because they can’t afford to attend University (or don’t want to)? Why are we (unintentionally or not) making Design so elitist?

There is a lot of data to suggest that Design as a career is predominantly white; there are many articles about the intrinsic racism within Graphic Design (as an example), and how racism has manifested itself in UX Design throughout the years. Given most Design roles insist on candidates having a Bachelors Degree or equivalent, the fact is that 72.6% of people starting undergraduate study in the 2019 to 2020 academic year were White. This, by default, suggests that most graduates will be white; and therefor White people will be the most likely to be able to apply for Entry Level roles in Design.

However, we also know that as a group, white students are the least likely to progress to University, and this is in part due to the wide gap in university participation between students who were on Free School Meals and those that weren’t, which is currently at 19.1% and growing. So, not only are most graduates going to be white, they’re also more likely to be from middle/high class backgrounds. Which could help explain (at least in part) why as a career, Design has struggled to diversify.

Given the massive demand for Designers within the Public Sector (and elsewhere) surely we need to once and for all sit down and crack the topic of Design Apprenticeships and Entry Level roles that don’t require a degree? Surely there’s a way we can give helping hand to those people out there who are interested in user centred design and desperately looking for their way in; but can’t or won’t attend university?

The only way we can make UCD as a career actually representative of the communities we’re meant to be designing for is if we can stop prioritising a Degree over passion and skill. So let’s aim to be more inclusive when we’re thinking about how we recruit the Design Leaders of tomorrow.

After all, inclusive design is the whole central principle of User Centred Design!

person in red sweater holding babys hand

We need to talk about salary

A massive pet peeve of mine is when I see roles that don’t advertise their salary clearly; and I’m aware they are plenty of others out there who share my annoyance. So why aren’t we as employers better about being open about pay?

I think ‘growing up’ in the civil service spoiled me when it comes to salaries, I always knew what grade a job was and what pay-scale that grade came with. When looking for new roles I could easily find out whether the pay-scale in a different department was higher or lower than my current home department, and there was never a need to have any awkward salary conversations as it was all out in the open.

While their were still some awkward gender pay disparity in parts of the civil service, for the most part it didn’t seem like much of an issue (*to me) as everyone working within the same role was generally on the same pay scale, and the slight differences in pay was usually about their length of time in role etc.

Interestingly when I became a Deputy Director and was involved more in recruitment and job offers I saw how complex the issue of salaries could be. While it was relatively easy to benchmark salaries against other departments; and competing with the private sector was never really going to happen; one thing I did spot was the difference in how we treated external vs. internal hires.

While internal promotions went automatically to the bottom of the pay band, external hires could negotiate higher salaries, this was based on the historic view that the private sector paid more so we had to be willing to offer them more money to join the civil service. This obviously did not give parity to people and suggested we prioritised external experience over internal experience. Given that government was forging the path of user centric design and product management; and being recognised around the world as the expert in digital innovation (at least in terms of service design and UCD etc.); it felt ridiculous to me that we weren’t being seen to value that internal expertise when it came to salary.

Thankfully I was able to get HR to agree to trial equal pay flexibility to internal and external hires; so that I could negotiate pay equally with all candidates no much what industry they came from, and base pay decisions solely on their experience and performance during recruitment. This seemed to work really well; our staff satisfaction went up when it came to the staff survey questions about pay and remuneration (almost unheard of) and it decreased the trend of civil servants constantly leaving for the private sector.

I did however notice quickly that male presenting candidates were far more comfortable negotiating than female presenting ones. To combat this when I prepared to offer anyone a role I had a small table that I’d prepared and agreed with HR that showed the candidates score and where that put them in terms of the salary scale we had for the role. This meant if the candidate wasn’t comfortable talking about salary, I could pitch them at the level I thought fair to ensure we were still giving parity to all hires.

Moving to the ‘private’ sector I now try to keep an eye one competitors salaries etc. to ensure I’m still offering a fair salary when hiring; but it’s actually really hard. It’s nigh on impossible to see salaries for other organisations without spending a lot of time doing detective work. Glassdoor and linkedIn both try to show average salaries for job roles via role titles; but there’s so much variety in job roles/ titles and responsibilities that it’s almost impossible to ensure parity.

Lots of companies don’t publicise the salary on their job adverts, and instead want candidates to apply and then discuss salary expectations as part of the early recruitment process. There’s lots of conversations out there on /AskAManager, LinkedIn etc. with people asking for advice on how and when they should bring up salary in the recruitment process. We shouldn’t be making it this hard for people to get a fair wage. There was a thread on twitter last week that highlighted how hard many women find it to know what salary they should be asking for when negotiating pay. This cloud of secrecy is shown to make wage parity/ discrimination higher. Women of colour in particular are shown to be hardest hit by the pay gap.

