Monday, 6 February 2017

Dyspraxia and the workplace: Some handy personal tips from a HR perspective

Those who have dyspraxia can find the prospect of entering the workplace extremely daunting, especially if you've not been given tailored, appropriate careers advice at secondary school or at university to help give you the initial pointers needed to jumpstart your search. I believe it should be mandatory to give disabled secondary school students at least 3 hours worth of careers advice when they are choosing their GCSEs, again when they are choosing whether to study A Levels at sixth form or go to college or into an apprenticeship and there should be programmes offered by university careers advice services that are delivered to disabled students prior to their graduation. Job Centres do sometimes have Disability advisors that can help motivate and guide disabled jobseekers as they try and find their first position but they may not be allocated one straight away when they sign on and the advice given may not be tailored enough due to lack of familiarity with the disability. This definitely seems to be the case when it comes to dyspraxia. When I met my Job centre advisor for the first time after my graduation in July 2010, I had to explain dyspraxia to him and how it might affect my ability to do certain types of work. Luckily I knew that I wanted to work in an office environment and over the next few months and years of job searching I developed my core IT/administrative skills as well as learning about Accountancy (through AAT) and HR (Level 3 CIPD Certificate in HR Practice) as well as volunteering to put these skills into practice and I did eventually get some paid work in an accounts office after a horrendously stressful period as a call centre agent (even though the accounts position was culled some time later through no fault of my own). However, some dyspraxic people may not know exactly what kind of work they wish to do or may not be familiar with any physical limitations that may exist as a result of their specific condition and may not be given any pointers as to how to get themselves ready for entry into the workplace.

 So I wanted to offer a few of my own tips on job searching, the interview and what to do when you do get the job you want. I also provide some pointers as someone with an interest in HR as to how the HR department should help you whilst you are employed in the organisation.

Job searching:
  • First of all, think about what kind of job you want to end up doing and whether that job should be full time or part time to begin with. If you want to continue studying whilst working at the same time or you feel you need to build up your employment skills and confidence, a part time job would be a good idea. If you've been diagnosed with dyspraxia as an adult or had a recent psychological assessment, then there will be advice given at the back of your report as to what effect your dyspraxia might have on your work and what types of jobs would suit you. For example, I wanted to work in an office, because I knew I had the English language and IT skills needed to fulfill basic administrative duties and because it'd involve no manual/physical graft, other than possibly transporting boxes from one area of the office to another. I thought I'd be suitable for a graduate position, so I applied for loads of them in the first year after graduation but unfortunately I only received one interview, for a copywriter position based in Nottingham and I was unsuccessful with them because they thought I wouldn't cope with the distance from my home in Lincoln to Nottingham (they said it'd take me too long in the morning to walk from the train station to the office). After this, I applied more for entry level admin positions whilst volunteering but it seemed to no avail. Good job I was studying the AAT whilst this was all happening or my self-confidence would have been severely dented. So be prepared to apply for non-graduate as well as graduate positions to try and get a foot in the door.
  • Having a regular plan for your job search is a very good idea. I found that aiming to search for 3 jobs a day during the week and 2 jobs at the weekend kept me in check and having a list of websites, newspapers and local agencies printed or on screen helps focus that search. Knowing where to find suitable jobs wins half the battle at least and it also means that your Job Centre advisor will be pleased that you have a suitable strategy in place.
  • I regularly do a skills/qualifications check for each vacancy I consider applying for. It's vital that you look at the Job Description and/or Personal Specification so you know what types of skills the employer is looking for. If the majority of skills/qualifications match your profile, then you should apply for the job straightaway. If not, consider what you might need to do to improve your chances within your chosen job sectors; if you need to increase your typing speed to go for a secretarial vacancy, why not set yourself some time to do some typing exercises online: https://www.keybr.com/ or http://www.typeonline.co.uk/copypractice.php will help. Alternatively, if you feel your IT skills in general need developing, you can ask your Job Centre advisor or your local college whether you can attend an IT course, such as the ECDL.
  • Make use of any careers advice that is given to you whether that be from your Job Centre advisor, local voluntary organisations or even your friends. Letting your friend check your CV every once in a while can be very enlightening and they can spot mistakes or omissions quite easily! If they think you're not promoting your skills enough in your CV for your chosen sector, it might be one reason why your CV isn't getting through the screening process. Also, if you have issues with organising text when you need to be succinct, it's good to let someone edit it for you to get rid of any unnecessary bumf.
  • Typing up applications always beats handwriting them for me. If you have a scrawly hand or "doctor's hand" you don't want the HR assistant to bin your application just because they cannot decipher key information. Plus most administrative jobs require typing skills as standard, so it's not uncommon to ask for an electronic version to be emailed to you...in fact the employer might deem that as evidence of problem solving skills.
  • Think about turning your hobby into a career opportunity. I didn't take my writing skills very seriously over the past few years, yet after starting this blog and using social media more rigorously over the past year, I have been given a chance to contribute an essay to a book about trans and non-binary experiences (due to be finished next year) and several other people have approached me to write articles on politics that might lead to paid work in the future. Never dismiss anything out of hand!

