Autism At Work Meeting The Recruitment Challenge

Autism at Work: Meeting the Recruitment Challenge

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World Autism Week Poster

Autism at Work: Meeting the Recruitment Challenge

​As recruiters, we’re committed to building inclusion. We’re always challenging ourselves to do it better. So, in World Autism Week, we’re sharing this story - told from three perspectives: our consultant; our client; our candidate. 

Judge for yourself if it resonates. 


October 2019: AJ Bell in Manchester were looking for a financial crime specialist. The firm is well known for its proactive diversity and inclusion policies, specifically around neurodiversity. Shaun Littler, a then rookie recruiter at Broadgate Search, supported Steven Thornley, an experienced financial crime analyst who is autistic, to apply for the role.

The recruitment consultant: Shaun Littler, compliance & financial crime headhunter at Broadgate Search:

“I knew Steven via our network. He had the right experience and an excellent track record in his previous job where he had been made redundant. We had already failed once with a role where he had been shortlisted because he had not been able to handle the interview process. So, this was six months later, I was only a few months into my new job and my manager suggested I call him in for a chat. I avoided using the word ‘interview’ because I knew this was a trigger for anxiety. He came in for a chat – at our office – a meeting which was itself at the time an ordeal for Steven. We went through everything around his autism and his suitability for the role. I sent over his CV as part of our shortlist with a write up next to his personal circumstances which explained his autism in full. His first ‘chat’ with the client was a telephone interview. He aced it. He came across so well and they loved him. The second ‘chat’ was a face-to-face interview plus reasoning tests at the firm’s offices. Steven said that he could not do it. I called him in for a coffee to build his confidence and to encourage him. I wanted to find out how we could help. It’s a fine line between being too pushy and causing panic and not doing enough and feeling regret that you could have done more. Anyway, at the end of the chat he said – he’d give it a try. 

“At 5am on the morning of the interview he sent me an email saying he couldn’t go through with it. I wasn’t altogether surprised. I read the email on the way into work, and I rang him straight away. I suggested that we meet for a coffee at a café just outside the building. If he didn’t want to continue after the coffee, then fine. Baby steps I called it. He agreed and we met up well over an hour before the interview and chatted. I rang Paula in HR and explained the situation. He and I went into reception together. Paula came down and reassured him. We had a chat about the next stage. I kept my voice and words calm and encouraging. The moment for the interview came and I could see him starting to take deep breaths, trying to control his anxiety. He managed the tests and then panicked. I was waiting in an office nearby on the same floor. We had another coffee in the café on the top floor of the building overlooking Old Trafford football ground. We talked about football, about his partner, and about music – he’s a keen guitarist. But he just couldn’t do the face-to-face interview. AJ Bell were really good. They agreed to a zoom interview instead. In the end, he didn’t get the job – not because of his autism but because another candidate had more suitable experience. 

“My manager supported me throughout. I wanted to do the right thing by Steven and by our client.  It’s important that candidates feel confident enough to tell us about their autism because if we don’t know we can’t help them to represent their skills in the best light and make sure the client is fully informed. I stay in touch with Steven although I’m not on the same desk now and am delighted that he is in work.” 


“Steven applied for a financial crime analyst role at AJ Bell; shortly after his submission, Shaun from Broadgate Search explained that he’s Steven’s agent and made us aware of Steven’s autism. We also discussed our recruitment process and adjustments we could make to ensure Steven had a good experience if he was asked to interview.

“Steven was requested for interview and at this stage the managers were made aware he was autistic. After an initial telephone interview with the manager, he was invited to a face-to-face interview at our office. Prior to the face-to-face interview, the recruiting manager and I worked through the interview questions to ensure that these were worded in a way that couldn’t be taken too literally and were clear in what was being asked. Shaun then discussed the suggested process with Steven and relayed any adjustments so that we could make Steven comfortable and prepared. We agreed that Shaun could accompany him to the interview and be in the building whilst the interview took place.