Theres plenty of studies out there that show that by not talking about salaries openly we are widening the pay gap, and it’s not just hurting our drive for equality, it’s hitting productivity too. Elena Belogolovsky stated in a study for Journal of Business and Psychology: “If I don’t know my co-worker’s pay, I assume that I might not be getting paid as much, and I decrease my performance. When people don’t know each other’s pay, they assume they are underpaid.”

So as an employer what can we do to improve pay transparency and parity?

  • Publicise the salary on all your job adverts. Ideally publicise a pay band to show the scale available to all candidates. Hell if you want a gold star, publicise your pay scales on your company website, whether you’re hiring or not; and publicise it again on all your job adverts.
  • When you’re offering a candidate a role, don’t wait for the candidate to bring up salary, and don’t only negotiate if the candidate asks to; proactively discuss with them what salary you believe is fair and why.
  • If you’re hiring multiple roles, keep track of what salary you have offered to each candidate and ensure all offers are fair and in line with people’s experience. I have previously gone back to a candidate who had accepted a role to offer them a slightly higher salary once I completed a recruitment campaign when I reviewed all the offers and felt based on experience they deserved more than initially agreed. The candidate was astonished as she’d never had anyone feedback to her before that she was worth more than the minimum.

We all need to do better to ensure pay parity. We need to be open about pay and be willing to talk about salaries and what ‘good’ and ‘equal’ looks like.

Do Civil Servants dream of woolly sheep?

The frustration of job descriptions and their lack of clarity.

One of the biggest and most regularly occurring complaints about the Civil Service (and public sector as a whole) is their miss-management of commercial contracts.

There are regularly headlines in the papers accusing Government Departments & the Civil Servants working in them of wasting public money, and there has been a drive over the last few years especially to improve commercial experience especially within the Senior Civil Service.

When a few years ago my mentor at the time suggested leaving the public sector for a short while to gain some more commercial experience before going for any Director level roles, this seemed like a very smart idea. I would obviously need to provide evidence of my commercial experience to get any further promotions, and surely managing a couple of 500K, 1M contracts would not be enough, right?

Recently I’ve been working with my new mentor, focusing specially on gaining more commercial knowledge etc. and last month he set me an exercise to look at some Director and above roles within the Digital and Transformation arena to see what level of commercial experience they were asking for, so that I can measure my current levels of experience against what is being asked for.

You can therefor imagine my surprise when this month we got together to compare 4 senior level roles (2 at Director level and 2 Director General) and found that the amount of commercial experience requested in the job descriptions was decidedly woolly.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised, the Civil Service is famous for its woolly language, policy and strategy documents are rarely written in simple English after all.

But rather than job specifications with specific language asking for “experience of managing multiple multi million pound contracts successfully etc”. What is instead called for (if mentioned specially at all) is “commercial acumen” or “a commercial mindset” but no real definition of what level of acumen or experience is needed.

The Digital Infrastructure Director role at DCMS does mention commercial knowledge as part of the person specification, which it defines as “a commercial mindset, with experience in complex programmes and market facing delivery.

And this one from MoD, for an Executive Director Service Delivery and Operations, calls for “Excellent commercial acumen with the ability to navigate complex governance arrangements in a highly scrutinised and regulated environment”

Finally we have the recently published Government CDO role, which clearly mentions commercial responsibilities in the role description, but doesn’t actually demand any commercial experience in the person specification.

At which point, my question is, what level of Commercial acumen or experience do you actually want? What is a commercial mindset and how do you know if you have it? Why are we being so woolly at defining what is a fundamentally critical part of these roles?

How much is enough?

Recent DoS framework opportunities we have bid for or considered at Difrent have required suppliers to have have experience of things like “a minimum of 2 two million pound plus level contracts” (as an example) to be able to bid for them.

That’s helpful, as Delivery Director I know exactly how many multimillion pound contracts we’ve delivered successfully and can immediately decide whether as a company it’s worth us putting time or effort into the bid submissions. But as a person, I don’t have the same level of information needed to make a similar decision on a personal level.

The flip side of the argument is that data suggests that women especially won’t apply for roles that are “too specific” or have a long shopping list of demands, because women feel like they need to meet 75% of the person specification to apply. I agree with that wholeheartedly, but there’s a big difference between being far too specific and listing 12+ essential criteria for a role, and being soo unspecific you’ve become decidedly generic.

Especially when, as multiple studies have shown, in the public digital sector Job titles are often meaningless. Very rarely in the public sector does a job actually do what it says on the tin. What a Service Manager is in one Department can be very different in another one.

If I’m applying for an Infrastructure role I would expect the person specification to ask for Infrastructure experience. If I’m applying for a comms role, I expect to be asked for some level of comms experience; and I would expect some hint as too how much experience is enough.

So why when we are looking at Senior/ Director level roles in the Civil Service are we not helping candidates understand what level of commercial experience is ‘enough’? The private sector job adverts for similar level roles tend to be much more specific in terms of the amount of contract level experience/ knowledge needed, so why is the public sector being so woolly in our language?

