Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. As always, it’s good to have you here. This week, I want to talk about an issue that is extremely close to my heart. There are certain subjects that I care about with fierce passion, and one of those is fair treatment of employees by employers. It’s an issue I’ve touched on before in this blog, and the problems of fair treatment in the workplace are not limited to autistic people. I’m looking at this through a very autistic lens, but I believe my feelings will resonate with my people of diverse neurotypes. I’m mainly going to be talking about one particular aspect of fair treatment, but before I get into the nitty-gritty of it, I’m going to have to offer up a couple of short disclaimers. Please bear with me; I’ll try to keep it brief…
- Every autistic person is different, every autistic person’s autism is different to everyone else’s autism. Autism is unique to the individual, like a fingerprint. I’m going to make some observations about autistic viewpoint in this discussion, but I am not assuming all autistic people have the same viewpoint or thought process, just that many of us do have a similar viewpoint. So when I say many or most, I’m not trying to say all. It’s okay to disagree with me.
- I expect many non-autistic people reading this discussion will disagree with me. And I expect most of those that disagree with me will be managers or supervisors who have been inculcated with certain beliefs about their staff. In this instance, it’s still okay to disagree with me, no matter how wrong you are. Your opinion is, of course, yours. I’m not trying to persuade anyone here. I’m just saying it the way it is. Some managers and supervisors will agree with me, though, and feel trapped by the ridiculous policies and procedures they are forced to follow.
- Why do I feel qualified to make claims and arguments about fair treatment in the workplace? I spent 28 years as a junior-ish manager (department manager) working for a huge retail company; one of the largest, most well-known and respected companies in the UK, and probably Europe. I’ve worked for another huge multi-billions company too, although not in management, and I have also worked for one of the world’s largest not-for-profits. I’ve worked in short spells for a further two very well-known UK companies. I’ve worked in more locations, on more departments, and with more staff and managers, than I can possibly list. I’ve seen the unfair treatment of staff and junior management from both sides of the fence, and there’s very little difference in approach from all the employers I’ve worked for. I have been subjected to disciplinary action from employers, and I have carried out disciplinary action on employees. I have seen incredible examples of management incompetence and cruelty, but inspirational leadership has been hard to come by. I have not been a perfect manager; I’m human, and prone to mistakes. In particular, in the first few years of my management career, I had some terrible role models in management, and made bad moves as a result. But by the time I left management, under something of a could as I had come to detest the conditions I was working in, I had reached a peak in my understanding of how people should be managed. My approach, however, was not at all popular with those who preferred to stick with the status quo, and who would just lap up the advice of their bad role models in order to progress their careers at any cost to conscience. I’m not saying I’ve seen it all, done it all, and know it all. But I’ve seen most of it, done a lot of it, and have valid points to make. So, come with me…
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Let’s begin with what might seem like a digression into autobiography, but will get us in the right direction for my broader point. In my working career, I’ve been a bit a bit unlucky with illness. For several years, I was laid low with mystery infections that no one could get to the bottom of. It turned out to be a side effect of a commonly prescribed prescription drug that was making me vulnerable to the infections, and once I stopped taking the meds, the infections stopped happening. But in some ways, it was too late. The health-related absences from work I had during this prolonged period of illness meant I was subjected to disciplinary action, eventually being given a written warning for my absences. My illness had been genuine, and on two occasions, I was rushed into hospital in ambulances with blue flashing lights as a result of the infections. I was constantly on antibiotics, and under the care of a specialist at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital. Only a fool would have thought my illness and absences from work were not genuine. And yet there I was, getting disciplined for being off work with a health problem that was literally ruining my life.
As a manager in that company myself, I was fully aware of the attendance policy, and the rationale behind it. I was aware that the attendance policy was supposedly intended to support the employees, and enable them to be at work. Disciplinary action for absence was not meant to indicate the employer thought the illness wasn’t genuine; it was about the employee not fulfilling the obligations of their contract. Yes, you read that right. Employees with repeated absences for health-related issues could be deemed to be not fulfilling their contract, and be sacked for a little as seven periods of absence in a twelve-month period. In reality, it would usually take more than seven absences, especially if the absences were thought to be part of a single health-related issue. But not always. Management could always use discretion – to the good or otherwise of the employee – on these occasions. My situation was tricky because, for several years, neither my GP nor the consultant could explain why I kept getting ill. This apparently left a question mark against me. On one memorable occasion, one of my managers said he thought my doctor was, and I quote, “taking the piss.” Another post shook his head at me exasperatedly, and said, “Darren, what’s going on… you’re a young man”. In the end, the disciplinary action never went beyond a warning for me, and roughly three years after those quoted conversations, I resigned after finding a better job elsewhere. But the damage was done. My professional reputation had taken a knock, regardless of the results I was getting in the job. Because, in that company, as with so many jobs, being present matters more than what you achieve when you are present, and having the right kind of relationships with people above you in the pecking order matters more than your ability. This has profound implications for job security for everyone, but especially for autistic people. Allow me to explain…
A common characteristic in autistic people is a strong sense of fairness and justice. Sometimes, we see things, and it is perfectly clear that what we are seeing is unfair and unjust, and it frustrates us that everyone else (the neurotypicals, typically) is going along with it as though it’s fine. This sense of fairness and justice is clearly reflected in how accepting autistic people tend to be of diverse groups. Generally speaking, autistic people seem to be far less likely than the general population to be racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic or ableist. None of us is perfect, for sure, but these tendencies among autistic people are real.
