In this month’s special feature we speak to Nick Dubin, author of Asperger syndrome & Bullying: Strategies & Solutions which was featured in a previous newsletter.
As one of the leading commentators on bullying and Asperger, I was keen to tap into Nick’s thinking in relation to the subject in the workplace.
As readers of my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome are aware, I personally have had to deal with victimisation in the workplace. It is arguably the most problematic issue that a person with AS has to deal with. Though substituting a school environment for a work equivalent is not exact, the issues are largely the same and many of the possible solutions similar.
Below, Nick gives his responses to some questions that I have posed and from two from readers of Asperger Management.
MJ: Nick, I think that the thing that struck me most when I came to consider what questions I would ask you, related to the differences in a school and a work environment in relation to bullying.
In a school, bullying is outlawed and clearly unacceptable and a framework exists to negate it: a child being bullied reports the child doing the bullying and something can clearly be done to address the situation. This may involve implementing disciplinary measures such as detention or removal from the school.
Though these sanctions exist in theory in the workplace, in practice they are less clear cut. Bullying is, in a way, expected among children, but not so among adults, certainly not in a professional context, yet it persists nevertheless. It is often more subtle; someone claims that a person’s skill set is inappropriate for example, and is used as a means of debilitating or downgrading someone.
In addition, the word bullying is innately associated with a school, but not necessarily in a professional environment. Do you have any thoughts on this?
ND: You bring up a very good point Malcolm. We (people on the [AS] spectrum) are offered a lot less “protection” out in the workplace than we get during school because the word “bullying” is typically not associated with work place behaviour. And yet, often the bullying that takes place in the workplace is quite subtle. Co-workers often exclude a person from activities outside the workplace. Gossip in the workplace is common. Often we are judged based on our social graces rather than the work we produce. Being excluded or gossiped about or even demoted because of poor social skills are, in my opinion, all examples of covert bullying. Ah, but we don’t call it bullying, do we??
Recently, a young man approached me and said he was upset with me. He had previously followed my advice to disclose his Asperger’s to his boss because the work he was being asked to do was being impeded by his Asperger’s. What happened following the disclosure was not pretty: essentially, the boss lambasted this man for using his Asperger’s as an excuse for poor job performance. Was this an example of bullying? You bet it was!
The problem is that the same rules that exist for courteous behaviour at school often do not exist in the workplace. No one gets demoted for gossiping. No one gets reprimanded for being less than sensitive to an employee’s job needs because of a disability (or “diffiability”, as Wendy Lawson likes to say).
There is virtually no protection offered to our population out in the workplace, which I consider a very sad fact. In the United States we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, but in practical terms, this does not always prevent job discrimination from taking place.
MJ: Prevention is always better than cure. In the questions at the back of your book you state: “I don’t put myself in situations’ where being victimised is a possibility. I am careful in my social interactions because of past experiences”.
From a personal experience, I have found it is virtually impossible to avoid situations where I have not been subjected to intimidation in a business – working with an aggressive manager for example.
Do you have suggestions as to how you avoid oppressive and intimidating scenarios in a more closed environment or context?
ND: Well Malcolm, I am super selective. Perhaps too selective for my own good. If I even sense that someone is taking advantage of me or treating me disrespectfully, I will try to work it out peacefully, or I will not stay at that job if it persists.
Now I realize that for many people, what I have just described is not an option. For many years, I endured abuse as a tennis instructor, particularly from a couple of pretty mean and sarcastic bosses. Back then, I did not have the education under my belt that I have today, which naturally limited my job options at the time. If I had quit my tennis jobs, it was likely I wouldn’t have been able to find another job teaching tennis, so I felt “stuck”. I felt like I had to endure that abuse.
Malcolm, you described aggressive bosses or managers. This type of person wreaks havoc for our population for a couple of key reasons. Number one, an aggressive manager is likely going to be highly loquacious, which would present a problem with someone who has auditory processing difficulties. Someone who had problems thinking fast on his or her feet would not be able to respond quickly or appropriately. In essence, with this type of person, we are already in a “one down” position.
In a closed environment, it is difficult to endure this type of person. I have always thought that office environments and closed spaces typically do not suit the Asperger individual well, particularly in the workplace. It’s like the old Cole Porter song…….”Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above, don’t fence me in!!” We (Aspies) do not like being fenced it! Ideal jobs that involve both structure and independence are jobs that I feel suit people with Asperger’s.
