Taboo Topics – 4.1. The Real Workplace Woes

OK I admit it, my last post was a cop-out. I’d promised something on difficulties with workplace relationships, but then posted something with no mention of relationships at all. I chickened out.

Let’s dig deeper and try again, shall we?

See, this is the real reason I’ve got workplace issues listed as a taboo topic. Not because people with AS have difficulties at work per se, but because we don’t like to delve into the primary reason for that, which is that we struggle relationships – of any kind: romantic, platonic, work colleagues, bosses, whatever. Most of us have an accumulation of embarrassing, humiliating, painful incidents in our working lives that we simply do not wish to be aired.

A special mention here to Michelle Vines, author of “Aspergers on the Inside”, which I would recommend reading if you want to know more on this topic. Michelle is a highly intelligent, degree-qualified engineer who nevertheless has found herself unable to work due to her Aspergers – as her memoir openly and honestly explains.

Many with AS continually get into trouble in the workplace but don’t have enough self-awareness even to know what they’ve done wrong. A quote I saw on another website summarised it well: “they get fired all the time, and they have no idea why.”

I think it’s important that I write this additional post, because I have more self-awareness than many. Generally speaking, I do know why. In some cases, I’ve even worked out how to avoid the adverse consequences of being on the spectrum – I have techniques that other autists and their employers need to know. So let’s break it down.

A. The Cultural Norms of the Workplace are Different

A young adult with AS will have learnt how one is supposed to behave in the home or the school setting. But the workplace is different; there’s a whole new set of expectations to be learnt – and autistics are not good at picking up on social expectations and unwritten rules. Without guidance, of course they will cross boundaries. They may seem to be disrespectful of the boss by treating him/her as an equal, they may overshare personal matters, or they might be too afraid if appearing stupid to ask for clarification or help.

So the first thing for an employer to be aware of is the need to explicitly tell the autistic employee the expectations of workplace behaviour. S/he needs to know very clearly the organisational structure (formal and informal). Rules should be laid down as to things like working hours, overtime, when it may be appropriate to take sick leave and how to ask for it. They need to know the unwritten rules, too, such as appropriate work attire and standards of personal cleanliness, how to respond to a work email or answer the phone in a professional manner, when it is OK to disturb the boss, and any inappropriate topics of conversation with colleagues.

This is the main reason why an internal mentor is invaluable to help the autist find their feet, for at least the first 6 months. They will need someone to explain the rules and expectations, to provide direct and honest feedback when they get things wrong, and to provide reassurance that they are doing OK and with time and persistence will start getting things right.

B. The Most Serious Work Problems Arise from Relationship Issues

I said I copped out, didn’t I? There I was explaining my personal strategies to improve communication and organisation, when these are not the biggest workplace problems at all. The serious problems – the ones that lead to performance scrutiny and potentially getting fired – typically arise from poor relationships.

The fact is, if bosses and colleagues get along with us well, they will deal with our mistakes and poor performance by offering support and training. If they decide they don’t like us, the smallest mistake will lead to punitive actions. That is the nature of humans. It’s not about technical performance of the work, it’s all about whether or not we are seen as a member of their circle, “one of us” rather than “one of them”.

Fortunately, it’s not impossible to develop good relations with work colleagues, provided they are understanding people. I discovered early in my career some simple techniques that go a long way. (To NTs these will probably seem laughably basic, but trust me, none are automatic or easy for people with AS). I’m talking about things like:

  • Remember to greet colleagues in the morning and, if it’s Monday, asking if they had a good weekend.
  • Smile.
  • Eat lunch with them and join them for a beer if invited.
  • Smile some more.
  • Laugh at their jokes. Laugh even if you don’t get the joke.
  • Don’t be prickly – laugh at yourself if they tease you. Assume they mean well.
  • If they share personal problems, don’t jump in and tell them how to fix them, or tell them what you would do, just be sympathetic. Try to understand how they are feeling. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help.
  • Try reading books or watching podcasts on how to be social and connect with people. You never know, some of it might stick.

C. If the Environment is Toxic, the only Solution May be to Leave but Be Smart About It

I said above, it’s not impossible to develop good relations with work colleagues, provided they are understanding people. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. There are certain people (often ones with deep insecurities of their own) who will make life miserable for an autistic.

There are so many ways it happens. It could be that a colleague feels threatened by your technical abilities. It could be a closet narcissist who can’t handle your ability to see through their bullshit, or your unwillingness to compromise your principles to serve their desire for power or recognition. It could be the passive-aggressive boss who acts friendly to you face but puts you down behind your back. Oh, I could go on, but let’s leave it there; you know what I mean.

Usually, these people are far better able to play the system than we are. They know how to get the sympathy of others and cast us as the problem. If it comes to direct conflict, unless we have solid support from their boss, I believe we are unlikely to prevail.

This is only my take on it and others may disagree, but I believe the best course of action is to leave. Toxic environments create so much trauma for an autistic that it’s not worth it.

The important point is to ensure you leave on your own terms, when you are ready. That means being on the lookout for other work opportunities and grabbing anything that comes up. Try to keep your head down and avoid conflict until you’ve got other work lined up. By all means, tell the boss and the HR manager how much grief this person has been giving you, but tell them in your resignation letter.

Many would see that approach as being weak, I expect, but it’s based on a lifetime of experience with not having my opinion heard and understood. I think it’s better to leave than to be chewed up and spat out by the ceaseless cogs of a toxic workplace.

Oh…

I didn’t mean to end this post on such a negative note!

But hopefully my thoughts on workplace relationships were enlightening, if not entirely positive? And please stick around, I have another Asperger taboo topic coming. Catch you later.

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