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IDEAS

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

As I shared a couple of weeks ago, when my adult daughter was diagnosed with Level 1 autism, I had to face an uncomfortable realization: I had held implicit biases around what an autistic person looks like. I’ve been talking with my daughter about it ever since. 


“Many assume that autistic people present in a certain way,” she said. “People who know me are surprised—like, ‘You're autistic? Really?’ The spectrum is wide and people often think in stereotypes. Autistic people and their needs vary as much as anyone else.” 

If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism (Dr. Stephen Shore)

She told me a saying: “If you meet one autistic person, you've met one autistic person.” 


“You may or may not already have interacted with different autistic people throughout your life,” she reminded me. “You could be meeting autistic people all the time who you just think are quirky or slightly different than you. You could be autistic and not know that about yourself.”

 

I told her I was sorry I had failed to recognize this diagnosis in her needs as a child.


“Even some professional psychologists diagnose autism based on a narrow set of characteristics,” she  continued. “Although the diagnostic criteria is based on deficits from an allistic perspective”—allistic is a term for people who are not autistic—”we have a lot of strengths as well.”


She said that, even though it would have been nice to have gotten diagnosed earlier, she was grateful for her upbringing.

 

“You didn't realize your daughter was autistic, but you recognized, validated, and accommodated my unique needs. You didn't have further knowledge about autism, but you respected me as a whole person, even as a child. Many autistic people realize that they are autistic from being made to feel different and less than, by their peers, their parents, or both. Even though I was diagnosed later on, I'm glad I had a family that loved me just the way I am."

 

She also told me about the “social model of disability,” a term coined by academic and disability rights activist Mike Oliver. She explained that we call autism and ADHD “disabilities” mostly to acknowledge that the world makes those neurological differences “disabling.” 


“In a different context,” she said, “people who have those conditions wouldn't face the same challenges or be considered ‘lesser.’ In a different culture, they might thrive, and a neurotypical person might struggle.” 

 

Maya summed up: “The only reason why I am being diagnosed at the ripe old age of 28, practically 29, is because the world is not as validating and accommodating as my family.” 


Whatever stereotypes I may have picked up over the years, my maternal instinct was right: Maya is unique and perfect. I learn what she needs as an individual, it feels natural to accommodate what makes her special. 


Then it doesn’t even feel like accommodation. It just feels like love. 


In professional spaces, that means less judging—based on how we think the majority behaves—and more accepting and valuing the strengths of each person.

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting
Can you answer "the DEI question"?

The interview is coming to a close, and you’re excited about this candidate. You give them a chance to ask their questions of you. They say:


“I noticed that the people on the leadership page of your website all look pretty similar. And, I don’t see any people of color in your department. I’m curious about what your organization is doing to move DEI forward?”


Does this question take you by surprise? 


Maybe it’s a white male candidate, and you made an assumption that DEI wouldn’t be a priority for them.


Or maybe it’s a woman or a person of color, and the perspectives they have would add vital new decision-making power to your team.


But as a white and/or male manager, maybe you’ve always allowed other people to be the mouthpiece when diversity was the topic.


I bring up this scenario when I lead workshops on interviewing for hiring managers. I urge participants to be prepared with an answer to the question. 


Participants who are in the majority groups at their organizations sometimes push back. “We don’t know all the statistics!” they say.


Or, “Well, our firm really isn’t diverse. I want to make us look good.”


I answer: Learn the statistics.


Be knowledgeable of the efforts that your organization is making. You don’t want to be the person who says, “Hold on, let me get my Black colleague.”


And even if the numbers are not where you want them, share them and be honest.


You could say:


“You're right, you are going to be one of the only women at this level. And here’s what we are going to do to support you, and continue to build a more diverse team around you.”


Recently, a workshop participant—a white male law firm partner—endorsed this approach based on his experience. He told the group: 


“Just yesterday I was doing a follow-up interview with a Black woman. She asked me about the firm’s diversity efforts. So I talked to her about our progress...and our challenges too. She thanked me for being open and honest. In fact, she told me I was the only person at the firms she is considering who has not tried to make it sound like everything is perfect.”


People who have been excluded in their field know what they’re getting into.


They don't want to be tokenized. They want to be part of an organization that is working to transform, and whose leaders can articulate why it matters and why it’s hard. 


The candidate in this story appreciated that an organization was candid about where they were in their journey, rather than trying to sugarcoat it. 


And people of color are in demand among high-level companies. The top candidates have options. They may choose a firm that is already diverse, or they may choose the one that has a commitment and a plan to get there.


But only if the person interviewing them shows comfort and awareness—as opposed to being uncomfortable and clueless. 

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

I was riding down the elevator after leading a workshop last week when a participant asked me a question that surprised me. Not because of the question—it’s a familiar one, worth asking—but because of who was asking it.


She was following up on a case study from the workshop, about a hypothetical client who created a hostile environment for an employee. A member of the client’s team made a homophobic comment, suggesting that a male employee who was gay wouldn’t be “tough enough” for an assignment. 


The participant asked me the questions that we had discussed as a group: when is it okay to say something when a client shows bias or hostility? And what can you say when your employer’s business outcomes may be at stake? 


These are the same fundamentals everyone grapples with in a situation like this. What struck me was that this participant was a young Black woman. 


Speaking up against bias is easier for some than for others.

The ramifications of speaking up are very different for her than for someone else.


Straight white cisgender men, for instance, may find a client annoying, but they're not likely to be worried about sexual or racial harassment themselves. This participant could be the target of any of those things.


And if she says something to point out a problem with a client, her perceptions are more likely to be second-guessed because of biases people frequently have about race and gender.


She knew I would see all that, as a Black woman myself.


As I looked at her, remembering how it feels to carry these extra risks, particularly as a junior employee, the first thing I said was, “I’m impressed that you’re willing to say anything.”


Of course, employers vary. Fortunately, the leadership of the organization where this woman works prioritizes protecting employees, whether they are onsite or with an outside client. They have made clear that the company would go as far as firing a client if an incident were egregious or if they couldn’t resolve a situation. 


But a lot of employers would not. It’s easier (though rarely easy) to call in a peer. It’s harder with a boss, and harder still with a client or customer. The financial stakes are higher. The approach would need to be more delicate.


On top of that, when the person doing the interrupting brings one or more marginalized identities, they have to weigh the cost of extra stress and energy—it takes a toll. 


The elevator ride wasn’t long enough to deeply probe the challenge with this brave participant. But the moment stuck with me.


It’s a reminder that we don’t all bear this burden evenly; some people face bias and harassment situations more than others. 


To be supportive of all employees, make sure you give particular consideration to those with marginalized identities. They are brave enough to speak up in spite of the personal risk.

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