Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. As always, it’s good to have you with me. This week, I’m returning to one of those subjects that is close to my heart; the workplace and its effects on autistic people. I was a bit worried about writing this one, because I’m wary of veering into territory where I could be accused of trying to speak for all autistic people. That is not my intent or claim at all. In fact, I think it’s probably impossible for one person to speak for all autistic people, because there is such diversity among us. But as I’ve often said, there is so much commonality between us too, and I hope I’m tapping into an element of that. But as always, I accept there will be people who disagree with me. Hopefully, not too many. Let’s get started, shall we?
I was inspired to write this week’s blog by two things. Firstly, the absolute shambles of the UK government and the economic calamity they have inflicted on us. It’s hard to imagine a less competent and more cruel government, but I’m sure that won’t stop them trying to outdo themselves. Alongside the cruelty and incompetence is a complete absence of leadership. And of course, leadership is important in workplace management, which brings me to my second point of inspiration. There’s been a lot of buzz recently about quiet quitting and acting your wage in the workplace. The definition of quiet quitting seems to be evolving a little. At first, it was people refusing to do overtime, and ignoring work demands such as emails and WhatsApp notifications outside scheduled work hours. But it seems the movement is going a bit further now, with quiet quitting starting to mean doing the minimum acceptable in one’s job, rather than going the extra mile or whatever buzzphrase might be in use currently. This is where acting your wage comes in.
I don’t talk about my current job in my blogs and social media – I like my current job, and have no complaints. But I’ve got plenty to say about my long, previous career in retail management, and it’s the memories of that period that make the phrase act your wage chime with me, and have provided the material for this discussion.
When I was in my junior/middle management role, I was often told that to get further in my career I had to be seen to be doing a bit extra. In other words, I should take on extra responsibilities, and… work plenty of unpaid overtime. This sickened me. I tried the unpaid overtime for a while, and got no recognition at all for it. I just felt used, as the work I and other department managers were doing for free meant the store manager had to spend a bit less on the labour budget, helping him (and it was always a man back then) get a performance bonus. On the occasions I was able to take on extra responsibilities it made no difference to anything. Of course, back then I didn’t know I was autistic, and I was in denial about how badly my autistic face didn’t fit in the neurotypical cliques that formed among the people who were actually going to get the promotions. I started to quiet quit and act my wage long before the phrases came into being, and ended up leaving the company and giving them something of a middle-finger salute as I left. I have never regretted leaving that job.
Why are so many people talking about quiet quitting and acting their wage just now? There are probably a number of reasons. Pay versus demand on employees will be one factor. Existential fear about climate change, war, and global pandemics will be another factor that has made people reconsider the balance between work life and home life. But we should not underestimate simple poor management. It’s often said that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad managers, and this is something I firmly believe to be true. I’m in a good place to comment on how bad management in workplaces can affect autistic people, having been a manager and also a band 2, bottom-rung employee, and also being autistic but having spent most of my working life not knowing it. This mix gives me all kinds of perspective.
While working as a manager, I had to report to someone else; a more senior manager (we all have a boss – even the bosses have bosses). When I refer to “staff” here, I include both non-management employees and junior managers who are reporting to senior managers. Over the three decades I spent in management, I had to report to dozens of managers more senior than myself. Some were good, some were bad, some were average. Some were truly awful human beings. But one or two were inspirational. Looking back, I can see there were some managers who got it so badly wrong that I ended up doing the bare minimum for them. On the other hand, there were some managers I would walk through walls for. These great managers weren’t necessarily people I liked or wanted to be friends with… but they knew how to manage people and get the best out of them. This was something I aspired to in my own management role, not always successfully. What I want to do here is provide a short list of what managers can do, and what to avoid, in order to get the best out of autistic employees. This is the bit where I worry people will think I’m trying to speak for all autistic people. I’m genuinely not trying to do that, but I do think the points I make will find a lot of agreement in the autistic community. Autistic people rightly have a reputation for having a good work ethic. But we also have a deserved reputation for not suffering fools gladly, and calling out dishonesty and incompetence when we see it. Bad managers tend to have no hiding place from autistic employees – we see them, and are likely to comment on them. So let’s get into specifics, and list some essential behavioural points for management of autistic employees.
