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Autistic job seekers often fall at the first hurdle.

Where autistic candidates (and others) go wrong in job interviews

As we've noted here before, investment banks and hedge funds are keen to employ people with autism. JPMorgan, for example, has a specific program to hire autistic people and says they can "considerably outperform" neurotypical people in roles like coding and compliance. But if you have autism you can struggle in interviews, and both interviewers and candidates need to be aware of this.

A new study* of the performance of autistic job seekers by the U.K's University of Bath and University College London, found that autistic people are less likely to engage in 'impression management' in interview situations, particularly when interviews are unstructured. This puts them at a disadvantage. 

Open-ended, indirect questions are particularly challenging for autistic people, say the academics. Questions like, "Tell me a bit about yourself,” are hard to respond to if you have problems inferring what the interviewer wants. Equally, "Tell me about a challenge you experienced at work," can also be difficult to answer: autistic candidates often provide a "literal response about a time they have encountered a difficulty" even if it doesn't necessarily present them in a favorable way, say the academics. 

Autistic candidates can also find it difficult to recall specific memories of past experiences, and this makes it challenging to answer questions that require examples based on past events. - These kinds of questions (eg. "Tell me about a time you overcame a setback at work") are almost always asked during the preliminary HireVue and behavioral interviews at investment banks.

The academics compared the performance of 21 autistic and 24 non-autistic candidates in mock job interviews, and rated them based on the judgement of four recruiters from the pharmaceutical, banking, manufacturing, and strategic intelligence industries. 

They found that the mean ratings of autistic interviewees’ responses in standard job interviews were significantly lower than the ratings of non-autistic candidates. Autistic candidates were rated poorly for confidence, communication skills, likability, and ease to work with, although were judged equally in terms of motivation, knowledge, conscientiousness, competence, and intelligence.

Compared to neurotypical candidates, autistic candidates were found to be especially bad at: using examples effectively; giving relevant and specific detail where appropriate (details they provided were often irrelevant); reducing negative comments about themselves; answering the question that was actually asked; providing over-literal answers; and explaining the emotional impact of a role or experience.

To remedy this, the academics suggested that interviewers should prompt autistic candidates for specific information and for additional self-reflection using follow-up questions. When interviewers in the study used these prompts, autistic interviewees' answers were noticeably improved. 

The danger for autistic students interviewing with investment banks is that these follow-up questions won't be asked, particularly in a standardized digital screening process (although Hirevue says it makes efforts to accommodate neurodiverse candidates). Students might therefore want to look at the academics' prompts ahead of time (or to have a sheet of paper with the prompts on their laps) so that they can help structure responses to open-ended behavioral questions.

The table below shows how the academics broke down common behavioral interview questions so that autistic candidates could better prepare their answers. Phase 1 shows the 'unadapted' questions that were asked initially. Phase 2 shows the adapted questions that helped autistic candidates perform better. Given that non-autistic candidates can also struggle with behavioral questions, the prompts could benefit everyone.

How to approach behavioral interview questions - a guide for autistic candidates

*Ameliorating the Disadvantage for Autistic Job Seekers: An Initial Evaluation of Adapted Employment Interview Questions

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Photo by Interactive Sports on Unsplash

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Ro
    5 May 2022

    Can we please stop saying "neurodiverse" when we mean "neurodivergent"?

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