Workplace Bullying and the Autistic Employee, Part I: The Basics of Bullying

In my ongoing research, I recently found an article from the Workplace Bullying Institute about self-defeating stigmas held by adults bullied in the workplace. While reading the article, I began to think about my own experiences with workplace bullying and recognized some of my own shame about it.

Then, I thought about autistic adults and workplace bullying as a whole. According to a 2010 survey by the WBI, 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand. With estimates of autistic children being bullied as high as 90%, it’s not hard to imagine that many autistic adults have been bullied as both children and adults. And if what the WBI call a “silent epidemic” is distressing to neurotypical employees, you can imagine what kind of pain and distress it might cause for an autistic employee.

For the purposes of this series, I will also cover workplace gossiping, and how it affects the autistic employee. While it is not out-and-out bullying, sometimes gossip and bullying can occur together – or even separately. But in any case, both phenomena can have detrimental effects on an autistic employee.

What Is Bullying?

First, we need to define bullying itself. The revised edition of The Bully at Work by Gary and Ruth Namie defines workplace bullying as “repeated, malicious health-endangering mistreatment of one employee by one or more employees”. Rudy Simone, author of Asperger’s on the Job (2010), cites this definition in her discussion of workplace bullying in the book. Additionally, the WBI describes it in their FAQ as follows:

“It is mistreatment severe enough to compromise a targeted worker’s health, jeopardize her or his job and career, and strain relationships with friends and family. It is a laser-focused, systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It has nothing to do with work itself. It is driven by the bully’s personal agenda and actually prevents work from getting done. It begins with one person singling out the target. Before long, the bully easily and swiftly recruits others to gang up on the target, which increases the sense of isolation.”

The WBI further says that bullying can take the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done

In a sense, workplace bullying is not much different from the kind of bullying we might have encountered in school. It may be more subtle in some cases (like gossip about a target, or veiled threats), but the basic tactics remain the same. Consider the following definition, courtesy of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program:

“A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”

And consider the following types of bullying, also courtesy of Olweus:

  1. Verbal bullying including derogatory comments and bad names
  2. Bullying through social exclusion or isolation
  3. Physical bullying such as hitting, kicking, shoving, and spitting
  4. Bullying through lies and false rumors
  5. Having money or other things taken or damaged by students who bully
  6. Being threatened or being forced to do things by students who bully
  7. Racial bullying
  8. Sexual bullying
  9. Cyber bullying (via cell phone or Internet)

If you look at both the above list and the list from the WBI I cited earlier, you’ll notice that though Olweus’ list is more explicit and applies specifically to the primary and secondary school environments (although sometimes this kinds of bullying sadly happens in higher education institutions, as we have seen from recent news), the aims, objectives, and malicious intent are the same.

Why Do Bullies Bully?

When you’re on the receiving end, it can be hard to comprehend why someone might choose to mistreat you. I know I often walked away from encounters wondering why it was happening, and what I could have done to cause the person in question to treat me that way. But believe it or not, there are clear-cut (if perhaps cruel and illogical reasons) why bullies mistreat others in the workplace.

There are personal reasons, and there are institutional reasons for why bullying occurs. First I will discuss the personal reasons why bullies bully. You will notice that while each of these reasons is distinct in and of itself, they are all somewhat related.

  • To hide their own inadequacies. The UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line says that people bully in the workplace to “avoid facing up to their inadequacy and doing something about it; to avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour and the effect it has on others; to reduce their fear of being seen for what they are, namely a weak, inadequate and often incompetent individuals; and, to divert attention away from their inadequacy”. In other words, they are trying to cover up their own perceived shortcomings and putting others down to make themselves feel better, superior, and more capable for the job.
  • Maladaptive coping mechanism. Stephanie Allen Crist in her article on workplace bullying and autism on Shift Journal says that bullying is a coping mechanism – whether the bully is actually the target of bullying from others (which can happen in many workplaces) or he/she is attempting to cope with prejudice, fear, or misunderstanding. In many cases, the bully may have been or may be the target of bullying by others in the workplace, or they may fear being targeted – so they bully others to deflect any possibility of being bullied.
  • Personal bitterness, anger, and resentment. The UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line continues by saying that “bullies are seething with resentment, bitterness, hatred and anger, and often have wide-ranging prejudices as a vehicle for dumping their anger onto others.” In essence, they have not learned to deal with their negative feelings – and instead of using positive coping mechanisms for those negative feelings, they choose to take them out on others – namely other people who they may view as acceptable targets due to perceived weakness, differences, or because they think that certain qualities about that person will allow them to “get away with it”. More on this later.
  • Sadism. In other words, the person enjoys inflicting pain and distress on others. Yes, there are some people out there like this – some of them may qualify for a sadistic personality disorder diagnosis. According to forensic psychologist Stephen J. Hucker, this personality disorder is a “pervasive pattern of behavior which characterized by cruel, manipulative, demeaning and possibly aggressive behavior towards others”. Sounds a little like bullying, doesn’t it? It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to suppose that some of these types are behind a lot of the workplace – and school – bullying that happens.