Honesty: This should go without saying, and you’d think most managers would understand the importance of it. But when a manager is found to be dishonest, all respect is lost. The autistic person’s tendency to feel injustice more profoundly means that if a manager is dishonest toward them, it will be a disaster in the workplace. I’ve been lied to by some bosses – on two occasions I was told serious lies that affected the course of my career.
The first example comes from when I was working for one of the worst managers it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. My own reputation had started to suffer after a couple of bad results, and I was working hard to rebuild it, as I was being watched closely. This manager gave me a performance rating of underachieving, which was outrageous considering I had improved every performance measure of the department I had just taken over. I complained bitterly. Then, after a successful Christmas trading period in which my department knocked it out of the park, the manager came to me and commented on how well I’d handled Christmas. He apologised for giving me the underachieving rating, and promised he would change it retrospectively to achieving. Not long after this, he moved to a new store. Then I found out he never changed my rating, and no one would listen to my complaint about it. The damaging underachieving rating stayed on my record.
The second example affected not only me, but half a dozen other department managers. A regional HR manager made us a firm promise about our development, told us it was all in place, then left the company. It hadn’t all been in place, and the promise was never fulfilled.
These kinds of management behaviour are appalling, but it happens all the time, and is completely unnecessary. When autistic people are treated like this, we tend to remember it, and bad managers will find it very difficult indeed to get us onside.
Manage the individual: People are different and varied. It’s not always correct to take the same approach with everyone. Some managers think fairness means treating everyone the same, regardless of who they are and what the circumstances might be. But this is a mistake. A good manager will be close enough to their people to know what makes them tick. One manager I worked for knew exactly how I ticked, and managed me to great effect. Here’s an excellent example of it…
One day, we were really under pressure in the store, and the store manager made a decision that affected my department detrimentally. When I found out, I tracked him down and gave him a piece of my mind. I did not hold back. I then stormed off from him and left him to stew. Except, it was me that stewed. I quickly realised I had overstepped the mark, and was probably going to be in for a world of trouble. So, I tracked him down again. He was in his office. I went in and apologised, fully expecting to get a formal warning about my behaviour. Instead, he told me very calmly but firmly that I had been out of order, and he didn’t want to see that behaviour again. Then, he went on to tell me that although my manner had been wrong, I had been right to challenge him. He liked that I had some “fire in the belly”. He praised my passion for my standards, and said he was confident I would deliver results. Wow! I’d gone in there expecting to get a warning, and came out feeling ten feet tall. For the duration of working under that manager, I gave him 100% commitment, and we went on to have a great working relationship. I was sorry to see him go when he moved on. He knew how to manage people.
Autistic people have to be managed as autistic people. In many countries such as the UK, autism is a protected characteristic as a disability. This means that management should put the effort in to understand an autistic employee’s particular configuration of autistic traits. This effort should come willingly and proactively from the management, but should not be done in a paternalistic fashion. Management must listen carefully to what an autistic employee says about their requirements for reasonable adjustments, and take care not to make assumptions. It’s very frustrating for an autistic person if we try to explain how our autism works, and we find the manager only taking on board the bits they think are important. It’s all important, and the complex nature of our needs may not always seem obvious or intuitive to non-autistic people.
Method Acting: In a leadership role, you are pretty much on show all the time. In my experience, most managers and supervisors grossly underestimate the influence they have over how their staff feel. Early in my management career, I was shocked to realise I had hurt someone’s feelings with an ill-timed comment directed at them – a comment I thought carried no weight at all. I was wrong. Over the years, I have seen experienced, battle-hardened junior managers and supervisors distraught over throwaway comments from their boss, simply because the boss had not considered the context. When your career depends on how your boss thinks about you, and your potential annual bonus depends on a review that will include an assessment of your workplace behaviours, an ill-thought-out remark can be disastrous for morale. So, for a good manager, the professionalism switch has to be always on. You’re scrutinised at every turn. And if you are the type of manager who is a thoughtless clod, completely unaware of the gaze of your staff, then you will hit trouble.
Autistic people like myself often struggle to interpret the alien-seeming behaviour of neurotypical people, which seems to be filled with unspoken rules, opaque in-jokes, and nudges and winks we can’t easily fathom. For this reason, we will watch a manager’s behaviour closely, and not depend on their words alone. Unprofessional behaviour, such as sly dirty looks, inappropriate comments, hour-long tea-breaks, early finishes, and general laziness will be spotted by us, and will diminish any respect we might have had.
