Nick Chown, PhD, MA Autism, PG Cert Asperger Syndrome, FIRM, MSocInd

Nick Chown Current Photo

Some of the older members of the Institute may recall my time in corporate risk management culminating in five years as Director of Risk Management for the Metropolitan Police up to 2008 and my year as Chairman of AIRMIC in 2003/4. I am now an autism specialist. My work in autism involves research, advocacy, mentoring, and training provision. 

Since this article relates to diversity risk, I will begin by referring to two recent publications which refer to this risk. Firstly, a report (Perspectives of Global Corporations) from the Cambridge Centre of Risk Studies in association with the IRM notes: ‘That gender and diversity risk is ranked at the bottom of risks by survey respondents across all sectors. Despite its low prioritisation, we believe its growing visibility makes it worth highlighting in this report’ (Tuveson et al., 2018, p. 7). This report focuses on equality issues but also says ‘there is growing consensus that greater diversity in the workplace correlates to improved business performance’ (ibid., p. 34). The IRM’s view is that ‘The benefits of diverse thinking in enhancing organisational decision-making are well-established’ (IRM, 2019, p. 5). My old Met Police team was “European Risk Management Team of the Year” in 2008 due largely to the fantastic work of an autistic colleague I was warned against including in the team. Diverse thinking is par for the course in autism!

The management of risks to reputation and discrimination can be in conflict, the “conflict” being the risk of managing reputation risk at the expense of actual discrimination. I wonder how your other members handle this conflict and have written this short piece to encourage a debate. It will also be posted to a Facebook group of (over 100) autistic autism researchers.

I am well aware of the importance to organisations of their reputation which necessitates a high priority being given to the management of reputation risk. All my autism work is focused firmly on improving the lived experience of autistic people, including whilst they are at work. The importance of the risk of discrimination and its management in this context cannot be over-emphasised. It can be argued that reputation risk is the highest priority of all for many organisations. So, for those organisations, management of ‘key’ risk areas such as discrimination may be prejudiced where there is a conflict with reputation risk.

Here is an example of conflict between the management of reputation risk and the avoidance of discrimination. A colleague, a consultant clinical psychologist, was told by their employer not to disclose to their clients that they are autistic despite the insight into autism they have that nobody without the lived experience of autism can have, and the importance of their clients being made aware of their particular ability to empathise with their clients. The reason given was that disclosure could lead to damage to the organisation’s reputation. 

In my time as a corporate risk manager, before finding out that I am autistic, and learning about autism, my advice to the employer in my colleague’s situation might well have been to do precisely what they have done. Setting aside the discriminatory attitude this is indicative of, there is a risk issue here. The issue of what autism is remains a matter of much debate, but it is a “disability” under the Equality Act (which subsumed the old Disability Discrimination Act). This Act states makes discrimination against disabled employees illegal. Discrimination involves someone being treated differently and not as well as other people because of disability. To the best of my knowledge, there is no legal requirement for an organisation to manage its reputation risk (although they would be negligent not to do so of course).

We know that reality and perception play a part in risk assessment. However unlikely, my colleague’s disclosure could have led to adverse publicity for their employer. The fact that attitudes causing this are unjustifiable from any reasonable and rational perspective may not be something a risk manager can take into account. It might also be argued that the potential for adverse publicity represents a serious risk to a business whereas discriminating against an employee and clients is unlikely to have any significant adverse effect on the organisation. But the latter is legally and/or morally wrong and should be at odds with an organisation’s values (the action taken by my colleague’s former employer was a clear breach of theirs).

The situation described would have been a dilemma for me had I been the risk manager of the organisation concerned but with my knowledge of autism. I look forward to entering into a conversation about this dilemma with the members of IRM and the Facebook group.

Although not originally intended for this piece, a Director of the Institute has rightly pointed out to me that skills some autistic people have make them ideally suited for particular areas of work. To this I would add that many autistic people have characteristics – such as loyalty – which employers usually seek. But they often have difficulty obtaining work due to autism-unfriendly recruitment practice, and difficulty remaining in work due to lack of suitable reasonable adjustments. The point we are both making is that there are clear benefits of employing diversity (not just autistic people). Perhaps we should discuss this too.