Now, I’ll move on to the institutional causes of workplace bullying. Probably the best source on this is the WBI, which mentions the following three workplace factors that contribute to bullying:

  1. Factor 1: Work Culture Provides Cutthroat Competition Opportunities. This is what Simone in Asperger’s on the Job refers to as a “survival of the fittest” mentality: people are pitted against each other at work, and attacking others to make oneself look better – or to drive them out of the workplace entirely – becomes the mode of survival. And often, it is the best and the brightest who are targeted by bullies. But again, more on that later.
  2. Factor 2: The Workforce Mix. The WBI refers to “Machiavellian” types of individuals: in their case, what can look like ambition on a job resume may disguise a willingness to harm others to get ahead. In my mind, this is related to the personal causes of bullying: you could have either someone covering up their inadequacies or a real sadist/sociopath who does not care about hurting others to reach the top. And the problem is, these types of people might find their behavior encouraged or rewarded in the workplace. Which leads me to…
  3. Factor 3: The Employer’s Response to Bullying. In many cases, management either falls to respond to bullying entirely, makes excuses for the bullies and does not subject them to punishment, or out-and-out rewards the bullies with raises, promotions, and the like. These responses from the employer will certainly not deter him or her from ceasing. On the contrary, as the WBI puts it, it actually emboldens that individual and gives them incentive to continue the harassment. As a result, it creates a toxic environment for the target employee and again, as I mentioned earlier, the best and brightest are subjected to mental, physical, and emotional consequences if they stay – or if they leave, this results in something called “constructive discharge” (which I will cover in a later segment in this series).

The Effects of Workplace Bullying on Targets

The effects of bullying in the workplace are not that much different from bullying in school. According to Simone, those effects are “fear, isolation, mistrust of others, embarrassment, resentment, humiliation, and hostility”. Going back to school for just a moment, this can appear in school-age children as depression, severe anxiety, or PTSD manifesting itself as self-isolation, health problems, nightmares, poor grades, and suicidal thoughts (according to both Olweus).

For adults experiencing workplace bullying, its effects are not that much different than that of school bullying. Simone mentions that targets often adopt coping strategies such as hiding mistakes and not drawing attention to themselves. A former star performer – again, one of the best and brightest that I keep referring to – might end up with symptoms that Simone cites such as: a poorer work ethic, decreased enthusiasm for the job, depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, an impaired immune system, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Doesn’t this sound similar to the list of effects in the last paragraph…grades dropping, PTSD, self-isolation, health problems, and the like?

And consider what these kinds of effects might look like on an autistic individual. As I mentioned in my first post on stress, anxiety, and Asperger’s, autistics have a rougher time dealing with stress and anxiety. What is stressful to a neurotypical is blown up into mega-stressful for us due to our more sensitive nervous systems: factors such as low frustration tolerance and a lower tolerance for unpredictability can send our nerves into overdrive. Add other factors such as verbal communication difficulties typical among our population and possible post-traumatic stress disorder from childhood bullying and you have a very overwhelmed, frightened, stressed out person.

Thank you again for joining me on yet another blogging journey. Stay tuned for the next post in the series, which will include discussions of how bullies select their targets, what autistic tendencies tend to make us more prone to bullying, and a few words about autistic employees and gossip. In the meantime, please talk back to me. What have been your experiences with bullying? How did workplace bullying affect you, your productivity, your health, and your enthusiasm for the job? Have you left a job because of bullying? What would you tell other autistics in your situation?