I have met many people with Asperger’s who have been successful small business entrepreneurs. I’ve met others who have worked as independent contractors for a variety of businesses. Even if one doesn’t start a business, I think it’s important that he or she picks a job that doesn’t demand that they be in close proximity to co-workers from 9-5 for five days a week.
MJ: I’d like to probe you a little more about premeditating that one will automatically be bullied and its connection with diagnosis and disclosure.
In the early stages of my career I was unaware of my condition. The possibility that I may be victimised because of it was not, therefore, an issue. My conscious state did not contribute to the “what you think about you bring about” factor.
Since learning of my AS, I have been able to the identify issues that have contributed to my provoking others – unintentionally. I have been able to develop ameliorative actions which have been hugely beneficial. Being consciously aware of having AS has, however, made me wary – and aware – of the possibility that I could be susceptible to victimisation.
In the UK we have legislation in the form of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) which requires an employer to make “reasonable adjustments” for someone with a disability. This can act offer some form of protection. However, I have always not disclosed my condition as I feel, as a senior manager, it could be viewed negatively.
Do you feel that disclosure is more likely to increase the likelihood of oppression from both an internal and external perspective?
ND: Gail Hawkins, who is the Asperger’s Guru of employment, always suggests disclosing one’s diagnosis. I tend to agree with her, but as we saw with the young man who I advised to disclose his diagnosis at his job, it sometimes does not turn out pretty.
The law in both Great Britain and the United States is supposed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination but as we see, this doesn’t always happen.
As a general rule of thumb, I do advise disclosure. Looking at this from a macrocosmic standpoint, if more of us can educate the general public as to what AS is and how it affects us, the better off society at large will be. If everyone with disabilities never advocated for themselves or showed the world their true colours, disability rights advocacy would not exist.
Oppression most certainly does exist, but ultimately, this is a human rights issue, like any minority issue that society has confronted in the past, such as civil rights or gay rights. Why should we hide who we are at our places of work because people are not yet evolved enough to treat us equally or with the respect we deserve?
From a microcosmic standpoint, adverse reactions to our disclosure can alert us to job environments that might be less than supportive and then we can make the decision to either stay or leave that job.
MJ: one of the issues that you spoke about which interested me the most from your book were the defensive techniques or “comebacks”.
In particular, you talked about the shock of being attacked unexpectedly and excessively. This has happened to me on two occasions.
Each scenario was, however, different: the context and the bully involved varied, and what may have been an effective “comeback” in one instance would not have been in the other.
I am not sure either that simple comebacks would have been effective in either scenario. In each case, the cause of the attack went deeper; it was down to personal dislike of my personality and “comebacks” could possibility have antagonised, rather than ameliorated, the situation.
Can you offer any further insight into dealing with such extreme examples? One approach I have thought about is simply withdrawing from the situation, i.e. walking out on a meeting by saying I am not going to be subjected, neither will associate myself, with that abuse. I would then confront the person later.
ND: Again Malcolm, you bring up a good point. As I advised in the book, it isn’t wise for a child of small height and proportion to use these comebacks injudiciously with the kid who weighs 200 pounds and is six feet tall. On the other hand, a child doesn’t want to be fodder all the time, nor should he or she be. Everyone is entitled to an arsenal of verbal self-defence.
I think “comebacks” as I describe them in the book for school children are different from what I would advise an adult Aspie on the job. By the time we reach adulthood, “comebacks” are not necessarily the best way to handle confrontation. Diplomacy is a far better tactic. A few lines that have worked for me:
1. “Wait, just stop right there. You know, I’ll be more than happy to listen to anything you have to say, but it sounds like you’re angry and I want to wait until you cool down so both of us can talk through things calmly. Does that sound okay?”
2. James (or whoever), I need to take a break right now. What you’re saying is really important to me and I think it’s important that we work this out, but I have to be somewhere right now. Let’s discuss this later.
If I’m really angry, I’ll say this…..
1. James, this isn’t working. If you want, email me later on, I’ll be happy to hear you out, but I’m not going to stand hear and listen to you blast me. Good day (and then I’ll walk away).
I would advise a person to come up with at least 20 or so scripts that are similar to the above and rehearse them. I have found that I can tame even the fiercest tigers by simply using some rehearsed tact.
MJ: One of the most difficult things for me has been striking the right balance between being assertive to discourage bullying and remaining non-provocative whilst doing so. Looking back, I can see how my reactions – which could be construed as aggressive by others – inflamed rather than contained a situation. My response has been one of over reaction for example.