I remember one deputy store manager who started work every day at 7am, took an hour-long morning tea break, wandered around laughing and joking with his friends, and finished work at 3.45pm voicing the witty comment, “Quarter to four, out the door!” Meanwhile, his department managers were working shifts finishing at 5pm, or 6pm or 7pm, including unpaid overtime. No one respected him. I heard some time later that he had been fired.
A good manager will always be acting the part well, deploying professional behaviour and language consistently. We autistic people know about acting a part; it’s called autistic masking and we have to do it daily just to survive, so we’ll be expecting management to be on their best behaviour.
Work the environment: A good manager will try to make the workplace as pleasant as possible, so that employees have as good a chance as possible of enjoying their job. Unfortunately, good intentions often go awry and lead to utter nonsense and low morale. And this is frustrating because there are ways of making a workplace pleasant that are so obvious it’s almost embarrassing to have to mention them. Let me give you an example of how it can go wrong…
In the company I worked for as a manager, an initiative was introduced called Great Place To Work (GPTW). Every store had to have a GPTW committee of staff who would canvas opinion, make suggestions, and implement improvements within the store, to help make it a Great Place To Work. Simple, right? Unfortunately, a lot of the suggestions were for social events for staff, which would take place outside of work. These were fine, but they weren’t really making the workplace any better to work in, they were just fostering social lives. Considering the difficulties many autistic people experience with social situations, it was far from inclusive. But it gets worse… Someone on the GPTW committee in my store came up with the idea of employees doing a “flashmob dance” at the front of the store. And because the GPTW committee was supposed to be about being “positive”, and everyone “joining in”, the committee agreed this would be an excellent idea. So, on one busy trading day, an announcement went over the PA system, and a handful of staff rushed to the front of the store, where they did this odd synchronised dance over distorted music blaring over the PA system. Not everyone joined in. I, as you might guess, certainly did not. But I watched, cringing, from a distance as customers gaped open-mouthed at this nonsense unfolding in front of them. When the dance finished, the participants stood awkwardly, blushing and grinning, and not quite knowing what to do. There was a little uncomfortable applause from a few customers. Then we all went back to work. I was baffled by the whole affair. How this made the store a Great Place To Work, I will never know.
Meanwhile, there were issues in this store that staff were unhappy with, and which were fed back in staff council meetings, staff surveys and so on, but which were never improved upon. If some effort had been put into these simple, basic issues, maybe it would have become a better place to work. The issues included: Staff toilets often running out of toilet paper and handsoap. Staff toilet doors broken, or locks not working. Not enough scanning handsets for the amount of work that needed to be done. Essential equipment repairs taking too long. Cold air vents blowing straight down at checkout operators. Poor standards of cleaning from the janitors. Poor quality, ill-fitting staff uniforms. Broken chairs in offices. Replenishment trollies in poor repair. And on and on. It was bad enough putting up with these issues, but the real killer was the fact that senior management seemed to not care about the conditions the staff were working in. Even some of my fellow department managers didn’t seem that bothered. And when I emailed a regional manager with a suggestion about doing daily checks of all these types of staff/environment issues in the same way we carried out checks of customer issues, I was treated like a pariah. One of my fellow department managers said my suggestion had made them look stupid. The truth was, their lack of commitment to staff welfare was what was making them look stupid.
The point here is that autistic people are likely to see straight through bullshit initiatives, and focus instead on issues like: Is equipment in good repair? Is the workplace clean, hygienic, and safe? Are staff facilities in good order? Are staff being treated fairly? These are the things that make a job a truly great place to work; not doing a dance while equipment falls apart.
Meritocracy: Pretty much any employer you come across that is large enough to have a structure with development and promotion opportunities available will claim to be a meritocracy. Most of them are lying. It’s human nature for people to think more favourably of people they like, or feel comfortable around, and this almost always ensures a pals network of cliques and favourites who get first bite at any cherry, while anyone outgrouped is prevented from progressing.
