Long viewed as a hotbed of idealised imagery and messages that encourage conformity to market-friendly trends, the music business has never been seen as the natural home of neurodiversity. But thanks to the influence of some of its key, creative talents, Universal Music UK is going against the grain.
In a 17 January interview with BBC News,  the label’s chairman and CEO David Joseph explains how he first became aware of the hidden nature of neurodiverse conditions. “A defining moment was that I got a text from this artist about three days after I saw them,” he says. “This artist has unquestionably changed culture, but the words [in the text] were in the wrong order. I always speak to this person, seen them a lot, worked with them for a long time, but this was the first time I’ve ever had a text from them. And then I realised why.”
The label – which has neurodiverse singer-songwriters on its books such as Billie Eilish and Florence Welch – is now engaged in an internal awareness campaign designed to shift the emphasis of discourse away from what neurodiverse individuals are unable to do, and towards celebrating their strengths and capabilities.
Joseph – who considers any Universal employee who contributes to the creative process an artist – notes: “Our artists, not all of them, certain ones, definitely think differently … There is an unconscious bias towards hiring people you think you’ll get on with, share similar views, and dare I say it, might not be rebellious or cause dissent. I am a big fan of respectful outliers.”
He adds: “I’ve been allowed to grow through this company and fundamentally be myself,” implying that other employees deserve to have a similar journey, regardless of neurodiversity.
With that in mind, the label’s internal work on the subject has taken on an external dimension with the release of Creative Differences: a handbook for embracing neurodiversity in the creative industries. 
In the book, the label sets out everything it has learned about the creative potential of neurodiverse staff, with Joseph noting in his introduction: “It’s not as though someone has just switched a light on to the power of alternative thinking – it’s said that 25% of CEOs are dyslexic. There’s a recognition that world-changing ideas come from people who think differently. But according to autism.org, just 16% of autistic people are in full time paid work.”
In her foreword, Welch reflects upon her own experiences, writing: “I wish a word like ‘neurodiversity’ had existed when I was younger, because there were plenty of other words that got thrown around in its absence. Neurodiversity means to be part of the diversity of humanity as a whole. It means different, not flawed – and everyone is different. That's something I could have done with knowing as I grew up.”
She adds: “It would be wonderful if people could walk into jobs and be honest about how they move through the world. And that the fact they see things differently could be an asset. Because ultimately, wherever you work, and in all aspects of life, the key to happiness and success is an environment where everyone is encouraged to be not only their best self but their true self.”
Laid out on cream-coloured pages for ease of reading among people with dyslexia, the handbook has garnered interest from more than 100 other companies.
What should leaders take away from Universal’s approach to issues around neurodiversity?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “It’s important to recognise that a great deal of ostensibly mainstream recruitment practices are in fact somewhat niche, in terms of the nature of the steps involved and the outcomes they produce. Under the standard format of inviting someone to a first interview, then to give a presentation, then to be interviewed by a panel of senior figures – and then, potentially, to come back again for a confirmatory interview – you’re appealing only to a select group of people to get themselves noticed and excel.
“So what we require are different sorts of recruitment practices that are designed not to push people’s buttons and provoke anxiety, but to provide them with opportunities to demonstrate what they’re good at. It’s often the case with the interviewing process that we as leaders are looking to see whether the person we’ve invited is a ‘good fit’ – whether we ‘like’ them. But sometimes, building up that rapport and getting to know someone takes time. It’s not instant, and it’s a mistake to leap to rapid judgments, because we all have counterproductive biases of which we’re unaware.”
Cooper points out: “Another problem is where firms automatically assume that, just because people are autistic, they’re going to be good at IT. For example, while Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Programme has won acclaim from key quarters of the business media,  some autistic commentators have criticised it for unwittingly being just as exclusionary as the traditional hiring methods it’s attempting to surpass.  In my view, setting up a form of recruitment designed to target only one demographic is not the solution.”
She notes: “Universal Music’s handbook is raising the profile of the benefits of thinking differently, highlighting that some of the ways in which we screen and discriminate during recruitment are ultimately unhelpful. Not only are we disadvantaging people, which is a personal tragedy for them – we’re also discarding and missing out on talent that could be brilliant for our organisations.
“As ever, the message is about inclusivity: we want everybody here – so, how are we going to create processes and systems, and also influence attitudes and behaviours, to make that happen?”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity
Image of Florence Welch onstage with Florence + the Machine courtesy of Christian Bertrand, via Shutterstock