Woolly enough for you?

*If you don’t get the blog title, I’m sorry, it is very geeky. and a terrible Philip K. Dick reference. But it amused me.

We’re all a little weird down here

Yesterday Dominic Cummings, the PM’s senior aid, wrote in his blog about the need for number 10 to hire assorted super talented weirdos, unusual software developers, fantastic communicators and great project mangers (amongst other things).

This clarion call for change in the public sector followed up from his previous statements about the need for change in the civil service. Whether you agree with his politics or not, or even agree 100% with his message about the civil service; many of his points do ring true; and the need for a radical reform in the culture, methods and leadership of the civil service has been the focus behind #OneTeamGov for years now.

A sign reading ‘Change’

Having worked in the public sector for 15 years I can recognise that Mr Cummings is right when he says that the civil service is full of “people that care, they try hard” and that, at least in the start of my career it very much felt like “The people who are promoted tend to be the people who protect the system and don’t rock the boat.”

However, I don’t think that is 100% true anymore, certainly not in some areas. The growth of Digital within government departments has certainly led to more of the ‘weirdos’ Mr Cummings mentions finding homes (at least temporarily) within Digital, and more of the radical thinkers and champions for change getting promoted and having successful careers.

However, in the last 18 months, many of my peers have, like myself, left the civil service and moved agency side into the private sector; so why is that? Is it because, as Mr Cummings states The Public sector “ruthlessly weeds out people who are dissenters, who are maverick and who have a different point of view.”

There certainly seems to be a ‘ceiling’, at which point all the change agitators and ‘new wave’ of civil service leaders leave. These people tend to reach Deputy Director and then, as I did, decided that it’s time to look outside the civil service for their next role.

However when you look around, none of us have gone very far, few have been lost to the likes of Apple; Vodaphone or HSBC. Instead we’ve all moved to the likes of Difrent, FutureGov or ThoughtWorks. For me this shows that these people still care passionately about the public sector and what it is trying to deliver, but that the red tape and restraints that bound us in the civil service were becoming too much.

For myself, Difrent gives me the chance to work somewhere that still allows me to make a valuable different, to work on the problems that effect society and to deliver change at scale and pace (which was hard to do within the public sector). Everyone I’ve spoken to, who has made similar moves, says similar; but we all agree we would return to the Civil Service, and indeed many like myself are planning to, but for now they needed a change and a change to truly deliver.

A neon sign reading ‘this must be the place’

I personally don’t think this is a bad thing, gaining experience outside of the civil service can help us all grow, open us up to new ideas and ways of working, help us to become better leaders. However, the number of people who have made this move this year is interesting; especially on the back of the #OneTeamGov conversations.

While Mr Cummings states that “People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’.” Personally, I believe that it is different life experiences that bring different perspectives; however I do whole heartedly agree with Mr Cummings when he calls for “genuine cognitive diversity” within the public sector.

I think this is especially needed within the Senior Civil Service. As Kit Collingwood wrote a few years ago regarding the need for Civil Servants to become experts on empathy “we must be able to understand and accurately predict how policy will affect people’s behaviour. We must be able to understand other humans’ motivation to change, to walk in their shoes.”

Making decisions on homelessness and poverty is very hard when no one in the team or the leadership has ever had to make their limited food supply feed a family for over a week. We also need to be able to understand the links between poverty, health and crime. There are so many different factors at play when trying to write a policy on reducing knife prevention, that if you have a policy team who all look and sound alike, you will never be able to understand or deliver the changes society needs.

A group of white men sat round talking

The Civil Service has recognised for years that it has struggled with recruiting a diverse workforce, and looking at how it recruits and the messages it is putting out there, as well as the culture that potentially puts candidates with some back grounds off is definitely key. Even within Digital, recruitment could still feel siloed and closed off to some people. I’ve blogged before about problems with role names and job descriptions putting off people who could very likely do the job just because they didn’t 100% match with the job description or found the process to apply off putting. The problem is we often make assumptions about the kind of people we are looking to hire that put off people we may never have considered.

Mr Cummings states that “I don’t really know what I’m looking for but I want people around No10 to be on the lookout for such people.” For me this open approach (wether you agree with the actual method or not) seems like a good way to try and reach the ‘cognitive diversity’ we need within the Public Sector to deliver the radical change we need.

I believe a lot of the people Mr Cummings is looking for are around; either already within the public sector, working alongside it, or trying to get inside but struggling to find their way in.

I think we do need to think outside the box when it comes to recruitment, however it’s not just about recruiting the right people. We need to change the culture within the Public Sector to take on the lessons we have learned within Digital about User Centric design and the positive impact of multidisciplinary teams and reflect on how we can bring ‘cognitive diversity’ into the whole of the public sector. It requires a culture that invests in those people, their development and that allows them to successfully deliver. To change the system, you have to build a culture that enables the system to change.