Until next time,

Nicole

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12 thoughts on “Workplace Bullying and the Autistic Employee, Part I: The Basics of Bullying

  1. Gossip is a form of bullying. It is one of their main tactics. This is how they develop negative feelings in your co-workers. It is how they develop a mobbing. In my case the mobbing even went to agencies and the governor’s office in the state I live in. My experience with workplace bullying was horrendous. It includes having a breakdown at work and doing something in a suicide attempt which got me arrested. The rumors were horrid and I even got death threats on my phone. I was not allowed health care, I had tried to see a psychiatrist five times before the meltdown and after it happened one of the serial bullies, my supervisor, actually told the police I was not allowed to be admitted to the hospital. This is a small village in bush Alaska, it was the only hospital. The regular MDs would not give me a medication I had taken for years. I was on Trazadone and Neurontin, these are not problem meds, yet the Behavioral Health Department started a rumor Trazadone is addicting to slander me. I was also taking them for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME. I moved to another town where a completely false charge was used to have me wrongfully arrested and imprisoned by the DA who was not very bright and simply did whatever the serial bullies wanted. It resulted in my cat being starved and tortured and my property being stolen or put out in the rain. This story is very complicated. While incarcerated I was denied my medication, retaliated against for filing grievances and tortured (mostly psychological) by not only corrections officers, but also nurses, a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Everyone kept telling me I did not have Aspergers because they have no idea what a female Aspie is thanks to the DSMIV and the backwards state of medicine in Alaska. They also denied I had PTSD and tried to label me with a personality disorder. I finally got to some real doctors and got appropriate diagnoses. I worked as an RN for 23 years in very high stress situations in trauma units, critical care, and other areas. The village I moved to in Alaska has horrendous workplace bullies who have been allowed to destroy the lives of many people for a long time. There are two layers of them, management and staff. The town I live in now had a shootings (with death) at the hospital due to workplace bullying and one close by had an attempted murder for the same. There are a lot of horribly disturbed people in Alaska and some really bad doctors.

    • Hello Celia:

      I stand corrected. As your story attests and as I’m slowly realizing, gossiping can easily become part of a bullying campaign. I am very sorry to hear that you have been through so much…all of that an injustice judging from your words. It amazes me sometimes how humans can be cruel to each other…and sometimes, we autistics sadly become easy targets because of our trusting nature, our bluntness, and often times because we are the “best and brightest” as I kept referring to in my post due to sometimes work ethic and inherent perfectionism. I will cover more of this in my next post, but I also plan to cover gossip and its relation to bullying next week as well.

      In the meantime, my prayers are with you.

      -Nicole

  2. I sympethize with those of you who had to go thru the unjust bullying experience. I too have Aspergers Syndrome, I’m a professional in my 30s and I have been subject to more covert, passive-agressive bullying by my current supervisor. She purports to be a very touch-feely kind of person who puts interpersonal interactions as the number one quality (and I am in a technical-analytical position), constantly reminding me in oblique ways of my inadequacy, and engaging in bully tactics such as petty and excessive criticism (complaining about two bullet points not being properly indented in a report, or dust on my desk), and contradicting her stance on something from day to the next (I suspect this is done deliberately b/c she picks up on my aspergian struggle with unpredictable change). I told her about it and she replied “oh! well is there a cure for this condition?” Not only was that a very naive comment, but also very offensive!! She can’t see past her petty prejudice to see what I bring to the table. No wonder those with aspergers have it rough, with bigots like this.

    • Hi Richard:

      That sounds like a tricky and unenviable situation to be in. Off the top of my head, my first impression is that she (like I mentioned in this post) is insecure about her own self and bullies you to make herself feel better — those type always do (believe me, I have worked with a few, as I will discuss in part 2 of this series next week). I will pray for you, and I encourage you to keep reading for parts 2 and 3 of this series.

      Because of the response on this, I will probably include a resource list in the last post in this series.

      Richard, thank you for dropping by. I hope to see you again here soon.

      -Nicole

  3. I really enjoyed this article. It was good to see that you delved into some of the many reasons why people and institutions bully. The mental health field has written much to debunk the old conventional wisdom that all bullies are motivated by insecurity and self-loathing alone. Despite this, the myth continues to be a popular one, especially with victims. I was glad to see that you didn’t fall into that trap, as these characteristics only describe one segment of the bully population.