Autistic people don’t like to take or deal bullshit, and many of us are likely to call out unfairness when we see it. Many of us are unflinchingly honest; we say it as we see it, and usually, because of our fairness and honesty, the way we see it is the way it is.
Another common trait seen in many autistic people is that we struggle to navigate the types of relationships that seem to come easily to neurotypicals. The neurotypical rules of interaction often baffle us, whether it be social, professional or romantic. I wonder how much of this is down to neurotypical relationships often eschewing the fairness that we, autistic people, value so highly. Am I being fair by making such a suggestion? In my experience, and I am sure many autistic people will recognise this, neurotypical relationships seem odd. I have seen so many examples of NTs talking about each other in less than flattering ways, then being oh-so-friendly to each other’s faces. I’ve seen so many NTs rage about their spouses or partners that they claim to love. I’ve seen so many NTs moan about how they are mistreated at work, and yet when their boss comes again with more unfair demands, they just roll with it instead of standing up for themselves. It seems like all the NTs know about this, but don’t care, or just accept it as normal and acceptable. And this observation I’m making barely skims the surface of the bizarre complexities and unspoken rules, nudges, winks and almost telepathic understandings NTs have with each other in their daily interactions.
These three common autistic traits; fairness, honesty, and struggling to understand the bizarre, dishonest, endlessly shifting rules of NT interaction put us at a severe disadvantage in the workplace. We won’t be happy to settle for being treated like mugs by unfair employers, we will tend to call out bullshit, thereby getting flagged as subversives or trouble-causers. And we will often fail to cultivate the oh-so-important workplace relationships that ensure we will be part of the in-crowd; the relationships that grease the wheels of advancement, and extra earning potential, for example. Reported statistics vary, but it is widely accepted that autistic people are more likely than the general population to be unemployed or in low-paid jobs.
Recently, I had a conversation with an employment coach who has done a lot of work with autistic people, who told me it is extremely common for autistic people doing great work in their jobs to get passed over for promotion or development, while neurotypical peers with comparatively lesser ability and experience leapfrog them. Not too long ago, I considered changing jobs. The job I was looking at was very similar to the job I was already in. The person who would have been my manager in the new job, if I applied and got it, was reluctant for me to apply, because he thought I would struggle with the workload. He didn’t actually say, because you are autistic, but the meaning was more than clear. I compared notes with someone already doing the job, and found their workload was only about two-thirds of what I was doing in my current job. The only reason I would have struggled in that job would have been boredom, but I chose not to apply for it, because I didn’t want to work for someone who didn’t rate me.
You see, workplaces are difficult for us, just by virtue of the fact that we are autistic. But it gets worse: let’s double back now to the issue of illness and absence from work…
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Autism is not an illness. It is my fervent hope that everyone reading that last sentence will already be aware of that fact, but I’m acquiring new readers every week, so I’m going to say it again: Autism is not an illness. Let me list a few illnesses and health-related conditions for you; the types of illnesses and conditions that can result in people being absent from their jobs for very real reasons. Read the list carefully, because there’s going to be a one-question test at the end. Ready?
- Work-related stress.
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Sleep disorders.
- Various digestive disorders.