“On the morning of the interview Steven called Shaun and told him he had changed his mind and no longer wanted to attend. Shaun agreed to meet Steven for a coffee in the Café outside AJ Bell, and was a very calming influence on Steven, gently persuading him to come to the office, taking one step at a time.

“Steven and Shaun arrived an hour before the interview was due to take place to view the office, the room where the interview would take place and let Steven get a feel for his surroundings. Steven undertook some online tests as first part of the interview and then went with Shaun to take a break before the face-to-face portion. During this time Steven decided he no longer wanted to go ahead with the interview due to overwhelming anxiety.

“Shaun and I took time to reassure Steven and discuss alternative ways of progressing. We explained that however he wished to progress was fine; it was important that he feels comfortable, understood that it was his decision to make, and he needn’t be concerned about stepping out of the process. Steven proposed an interview via video which was arranged for a little later in the day, but he also asked to meet the manager to say hello whilst he was in the office, so that he had face-to-face contact with them.

“Steven completed the full interview process and Shaun did an excellent job in representing his candidate, getting to know his specific needs and supporting him through the full process. Unfortunately, Steven wasn’t offered the position, another candidate who was slightly more qualified did, but he gave a very strong interview.”


“I had worked for my previous employer for 11 years, in a role I enjoyed, a role I performed well in and I had a great routine. For someone with Autism, routine really is key. I was working in a team with a busy workload as part of the Leadership Team with clear objectives and a regular routine, which was just what I needed.

“I was diagnosed with Autism in November 2017; it was a bit of a shock as I was 34 years old, but it also made sense of why I feel and behave the way I do and why the smallest things can sometimes lead to me becoming overwhelmed.

“In 2018, the line manager I had worked for was out of the office due to sickness, there were announcements around potential redundancies and changes to the team, with new managers moving in and unfortunately, I was made redundant in Sept 2019.

“Sadly, during that final year with my employer, I was subjected to bullying by my peers and managers, I was isolated, left out of meetings and not included in social events or small things like team lunches and breakfasts.

“I struggled with the bullying and the new leadership team swiftly removed the small adjustments I had in place to support me previously, just little things like the flexibility to work in a quiet room if I needed to, the flexibility with my working pattern. I was also undertaking a professional qualification and the time allowance I was supposed to receive to enable me to complete assignments was also removed, leaving me overwhelmed with my workload. 

“Despite asking for support, I was constantly met with challenges which made me feel worse and my condition began to spiral.

“When I was told I was going to be made redundant I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to leave the company and join a new workplace with new opportunities.

 “I was interested in working for AJ Bell as I was aware that AJ Bell champions disability and, as a friend of an AJ Bell employee, I had been told the disability support was excellent. I have plenty of experience and a solid CV, which showcases my skills. I applied for a role with AJ Bell and was invited to attend an interview.

“Interviews are naturally anxiety inducing affairs, and I had had no interview experience for more than 6 years. I’d already cancelled one interview that Broadgate Search had lined up for me due to anxiety and I was struggling with this one. The interview involved going into the office to complete an assessment, I was given a tour of the office and Shaun from Broadgate met me there on the day to help with my anxiety levels.

“I completed the assessment and the office tour; however common traits of autism are difficulty with eye contact and being a reflective thinker. The thought of two people sat opposite asking me questions on the spot was far too much at that time. The inability to maintain a socially acceptable or anticipated level of eye contact and the need to be able to think on the spot overpowered me, leading to a panic attack.

“I was overwhelmed and needed to do this a different way where my eye contact was not going to be an issue and in a safer environment where I felt I had more time to think without feeling pressured to answer on the spot. For someone with Autism the anxiety becomes so overwhelming it leads to a meltdown and when the anxiety starts, the ticking of a clock becomes the loudest thing in the room, the rustling of papers, the light in the room, the temperature of the room can take over all thoughts and cause a complete brain freeze. Luckily, I didn’t get to full meltdown stage I just needed a safer environment for me to be able to calm down and reset a little.