It’s about getting the balance right. How do you go about this?
ND: There’s a part of the brain (called the amygdala) which itself is part of the limbic system. The amygdala is responsible for our “fight or flight” reactions, which suggests that a person with an overactive amygdala is going to be very reactive, in general.
Some studies by researchers using brain imaging have suggested that the amygdalas of people with Asperger’s are either very enlarged or smaller than usual. The implication here is that someone with an enlarged amygdala might tend to have overly aggressive reactions to small provocations. What about large provocations? Well, one can only imagine the reactions.
I recognize that I probably have an overly enlarged amygdala because I react aggressively (sometimes passive aggressively) to even the smallest stuff. Because I know this about myself, I have trained myself to be incredibly discerning in when I respond angrily and when I use tact. Ironically, because I know that I have the tendency to react overly aggressively, this is what makes me a tactful person. I have to work extra hard at being tactful and because I do, it pays off.
As a rule of thumb, aggressive behaviour in the workplace just doesn’t pay off. Whenever I have used it, I’ve gotten into serious trouble. Whenever I’ve used my “bullshit tact”, I fare much better, even if I feel I’m being phoney in the moment.
MJ: Leading on from this, I think that it is generally fair to say that bullying in the workplace can generally be more subtle than in a school context. Much of it revolves around power and egos – as it does to a degree in a school – but in a work context, it can be camouflaged as being in the “corporate interest”.
Discerning this is something that I have always found problematic. How would you evaluate the politics of a situation and would you, for example, tolerate more oppression as a result of it?
ND: This is another reason why I hate any kind of office; usually, there is always some form of office politics taking place. Honestly, because of my Asperger’s, I am at a loss for office politics. So not only do I make a concerted effort to avoid office politics, but I purposefully put myself outside of the social loop.
The price I pay for doing this is I usually do not have the foggiest idea any of my co-worker’s lives and frankly, I don’t want to know. To some extent, this is both good and bad. It’s good because I have nothing to gossip about with anyone else. It’s bad because I have no idea what’s going on behind my back. Do I tolerate more oppression because of this? I suppose, but it’s the price I pay to remain ignorant.
MJ: You speak about the importance of not letting a teacher bully you. However, in an educational context a teacher is professionally obliged to support a child and not intimidate them. A teacher cannot refuse to teach that child (other than in extreme circumstances) and is naturally pre-disposed to working constructively with them.
In a work context, this scenario is less clear cut. In one personal instance, my protagonist refused to have me report to him even though logically and professionally, I should have done so. His professional (as a Director) duty was to assume responsibility. Refusing to do so enabled him to continue to snipe at, rather than, support me.
If a child makes a complaint against a teacher, there is no negative downside: the child is still taught and not damaged personally directly. In a work context, crossing a superior runs the risk of being subjected to discrimination going forward; not being supported for promotion, for example.
Given this, would you advocate changing your approach to this problem in any way in a work context?
ND: No, I wouldn’t. I believe that any person is entitled to be treated with respect in any job setting. Just because we live in a free market doesn’t mean we have to tolerate abuse from our higher ups.
And also Malcolm, that’s not entirely true about there being no downside to a child making a complaint against a teacher: There was an instance where I did report a teacher who I felt was bullying me and she got so angry at me for doing so that I had to be taken out her classroom and placed in a different class.
Getting back to the issue of employment; ideally, a job candidate will have asked around about a particular employer before accepting a job. You see, we usually don’t realize that employees are also entitled to reference their bosses just as bosses ask us for references. No, you don’t say to your potential boss “can I see a list of references please?” But you do have the right to ask around and make sure this is a person you want to work with. You have the right to do research about the company to make sure that the company’s ethos jives with yours.
Ideally, it would be important not to work for someone in the first place who is manipulative and aggressive. Sometimes this is beyond our control. We get hired, our nice boss quits and a nasty one moves in on the scene. In that case, we have the right to stand up for ourselves and not tolerate abuse. The difference between a free-market and a slave holding society is that employees are not slaves. We need to make our needs known!
MJ: Leading on from the previous point, you talk in your book about the importance of “possible defenders” in confronting bullying. In my review of your book, I make the point that, ultimately, getting people to support you at work is fraught with difficulty due the possibility of the person being tarnished by the process in the eyes of the superior manager who is doing the bullying. They may then hold a grudge against that person also.
In one survey on bullying in the workplace I read, a person made the point that “people who are initially keen to support you tend to disappear when it comes to the crunch of confronting the oppressor”.
