Posted 23 May 2023
Malcolm Gladwell Demonstrates The Fairness Of Extra Time As A Disability Accommodation
When inclusion looks like privilege: sometimes in the pursuit of creating a level-playing field it can appear that unreasonable concessions are being made. In HR and professional training we must make sure that people are prepared and fit for the role. How do we decide what is fair?
Extra time has been a standard recommendation in recruitment and for students with neurodifferences for many years, and many an HR leader asked my advice on this particular subject. My initial answer is that it is essentially a heuristic—based on common practice rather than solid evidence–and often applied without refinement. Fundamentally, it is rarely reasonable to pay someone the same money to do less work. However there are of course caveats.
First of all, how are you measuring the amount of work? Some people work slower but more accurately and with a sense of depth that their speedy peers may not achieve. We need those people in our teams to help us spot problems and find creative angles that others may not see as they rush through a standard process.
Second, induction training may take longer for some, this is not the same as giving extra time, this is taking extra time. It is an investment that may pay dividends in terms of loyalty and competence, which creates the “reasonableness.”
Finally, when recruitment tasks do not match the job performance. If extra time has little impact on the skills needed for the job but makes a big difference to neurodiverse thinkers, where is the problem? Yet it has caused no end of arguments and it can be tricky to assess the skills needed for performance. To explain the nuance in making an extra time decision here, I have two examples.
When Time Is Of The Essence
Imagine a test for the police force where the candidate has to read a crowd control scenario, then summarize it briefly into a synopsis to send to other forces such as fire or ambulance so that they can respond expeditiously. Well, speed is of the essence here, surely, and therefore extra time in the assessment may lead to recruiting people who cannot work fast enough to be safe on the job? Seems obvious, but the reading is a problem. On the job, the individual will be using sight, sound and movement to synthesise the details of the scenario. In the assessment, we are not just measuring their observational skills we are measuring their reading speed, which will not be a factor in real life. So we can give extra time.
One force I know uses Virtual Reality headsets to present the scenario. The candidate is able to virtually explore and move to pick up details, then they have to write things down and press submit quickly. This is much more appropriate as a mirror of the real world situation and so extra time is no longer reasonable. To make it even better, we can allow assistive technology for writing the details.
I have seen this same issue come up a lot with medical students, where educational adjustments, like technology, extra time and quiet space are suddenly upended by a busy emergency room or ward. A new set of adjustments and strategies are needed and these can be very context-specific. This does not exclude the trainee from being able to do the job however, in these cases I recommend workplace disability coaching with input from the supervisor.
When The Devil Is In The Detail
The LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) in the U.S. is created to be incredibly difficult and separate out the best potential legal minds. As an aspiring lawyer, your LSAT score is essential criteria for Law School admission. This seems reasonable right? It is a difficult profession and the top schools want their students to be able to cope. The problem here is the time pressure built into the test. Comprising of five sections of 35 minute each, it is well known that many students must either skip questions or learn to skim read at a super human pace to score highly. This element of the test ensures that slow readers, or people with a slower processing speed, are systematically ruled out as good potential lawyers.
Malcolm Gladwell took a deep dive in to the logic behind this in a recent podcast Revisionist History. Gladwell first interviews a Supreme Court intern, named by the late Justice Scalia as the best intern he ever had. Scalia had famously said that he only hired from the very best schools and yet it turned out Jeffrey Sutton did not go to a top prestigious school, meaning he most likely did not have an excellent LSAT score. It transpires that the main skill required to be a good intern is to be able to read large volumes of text, with great focus and attention to detail. And how long did the clerks typically have to complete their reading of a case? Months! So it is depth of comprehension, not speed that makes the difference.
Gladwell then goes on to interview Evan Parker PhD, a consultant who is paid by top law firms to assess their recruitment criteria, identifying factors matter most when hiring a successful lawyer. After studying this subject extensively he determined that going to a top school (ergo having top LSATs) is a poor predictor of job performance in lawyers.
A Time And A Place
It is clear that there are situations in which time constraints are both necessary and fair. What is concerning is when time limits are used as standard without due consideration given to their relevance. The creators of the LSAT spend months testing potential questions to ensure that they are free from unintended bias of culture or gender. Yet when questioned about the very format of the test itself they seem unable to justify the time pressure. The HR department of the police force made a serious investment in the Virtual Reality recruitment system, which has paid off in terms of performance.
Making adjustments of extra time can compensate for a process that relies heavily on processing speed, but to assess reasonableness we need to understand the method of communication and the value of time in the eventual job role.
My advice to business leaders is to work harder at unpicking the antecedents of good job performance before you design the entry points and key performance indicators. Screening out exceptional candidates by assuming that speed equals competence is a mistake. When we get more balanced about our assessments, we will get more balance in our teams.