    Personally, I think this myth is enduring because it is comforting to the victims and serves as a way to level the playing field and allows the victim to feel less inadequate by instead tearing down their bully oppressors. It’s ironic, as this is the same mentality that some bullies display toward their victims. 😉

    Another myth is that victims have qualities of which the bully is envious. In my experience, this may be true in some cases yet I don’t believe this is the norm. Yet as with the other myth I referred to earlier, victims may derive some comfort from believing that that they are morally superior, have stellar work habits, etc. as a way to balance the scales and reclaim some measure of self-esteem.

    Just a few thoughts… I am really enjoying your site. 🙂

  4. Hi, I could be wrong but I’d bet that Aspergers is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In America many of the differences between “bullying” and “harassment” is whether or not the actions fall under Title Vii. Someone once explained it to me as all harassment is a form of bullying but not all bullying is protected against under the law. It is horrible that people with Aspergers are bullied and my heart goes out to everyone with Aspergers who has to endure gossip and insensitivity at work. Soft prayers to everyone while we struggle to fight for human dignity at work. – Bev

  5. I think that anyone who bullies is by definition emotionally immature and has self esteem problems. There is no escaping this.

    In some way shape or form, a bully – which I define as anyone who is deluded into thinking that tormenting someone is somehow effective or useful in either changing behaviour or in securing their own social status by comparison.

    Anyone who disagrees is in my opinion giving themselves, and others by extension, the illusion that they are somehow superior to others and just to prove it (dead giveaway RIGHT there) they will give out the lie or torture people in order to brainwash others that they are better.

    Often it is that the target has a weakness just like or very close to the bully and the bully cannot stand their weakness being somehow a focus -so they attack the other person for faults that they can’t face having themselves and which They therefore are simultaneously threatened by and feel they could easily attack.

    In fact weakness has little to do with any of it but is the result of distorted perception. It has nothing to do with better or weaker than, and all to do with self awareness and how defined a person feels about who they are and their traits, perhaps especially in a social setting (as compared with others) -this includes how intelligent and mature a person is in knowing also how to define who they are and whether they have learned an adaptive means to express who they are in relationship with others or whether they feel easily fooled that it is actually even possible to be of lesser or more value than another person.

    A person who IS actually better does not need to demean others in order to demonstrate this. Also, bullying is indicative of gretaer weakness than the one who is targeted. As in, whatever weakness they have is nothing by comparison.

    The difference lies in whether a person believes this simple truth, or they choose to be fooled into thinking that this is too good to be true.

    I am truly wary of anyone who sniggers as this simple truth. My senses tell me they wouk be a potential sociopath or psychopath: full of delusions that others are always weak and therefore deserving of mistreatment.

    Psychopaths should be permanently placed on welfare and locked out of the workforce and or schooled separately from others.

    Instead we have weak people in authority who lack the emotional maturity to have a no tolerance policy to any bullying in the work place or school, and with mediation in place and perhaps “Emotional Intelligence” classes for any persons involved in bullying.

    The poster known as CJ is likely a bully if not a serial bully

    • You don’t know me, yet you assert that I am likely “a bully if not a serial bully”? What’s that all about?

      That I happen to share a different viewpoint from you (one that is also shared by some within the mental health profession) does not make me a predator. There are many reasons why people (even Aspies) resort to bullying, and it’s not quite as black-and-white an issue as your own personal definition.

      Reading back over what I originally wrote, I can see why my mention of defense mechanisms might have touched a nerve for you. However, I think there may be a more evolved and mature way to respond than to attack me by maligning my character and resorting to name-calling. Isn’t that what a bully does?

      You may also want to take some time to examine whether your reaction to what I wrote might prove the point that I made in my original post. Only you (limited only by your degree of self-awareness) know for sure.

  6. By saying someone who “IS actually better” I refer only to a person who is more evolved and more emotionally intelligent. This person, by definition will never bully. They may be tough or stern, if they ever tease it would be in the context of kindly trying to cause someone (who lacks self and social awareness) that they are themsleves behaving like a bully without properly noticing it.

    Whatever spin is put on it, bullying is always the method of the weak to raise social status. It is trying to take the short cut or not putting the work in but expecting results. It is the opposite of high social status, the opposite of strength and belief in self.

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