For me, this is not only understandable but largely predictable. Getting someone to put their own standing on the line when their livelihood is at stake is a big ask. Without support, however, it is virtually impossible.
How would approach this problem?
ND: It is unlikely, as you say Malcolm, that people are going to put themselves out on the line when their own livelihood is at stake. Ultimately, Machiavellianism always prevails in the workplace.
I would not advise any employee to ask other employees to risk their jobs on your behalf. Number one, they probably won’t do it. Number two, if they do it and then get fired, they have you to thank for it. In the worse case scenario where your boss is literally telling you that you’re useless on a daily basis, the best thing to do would be to graciously put in your two weeks notice.
MJ: A couple of questions now that have been submitted by readers of Asperger Management. Firstly, one from a person who recently gave up her employment to re-train by becoming a mature student
“How can we spot the incipient signs of bullying in the workplace?”
ND: The answer is simple, my dear Watson! Watch for the ways in which employers treat their employees with differences, such as people with Asperger’s.
My sense is that a lot of the bullying that takes place by bosses is both covert and unconscious, thus making it that much harder to detect. For example, managers may truly feel justified in not accepting a diagnosis of Asperger’s from their employees, rationalizing it as an excuse for poor performance and thinking that dismissing the diagnosis will help maintain a high standard of work throughout the company.
I believe this is a covert act of bullying. It would be the equivalent of a physical education teacher yelling at a student for not throwing a ball far enough when the student has neurological gross motor challenges, with the teacher thinking that yelling at this student will maintain a high level of classroom performance. It’s pure rubbish!
I am not saying that managers shouldn’t demand the same kind of work quality from individuals with Asperger’s as they demand from other employees. I am saying that managers need to understand that people with Asperger’s have different ways of processing the world around them than do neuro-typicals. This means they will have a different way of going about their work from neuro-typicals. If managers can’t accept this, or have trouble doing so, instances of bullying are likely to occur.
Managers are in positions of authority and can therefore act indiscriminately. If any teacher behaved in an abusive manner, they probably would be reprimanded, but the threat of being reprimanded as a manager is fairly nonexistent.
This goes back to my point about how employees with disabilities are offered far less protection from being bullied in the workplace than children with disabilities are offered at school. Teachers are not supposed to bully students; this is a given.
But there is no universal law which says that managers are not supposed to bully employees. The sad fact is that as long as productivity and profit are the number one goals of the workplace, bullying is always going to exist, especially for those with disabilities.
As I see it, workplaces really need to be humanized, where employees are treated like members of a big family instead of cogs in a machine.
MJ: Next, Nick, two questions from a manager working in retail, both of which I think are highly relevant and pertinent.
“How can we, as managers, create a non-tolerant approach to bullying within the workplace that we manage?”
ND: Treat your employees like human beings, not as mentioned, as cogs in a machine. Insist that “respect” is just as important a workplace value as productivity. Be sure to discipline all instances of gossip.
Encourage your employees to come forward and report all instances of workplace bullying to send out the message to all employees that rude behaviour towards others will not be tolerated.
Tell your employees that harassing emails towards co-workers will not be tolerated, as well. In short, it is your responsibility as a manager to create a culture where anti-social behaviour at your place of employment is not acceptable.
MJ“Is it best to take out a grievance against a manager that is bullying us, or deal with it on a one-to-one basis (e.g. by writing the person committing the bullying a letter), or just look for employment elsewhere and walk away.”
ND: It depends on what kind of manager you are dealing with. If this is a manager that has a track record of being totally unreasonable, it probably isn’t best to confront the manager directly or file a grievance. In this case, it probably is best to look for employment elsewhere.
However, if this person is someone who is capable of two-way communication and can be receptive, then dealing with that person directly might be effective. First of all, it shows the manager that you are an assertive person; assertiveness being a quality that most companies value.
Secondly, if you file a grievance before giving your boss/manager the opportunity to work out the situation, you may be working against yourself. The boss may be highly resentful that you went over his or her head.
Having said that, most bosses that are engaging in “bullying” behaviour are probably not that reasonable. That being the case, I do not advise continually working for an abusive boss, especially one who has shown that he or she is not capable of becoming more civilized.
If one’s boss is constantly acting like a “bully”, I do feel it is time to walk away and look for employment elsewhere.
MJ: Nick, thank you for that. As with your book your comments and insight are most valuable. If there are any further questions forthcoming as a result of this article, I will ensure that they are forwarded to you.