James Davies is Regional Director of our Manchester office here at Talent. Having started his career in IT recruitment in 2001 as a Junior Recruiter, James has risen to hold a number of senior positions over the years - now leading a thriving team of consultants in the technology and digital space.
Around the age of nine, James was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia. Passionate about eliminating the stigma and finding strengths in neurodiversity, he discusses his experiences and uncovers ways hiring managers can better support their employees.
From the age of about nine, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia - and ADHD later down the line. Back then, people were nowhere near as open about these things as we are now - so education on these matters wasn’t brilliant, and the stigma was pretty huge.
These diagnoses were partly down to the fact I never learnt how to crawl as a young child. My coordination was pretty terrible and, by age 10, I still couldn’t catch a ball. At this time, I had to go back to physio via occupational health to learn how to crawl (pretty embarrassing, but it was necessary to get my coordination up). As I got slightly older, I became really good at squash and won the county championships when I was 14! This was a big boost for me and really helped my coordination in the long run.
Back to age 10 again, I had to start using a laptop for everything at school as my writing skills were poor. And, as this was way before the time laptops were cool, I was picked on and was always made to feel like I was different from the other kids. I also had to wear John Lennon-style red glasses to help with my reading, which just added to that feeling of ‘not being like everyone else’. It shouldn’t have mattered but back then, it was seen as a big deal.
I was fortunate that my parents were very supportive, and my mother was a headteacher. She was very in-the-know about all of these things - in fact, it was my mum who recognised I needed a certain colour in order to read better (hence the groovy red glasses!).
Definitely yes, which is a shame to say. I got told during parents’ evening around age 14 that I’d never get to university or any other form of higher education. This was a big obstacle for me, and I wasn’t even an adult yet.
My written skills were poor as a child, and they still are to this day. Written communication has always been an obstacle for me - but I found ways to turn this into a benefit. Instead of writing emails, I’d just pick up the phone instead. This allowed me to build better and more genuine relationships with people, which is a huge plus when working in recruitment.
Despite the obstacles, I’m definitely not embarrassed and I think neurodiversity positively defines me in a lot of ways. I’m proud of it! My two daughters are also similar to me, and my experiences allow me to support them and provide a greater degree of empathy that others may perhaps struggle with.
Instead of focusing on what people can’t do - look at what they can do instead. Stop seeing differences as weaknesses, and look at how they can be viewed as strengths.
I was pretty lucky with previous managers of mine, as they recognised that for every perceived ‘weakness’ I had (i.e. poor reading and written communication), there were a bunch of other strengths I had to offer. Rather than focusing on my difficulties with writing, they focused on how great my verbal communication was. I had absolutely no issues with picking up the phone and making call after call to whoever - whereas a lot of others perhaps didn’t have the confidence to do that. But I did.
I think it’s also really important to evaluate your testing and interview processes. For example, when I first got into recruitment, I was lucky my boss at the time took a chance on me - because there was no way I’d have got through the written and numerical assessments! It’s a shame I feel ‘lucky’ to have had a manager who understood and took my circumstances into account - surely everyone should receive support like this?
We just need to be more aware and ask things like “is my current hiring process ruling people out?”; “am I excluding people without even realising it?”. Later in my career when I was the one interviewing people, I’d often think WOW, I’m expected to put people through tests I would have never got through myself. And that’s something that really needs to change if that’s the case at your company.
Putting barriers in place for the sake of it is pointless. You’re instantly excluding people who could be brilliant in other ways, simply because they’re not 100% compatible with the processes you’ve got in place.
I’m seeing lots of positive things around equity, which is good to see. I’m also very aware that I was pretty fortunate as I was growing up - and it’s a shame that many others in the same situation wouldn’t have received such support.
I think it's so important NOT to look at these things as disabilities. See them as special powers! Keep focusing on that.
As a culture, we need to change the language we’re using. Instead of thinking “I've got this, it’s a disability”, we should be seeing these diagnoses as powers that can help us in a bunch of different ways. I think if we approached neurodiversity with a more positive spin, it’d massively reduce the stigma and help people feel more comfortable speaking up and asking for help. Especially in the workplace.
If you want to get the best out of your staff, you need to have an inclusive culture where people feel comfortable to say “I'm struggling, I can’t do this”. Your people will work a lot harder if they feel comfortable opening up and asking for help when they need it.
The first company that comes to mind is Auto Trader. They’re based here in Manchester and became the first business to achieve the National Autistic Society's Autism Friendly Employer Award. What they do around autism is truly inspiring, and they really do recognise that autism comes with its own unique strengths - rather than being stigmatised as a ‘weakness’ right from the get-go.
Northcoders are also doing a great job in removing the stigma around needing a degree. They deliver industry-leading bootcamps designed to give people all the training they need to become a software developer - and you don’t need any experience or fancy degrees to get a place. They’re really turning the tech industry on its head (particularly for young people) and it’s great to see.