“AJ Bell agreed to complete the interview over the phone by video so I could be at home in a more neutral environment for me and feel more comfortable., which was great as it removed the eye contact, the worry about what people are thinking and the distractions of other things going on in the room. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in the interview, I was in a bad place at that time after everything that had happened in my previous job.

“The things with face-to-face interviews for people with Autism, is that when we are in the flow talking about something we know about and are familiar with, with people we are familiar with, we are confident and able to chat away. However, we are not always able to think on the spot when presented with a question, and, in an interview, you need to be able to confidently deliver a response to a question. Hesitation or loss of train of thought looks like you’re not confident, you don’t know what you’re taking about, and you wouldn’t be able to do the job. Not looking at the interviewer comes across as if you’re not interested; it’s deemed to be disrespectful, and again doesn’t look good in an interview, but we can’t help it.

“We feel pressured for answers but the thoughts and fantastic examples of all the amazing things we have done in previous roles disappear - all we want to do is take the question away and be given the time to come up with an answer. Or maybe be given a piece of paper with the question written down and the time alone to answer the question in writing. We get very conscious of the fact that people are waiting for us to answer the question and this takes over our thoughts - rather than thinking about what has been asked we are getting more and more anxious about keeping people waiting.

“I’m sure it’s the same for neurotypicals, (people who do not have Autism or other neurodiverse conditions) however the level of anxiety it causes and the level of catastrophising our brains go through is so overwhelming that it can stop us functioning in a normal way until we are back in a safer environment. And if this leads to a full meltdown I can't speak, I can hardly breathe, I just have to get away from the situation and get home to my safe space.

“The spectrum is very wide, and my needs will vary from other people’s and I can only really speak about how interviews affect me, but from spending time with other people with autism, attending seminars and carrying out research, one thing I do know is that only 16% of adults with Autism are in full time employment and having been through recruitment and interview processes I can see how people with phenomenal skills and capabilities are overlooked because they just can't perform in a standard interview for a role they would be perfectly suited to.

“I mean, can you imagine not selecting the best person for the role because they have a physical impairment? Because they were in a wheelchair and couldn’t get up the stairs? Of course not, you would move the interview to a room that they can access and that’s what we need too - accessibility.

“I was so surprised when applying for roles just how rigid the application processes are and not at all built to support people with disabilities. I have been asked by lots of companies if I need any adjustments which is great but actually putting the adjustments in place very rarely happens, perhaps because the recruiters don’t understand the challenges.

“In my search for a job, there is one person who has been brilliant, and I can’t commend Shaun from the Broadgate team enough. It’s a real struggle to find work for anyone especially in today's climate, but you really feel valued by Broadgate and they go out of their way to support you.  

“Finding a role has been extremely challenging for me. I don’t want my condition to stop me from being able to work and thrive and I have kept on applying for roles, even though it took a long time and lot of courage and resilience. I have found that the lockdown restrictions actually introduced the concept of video interviews which have worked much better for me. I am still in my safe neutral environment; I have my notes open on screen and I don’t feel as pressured as I do when people are directly in front of me, and although I have been able to secure a temporary role, I'm still applying for roles and I will now always ask for a video interview.”

Broadgate Search thanks the participants for their honest, vivid contributions. 

So, workplace inclusion? Hiring manager? Candidate? What’s your experience? How can we all meet the recruitment challenge? 

AJ Bell is one of the UK’s largest investment platforms, with more than 900 employees and £62.5 billion of assets under administration. Its commitment to diversity & inclusion includes online training for managers in neurodiversity. AJ Bell was the winner of the Diversity Marketing & Recruitment Campaign of the Year in the Financial Adviser’s Diversity in 2020 Finance Awards.

Broadgate Search is an international specialist governance, finance and change recruitment agency, part of Trinnovo Group. We offer roles across the UK, Ireland, DACH, Benelux and the US at mid-senior level on a contract/permanent basis. We are committed to build diversity, create inclusion and encourage workplace innovation. The Autistic Society is a charity partner, and we provide employees with online neurodiversity training. If you want to know more about us visit our website or reach out to us on