The Interview:
  • Mock interviews are the way to go. Honestly. I always feel more confident when I know I've thought about the types of questions that might be asked by a manager or HR assistant and with plenty of mock interview questions provided online by agencies and university careers advice services, there is no excuse for not finding out what you could be potentially asked. If you want to work in an office environment, whether as an admin assistant, accounts assistant, HR assistant or civil servant, the questions tend to follow a similar pattern - why do you want to work for this company?/ what kind of software packages have you used in the past?/can you give an example of when you provided exceptional customer service?/how do you deal with authority etc etc. Write down your answers or tape them and refer back to them each time you are preparing for an interview within that specific job sector, amending them where necessary. Get your friend/family member to give you a mock interview a day or so beforehand so you can get their honest feedback.
  • Always make sure you do your research on the company/organisation so that if the manager asks whether you've checked out the company website you can demonstrate clear evidence of this; for example look at the latest company news for developments concerning funding/collaboration with local firms/charity events/financial news.
  • Go into the interview room in a positive, optimistic mood. That means avoiding potentially stressful situations. I remember the night before my first interview I didn't bother choosing my interview clothes or getting the documentation together, which meant in the morning I was rushing around like a headless chicken trying to find my qualifications folder and having to try and buff up my shoes to make them look presentable for an office position. If you have your clothes and documentation organised and you've made sure you know where the interview will be taking place and have researched ways of getting there the night before the interview, all you have to do in the morning is get washed and dressed, have something to eat and drink, practice one or two interview answers and then travel to the interview address. Preferably aim to get there 15 minutes early so that the receptionist has time to notify the manager/HR of your arrival and so that you can get yourself calm and collected and you'll be raring to go!
  • I would only disclose your dyspraxia if you feel that it could have a substantial or long-term impact on your ability to do certain aspects of the job that you've applied to do. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal for an employer to ask you whether you suffer from a disability unless:
    • "there are necessary requirements of the job that can't be met with reasonable adjustments"
    • you've told them you require help during the selection test/interview
    • or if the employer is using "positive action" -e.g. the two tick symbol on job adverts to actively encourage recruiting a disabled person. https://www.gov.uk/employer-preventing-discrimination/recruitment.
  • In administration sector jobs, it may be appropriate to say you have moderate dyspraxia which could affect your ability to lift heavy boxes but then explain how it won't affect your ability to multitask or to type up figures by pointing out the coping strategies you have developed. HR may only have a vague understanding of dyspraxia so it is important to be clear with them about how the dyspraxia affects you. This means being prepared to give them access to educational materials such as those offered by The Dyspraxia Foundation or maybe asking them to get in touch with them to discuss the condition in more depth. If any reasonable adjustments need to be made by the employer to help you perform your job role better- e.g. installing editing software or putting you in a quieter area of the office or making sure you are seated at the same desk every day to reduce disorientation, these can be discussed post-interview should you be successful for the job. It can take some time for the need for reasonable adjustments to arise, especially if it is your first job or you're in a new type of job that is different from a previous one which require new skills and processes to be developed. On the surface at the interview stage you may be deemed to be able to do the job without any adjustments being needed or your dyspraxia hasn't been deemed an issue but that can change once you're doing the job full time. I remember when I was at the call centre that I found being on the phones for 8 hours actually disorientated me and that I performed better when the call centre was quieter, especially at weekends. I also found out I needed very intensive coaching to remember the call procedure, which did tend to annoy my line manager. In the end I had to leave the call centre because the reasonable adjustments weren't being given to me and they wouldn't reduce my hours down to weekend working but at least I know what I'm not particularly good at...I'm sure there are some dyspraxic folks who would be great at call centre work and are already doing well...just not me!
At work:
  • Remember it is entirely up to you who you tell when it comes to your dyspraxia. Your manager or the HR department cannot disclose information without your expressed consent to your peers and they still have to work on reasonable adjustments for you even when you ask them to keep your dyspraxia private.
  • Ask for help whenever you feel you haven't understood instructions given to you by your line manager; sitting in silence for long periods may be taken as an attempt to avoid teamworking. Line managers have a duty of care to make sure work is completed accurately and if you need more help in learning procedure and processes, they should offer it without accusing you of being a slacker. Unfortunately you do get the odd manager who shouts at you even if they know you have dyspraxia because they don't understand it may take a few times to fully digest the instructions.
  • Think about your workwear. I always wore slip on shoes and Velcro fastening shoes rather than tie-up ones to work. This meant I didn't have to fiddle about continually doing them up and I felt secure in the knowledge that I wouldn't trip over unnecessarily. Most employers will be fine with this, especially if they are aware of your dyspraxia and how the shoe type might affect your balance whilst in the workplace.
  • Try and get to know your colleagues during break and lunchtimes. You may have to work separately from them but that doesn't mean you want to avoid being part of a team. This could also mean finding out about social events, charity days or suggesting social events and charity events for the future.