Okay, that’s a fairly short list (it could have been longer, but you’ll see it makes the point), so here is your test question: What do they all have in common? Raise your hand when you’ve got your answer. Good, everyone ready? The answer is, they are all commonly
co-morbid co-occurring with autism. In particular, depression and anxiety are insidious and easily misunderstood because they have no outwardly visible symptoms, and they are often related, for autistic people, to the fact that we struggle to deal with the aforementioned complexities of the neurotypical world. The politics of neurotypical workplace interactions are fraught with pitfalls, leading to cliques, in-groups and out-groups that are often murky or disguised. Autistic people, by dint of being different, and perhaps being more forthright than our NT peers, are often left isolated, or disliked. Not being part of the in-group means we are not forging the workplace relationships that can help us along in our careers. This is a major reason why autistic people find their jobs triggering anxiety and depression. Employers see anxiety and depression as mental health issues that can be treated, and that people can recover from. It’s not so simple for autistic people, who find the workplace itself triggering their illness. There are many reasons people can undergo periods of depression and anxiety, from financial problems, to losing a loved one, and so on. But we autistic people find general life itself; trying to cope with the NT world, is triggering depression and anxiety daily. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, just a never-ending series of tunnels. Put this with the other commonly co-occurring conditions, and it can be seen that autistic people are more likely than the general population to suffer a kaleidoscope of health issues, meaning we are more likely than the general population to be absent from work, more often. And being repeatedly absent means we are likely to end up on the slippery slope of disciplinary action. This situation is horrific for autistic people who don’t know they are autistic, because they will suffer all the problems of the autistic person in the workplace, without understanding any of what’s going on. Long periods of depression and anxiety are likely, but the things that might work for depressed NTs (anti-depressants, CBT, mindfulness, blah, blah) will not work for them, because they are not addressing the real issue. People in this situation are highly likely to progress all the way along the disciplinary process to dismissal, eventually.
The disciplinary processes used by employers are generally intended (allegedly) to be corrective rather than punitive. So, if someone is behaving badly at work, disciplinary action can be used to warn them about their behaviour, give them guidance about how to behave correctly, and then monitor their future behaviour. If the behaviour improves to an acceptably professional standard, then the disciplinary action goes away. Corrective, not punitive, see? The exception is gross misconduct; theft, violence, hate speech, etc, which is commonly punished with summary dismissal, unless you are in a particular powerful clique, or have someone in a powerful position favouring you, in which case you might get away with a final written warning (yes, this does happen). But how can disciplinary action correct health-related absence? If you are ill, how can disciplinary action help you to be well enough to attend work to the frequency your employer is demanding? Let’s have a look at how it works…
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In the UK, the attendance disciplinary process usually works something like this: After each period of health-related absence, you have a return to work meeting with your line manager. Ostensibly, this is to check you are well enough to return to your job, and to make you comfortable to do that, by offering any support if required. But the manager will also reiterate the attendance policy to you, and explain that repeated absences may lead to disciplinary action which, ultimately, can lead to dismissal. Great way to make you feel horrible about being ill, right? After a first absence, you just get that return to work meeting, and nothing else. If you have another absence within one year, things go a bit further, and you might get a stern talking to about your attendance. Another absence within that one year from the first, and you potentially get an official verbal warning; next time, a written warning, next time a final written warning, and then next time, you’re fired. It doesn’t always go that linear. Verbal and written warnings can be reissued, and sometimes the employer will choose not to move along the process if someone is repeatedly absent with the same, linked illness. Discretion is used by managers in these cases, even when the managers claim the system they are working with eschews discretion in order to promote fairness. So while your friend who is unlucky enough to have several absences with a horrible, life-threatening condition quite rightly does not get moved along the disciplinary process, you, being autistic, with your two absences for IBS problems, two absences for depression, and another when you were sent home from work in the throes of an anxiety attack, are likely to be starting to worry about being sacked. Somehow, your illness is less real, less deserving of understanding and tolerance. Even if your depression was serious enough for you to have had suicidal thoughts; a life-threatening illness, would you tell your boss that? And if you did, would you be taken seriously, or branded as overdramatic? Quite often, no one believes someone is really suicidal until it’s too late, then they wring their hands and ask what they could have done differently.
The idea that these return to work meetings and so-called wellbeing meetings can magically stop employees from being ill, and enable them to be at work more is a blatant nonsense. If anything, the stress of the process is likely to make the employee even more ill.
Some years ago, when I was in my department manager role for the big retailer, I did a return to work meeting with an employee who had been absent due to a flare-up of IBS. She had a highly specialised role, and covering her absence had not been possible due to a skills shortage in the store, which meant some of her work had piled up while she was away. Her absence caused a massive problem. In the meeting, I sympathised with her, as I also suffer badly from IBS. Then, she said something remarkable, which has stayed with me ever since, because it was such a penny-drop moment. She confided in me that she probably could have come back to work much earlier than she did, as the flare-up had started to calm down on the second day of her absence. But she knew from previous experience that if she came back and it turned out she didn’t feel well enough, and went off sick again, it would be treated as another episode of absence, moving her along the disciplinary scale. So, she took the whole week off, knowing she had plenty of sick pay entitlement, and no matter how long she was off, it would only count as one period of absence. Wow. This rattled me. The very process that was designed to keep people at work was encouraging them to take off longer periods of absence than was strictly necessary. I thanked her for her honesty, and I have no qualms saying that I did not include that part of the conversation in my notes. In truth, if this employee had come back to work too early and then had to take further time off to recover, it should have been treated as a single absence. But not all managers apply the rules that way; discretion cuts both ways, and some managers are cruel, and some apply the rules differently depending on whether someone is in an in-group or out-group, or whether they like or dislike an employee. This particular employee had been treated unfairly in the past, and was looking after herself as a result.