It is the duty of a fair employer to put biases aside when dealing with employees’ careers. However, time and time again I see employers – not just those I have worked for – fill development opportunities and promotions with people from cliques, or whose faces fit. In some of the places I’ve worked, it was almost a running joke that some positions were not worth applying for because we all knew “X” was getting the job. And “X” always did. I know this is a common scenario that employees from many organisations will be familiar with. All employers claim they don’t do it, but it keeps on happening in such predictable fashion that it’s embarrassing. Oddly though, it seems as if many staff just shrug their shoulders and accept that this is the way things always have been and always will be. Autistic people, with our keen sense of justice, will be unlikely to stand for it. How this will play out depends on the individual. But it’s management behaviours like this that cause employees to lose morale, leading to lower productivity. And when staff are not giving their best, it makes them unhappy. Believe not or not (many managers don’t believe this, but it’s true) most staff want to do high-quality work. They want to feel they are working to a good standard, that this gets recognised and rewarded appropriately, and to feel proud of what they achieve. But bad management can lead to people feeling undervalued and depressed, and result in them working to a lower standard (the “why should I even bother” effect). This causes further ill-feeling, and a vicious cycle results.
Good managers will ensure good performance is recognised and rewarded, and that development and promotions go to the right people, rather than to their favourites. Statistics show that autistic people are more likely than the general population to be in lower-paid jobs. An autism support worker I spoke to told me it is very common for autistic employees to be overlooked for promotions in favour of neurotypical employees with lesser ability, qualifications or experience. Openly autistic people like myself suffer from a management bias in which we are assumed to be less competent and/or less reliable. Autistic people who have not come out, or who do not yet know they are autistic, suffer from being seen as people who don’t fit in, outsiders, or oddballs, and not right for development. We notice when we are overlooked. We see bad managers when they do this to us.
Respect: I mentioned in the above point that most people want to do a good job and feel proud of the work they do. In fact, “most” is an understatement. The truth is you almost never find an employee who is deliberately trying to do a bad job. It’s so rare, it’s almost non-existent. Over a management career of nearly thirty years, I managed hundreds of employees. They virtually all tried to do a good job – even the few I didn’t like. In fact, even the staff I knew didn’t like working for me still tried to do a great job. I only ever came across one member of staff who was deliberately trying to do a bad job – he was a young man with a chip on his shoulder who was planning on leaving the company, and he thought it would be fun to see how far he could push things until he was sacked. Amazingly, due to the incompetence of a senior manager, a disciplinary hearing was abandoned, and this young man held onto his job long after he should have been sacked, which he thought was hilarious. But that’s just one odd example compared to the hundreds of excellent staff doing their best. And yet, to hear managers talk to each other about their staff at times, you’d think they were all rubbish. In the large company I worked for, I heard senior management describe some staff as terrorists. They thought talk like that wouldn’t filter down to the shop floor, but it always did. Most staff didn’t feel empowered to challenge managers about things like this, and so they just lost morale. Can you imagine finding out a senior manager was calling you a terrorist, or as useless, or lazy? It happens all the time, and somehow, a cascade of gossip often means the victim finds out. Autistic people find it almost impossible to just shrug off stuff like this. Our sense of justice means we will seethe about it, and not let it go.
Good managers will keep disparaging opinions about staff to themselves, and will instead manage them fairly and impartially.
The poor standards of management behaviour I’ve discussed above are commonplace. I’m not saying poor management is the sole reason in the upsurge of quiet quitting, but as I mentioned before, people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad managers. Good managers will take a critical look at themselves and try to purge poor behaviours. Bad managers will just shrug off the negative consequences of their bad behaviour, because they have come to expect their staff to just put up with it.
There is, I believe, a divide between autistic and non-autistic staff when reacting to bad management. Often, I have seen non-autistic staff just resign themselves to being treated badly and working in poor quality environments. They don’t like it, but they shrug their shoulders and get on with it. Autistic people will find this almost impossible to do because we cannot tolerate unfairness and injustice. It eats away at us. And often, we will act on it. This can lead to an employer losing out on quality autistic employees who look for work elsewhere. It can also lead to bad managers who get called out by autistic employees having to face disciplinary action as a result of formal complaints.
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I would very interested in hearing from other autistic people about their workplace experiences of good and bad management. You can contact me by commenting here, or by private messaging on Twitter. I’m happy to relate your experiences while keeping your identity anonymous. That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.
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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.