How HR can help dyspraxic employees:
  • In terms of the recruitment process, HR must ensure that dyspraxic applicants feel supported, whether that be offering an electronic copy of an application form, allowing additional time for tests/interviews or making sure questions asked are concise and repeated when necessary. Most of all, it is important that HR understands that the general training they may have had RE Recruitment and Selection may have to be applied flexibly. For example, there could be dyspraxic applicants who answer questions in a very literal, very honest manner which may sound abrupt with an unnecessary amount of detail. This can be a feature of dyspraxic speech, so must be taken with a pinch of salt. Think about whether the candidate has given sufficient detail and ask for clarification from the candidate where necessary.
  • Training line managers up about learning disabilities I feel is a must these days. HR assistants must ensure they are fully informed themselves before creating and delivering the training, so I'd advise them to go on a course or contact disability organisations for information. HR assistants can then use this information and make it accessible by creating a PowerPoint presentation or bullet pointed list and deliver it hopefully before a dyspraxic employee joins the organisation. Information and advice can be found by accessing the Dyspraxia Foundation website: https://dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/about-dyspraxia/ or if you are in Scotland: http://www.dyspraxiascotland.org.uk/ or if you're reading this and you're in the US: http://www.dyspraxiausa.org/.
  • There should also be information sessions on the company's Equality and Diversity policy for all employees on a regular basis regardless of whether there are any employees with a learning disability within the firm.
  • A procedure/process manual is a good idea, especially for new starters. If not, managers must be told to make sure managers must be told to make sure instructions and information provided to dyspraxic employees is concise. Use bullet points, mind maps and mnemonics as possible ways of delivering instructions and provide timetables or send email reminders to help with prioritising of duties. Getting the employee themselves to write down the instructions helps aid short term memory and can act as a reminder.
  • Appointing a mentor/buddy for a dyspraxic employee when they start at the organisation can really help to boost self-confidence. When I was employed at the job centre I did have a mentor who helped me gain a basic understanding of call etiquette and product knowledge and without that I would have barely lasted a fortnight let alone the 3 month probationary period.
  • Operating instructions for all administrative equipment should be displaced next to them; it can be stressful for a dyspraxic person if they've never been shown how to use a fax machine or photocopying machine before and they have no instructions to follow.
  • Putting a clock in view of the desk, encouraging employees to take control over their own schedules helps to develop time management skills.
  • Make sure that managers allow for regular breaks, especially away from the computer will help in an office environment. It's generally advised to have a break every 2 hours, but some dyspraxic people, like myself, can forget this advice and therefore do not have a break until lunchtime, resulting in headaches or disorientation. HR assistants or line managers should monitor the break pattern to make sure they are being taken.
  • Managers must point out to dyspraxic employees the templates that are available for administrative purposes so that they are fully aware of company policy. I remember that in the call centre there were templates but we were not shown how to use them so I ended up making my own, only to be told not to use mine but the company ones. Any packages that can help with the report editing process should be considered- HR should research these packages for cost-effectiveness and whether they would help improve report accuracy.
  • Flexible working hours should be considered by HR, especially if the employee is being easily distracted or finds it difficult to concentrate on work where there is a lot of noise. This could include coming in earlier or finishing later or working from home (teleworking). Putting the employee in their own room, partitioning the desk or even allowing them the opportunity to use earphones can also help.
  • HR and line managers must make sure they motivate a dyspraxic employee by being positive and encouraging the employee to approach each task in a calm manner. Talk about time restrictions but don't berate them when they don't reach their target first time round. Instead, work on strategies to help them achieve their target next time. Coaching works by building up self-confidence. Constructive criticism is fine but solutions must always be offered, even if that means repeating instructions more than twice to make sure the employee understands them fully.
  • HR must be prepared to resolve issues that may arise in the workplace as a result of bullying, harassment or mismanagement. The organisation should not tolerate any name-calling, emotional or physical abuse or any attempt to alienate a dyspraxic employee. If a dyspraxic employee is being bullied by a manager, it would be best for HR to try and assign a new manager to them whilst the case is being investigated. If a dyspraxic employee feels they are being discriminated against when it comes to being turned down for promotional opportunities, HR assistants must be prepared to listen to the employee.