As already mentioned, the ultimate goal of the absence disciplinary process, despite all protestations of being corrective, not punitive, is to make sure an employee who is not fulfilling their contract due to absence is eventually fired. The thing is – and here we are coming to the crux of my argument – it is completely unnecessary. I’ll explain why…
Imagine you are on your way to work one day, and you have a horrible accident. A bus hits you. Both your legs are badly broken. Your spine is damaged. Your skull is fractured. You will be in hospital for weeks, and will be months before you can walk again. It will be the best part of a year before you are back at work. That’s going to be a pain in the ass for your employer, but there’s no getting around it – they are going to have to hire a replacement for you, or cover you with overtime from other staff. They are also going to have to pay your sick pay. But that’s okay, they have a budget for sick pay (if they don’t have a budget for sick pay, they shouldn’t be in business). This point is important – no matter how much your employer moans about the money they “waste” on sick pay, they do have a budget for it because people do get ill. So, how much sick pay entitlement do you have? It depends on your employer, and how long you have worked for them, but for this example, let’s say you have entitlement for one month at full pay, and a further month at half pay. After that, you’re down to statutory sick pay, such as it is. What this means is that, long before you get back to work, you are going to be running out of money – a situation few people can cope with. Okay, so much for our imaginary tale of a horrible accident… but the same principle applies to any kind of sickness; your employer has a budget, and you have an entitlement to sick pay, which will eventually run out. And when it’s gone, it’s gone, and you’re in financial trouble. This in itself is enough to cause employees a lot of worries when they are off work with sickness; we generally don’t work for fun, we work because we need the money. This is why the vast majority of employees do not fake sickness absences. I’m not saying no one has ever thrown a sickie, but it’s rarer than you think, and even when people do throw a sickie, more often than not it does involve them feeling a least a bit off-colour. The knowledge that sick pay doesn’t last forever is enough to make almost every person in a job think twice about calling in sick, even when they are clearly, desperately unwell. It is exactly why I continued to go to work in agony every day until I simply dropped, and had to be taken to hospital with a spinal problem. But if you talk to employers about this, and challenge them on the attendance policy, you get some worrying responses. One manager told me that until they tightened up their attendance policy, people kept taking days off sick, “willy-nilly”. Several senior managers have argued with me that the draconian attendance policy is necessary because so many employees treat their sick pay entitlement as extra holiday. Again, I’m not saying this has never happened – I’ve previously related a persona anecdote on this blog about a group of workers who worked out a sickness rota to ensure they got all their sick pay. But this kind of thing is vanishingly rare. To deploy a draconian attendance and disciplinary policy that makes life harder for people who are genuinely ill just because you are frightened a few bad eggs might exploit the system is simply horrific. It’s like something out of a Dickens novel, and yet so many people – junior managers, I’m looking at your – accept it. And there is no need. If someone actually is falsifying sickness, by all means discipline them. Fire them. I would, unless they had a bloody good excuse. But don’t punish all your employees who are struggling, day in, day out with health issues, coming to work in pain because they can’t afford to be off work on sick pay. It is just wrong. I’m autistic; I know right from wrong. I understand justice. And employers are getting this badly, unjustly wrong.
Employers, your sickness absence policy should work like this: Assume that every person who takes time off sick is telling the truth. Just take that as your baseline. Assume they are telling the truth, and that they want to be at work, and that they will come back to work as soon as they can. Do not offer bullshit support meetings, but let the employee know if they do need any support from you, they only have to ask. Pay sick pay without question, until the entitlement runs out, and then stop paying it. Simple. And as for your worries that someone might be exploiting it: If you have cause to believe that someone has falsified sickness, investigate it, and if your investigation reveals that to be the case, dismiss the employee for gross misconduct. Otherwise, forget about it. This policy, if implemented correctly, will build employee loyalty, and reduce the amount of money you are spending on sick pay, because employees will feel valued and understood; they will want to be at work. This is so blatantly, obviously, the right thing to do, I cannot understand why it isn’t happening. Sort yourselves out, employers.
That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.