What I’ve Learned About Social Expectations At Work Since Starting My Job

(Featured image description: Multiple shots of people working at computer desks.)

Hi all,

I’m sure you are all aware of the problems autistic people face with employment. A major reason is the social aspect of the role – such as the unwritten rules in the workplace.

Without going into too much detail, my workplace is one of the more accommodating ones in the UK. However, it is also one of the more chaotic workplaces which means that I have had a lot of challenges to deal with. Fortunately, it is starting to get easier for me so I am going to spread the love.

Here is a list of what I’ve learned this week – with the help of my line manager who communicated this to me – so that other autistic people can better understand some of the unwritten workplace rules out there.

Rules won’t always be followed

This is a big one. Even in the most structured of workplaces – the rules and procedures in place often serve as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules (unless they are legal or health and safety-related). Rules will be bent depending on business need so it means that people cannot strictly enforce them as doing so risks making the business look bad.

An example I was given refers to whether figures of influence are involved. This can include company directors to celebrities and political/religious figures. In other words, rules are often bent so that the company or organisation save face. Did somebody submit something a bit late? Well depending on who the guests are that work will be prioritised.

An individual’s actions have wide-reaching consequences on the whole team

This is important to understand because this is something that managers and other staff pick up on even if the individual concerned doesn’t. This is also used to factor in things like performance reviews. In other words, the bigger picture is something that all members of the team need to understand.

For me, I am currently not fully trained in my role and because of this other members of my team are picking up some of the things that I am supposed to be doing. Yet I had absolutely no idea until this was communicated to me directly. I only fully understood once I was given a concrete example of something, I should be doing but I’ve not been trained on yet.

Initiative is expected

By this, I mean that workers are expected to be able to think for themselves on how to solve situations and not ask too many questions. Initially, this was quite confusing for me because I thought that if I don’t know what to do, I should be asking questions? Yet apparently, I was asking too many questions because it meant that my colleague was basically doing my work (and I was just typing it).

I think this stems in part due to how much support autistic people have or not. For example, for the few autistic people in school that got proper support from a young age may have been constantly handheld and not fully developed the initiative required for many jobs.

Social anxiety and a fear of making mistakes also play a part here. One reason for this is that many autistic people have learned over the years that their judgement for social situations is incorrect hence their judgement is not trustworthy. When I say “incorrect,” I mean that as a value judgement as to how an NT would see things. When it comes to other autistic/neurodivergent people, more people are likely to see the judgement as correct (or at least something they would do).

Meetings should always be prioritised

This section can be summarised in a few simple points. The first is that if somebody invites somebody else to a work-related meeting they are expected to attend. This applies regardless of the context from verbal agreements to Outlook invites. This also applies if the meeting sounds informal and/or optional such as a “coffee with [senior director].” I had a meltdown that day and was volatile so I thought as this coffee meeting was optional hence, I didn’t have to go so I didn’t. I ended up getting told off for it.

Additionally, the individual employee is also expected to take responsibility for their own timetable. One reason why is because other staff have their own workloads so cannot be responsible for others too. Fortunately, Outlook has aids that can help with executive functioning such as alarms and reminders. This is not so helpful for making sure employees remember meetings first thing in the morning so other reminders (ie. Using tools like Amazon Alexa) as well as a daily reminder to check the calendar is what helps me.

It’s impossible to understand everything that’s happening

In the world of work, so much goes on that unless somebody is senior management, it is impossible to know everything that goes on and how people are expected to behave. Part of this is due to confidentiality obligations however it can also be down to the fact that things are generally communicated on a “need-to-know” basis.

Hence a skill that will be expected of staff is to know when to ask for more information and when to just accept what you’ve been told. Usually, when someone says that “it’s private and/or confidential” or “only senior staff have access” that is a clear sign that lower-level staff are not to dig. Even many autism-friendly workplaces have these expectations.

This also applies to social situations. Yes, some managers may make decisions that seem strange but if they have a track record of meaning well and aren’t trying to be malicious their advice is worth following. Not just because they are the manager but also because they understand better how everything works.

The line manager acts as a communicator for any problems

One thing I’ve greatly struggled with over the years is that people won’t talk to me directly about the problems they have with me or my behaviour. For personal relationships, this is obviously a serious issue however this is not the case for workplace relationships in many contexts.

This is because the role of the line manager is considered important. Basically, subordinates tell their line managers anything that is bothering them. This includes how other employees are negatively impacting on them. This doesn’t just include the usual bad things but also includes things that are causing them to have difficulties doing their work such as asking too many questions that I mentioned earlier.

This is nothing personal. It is not a personal failure or anything like that. It is because this is the unwritten social rule of many workplaces that employees are taught to follow. Additionally, line managers often undergo specific training on management that lower-level staff often do not.

The boundaries blur a bit more when it is a personal relationship of some sort. Usually, this applies if somebody knows them outside of work or the colleagues have worked together for a long time. Hence colleagues may talk to each other directly rather than going to the line manager.

So in other words, these are some of the many ways that work relationships are different from personal relationships. Hence autistic people can’t simply cut and paste expectations from personal relationships into a workplace context even though that is the logical thing an autistic person may do. That’s all for today. I hope to be able to share more tips like this soon.

Milla xx

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