First off, I want to thank my readers for being patient with me during my hiatus from the WWA blog due to illness and other personal issues. Rest assured, readers, I am back and here to stay. On that note, I’d like to pick up where I left off with this series on workplace bullying and the autistic employee.
Last time, I discussed the basics of workplace bullying: what it is, why bullies do what they do, and the effects that bullying has on employees. This time I’ll be talking about how bullies select their targets, why they may target autistic individuals, and the role that office gossip can play in both bullying campaigns and the everyday work life of an autistic employee.
Why Did They Choose Me?
It is very easy to ask “Why me?” if you are being targeted by a bully in your workplace; as I said in part 1, it can be hard to comprehend why someone might choose to mistreat you. While I will deal with common reactions to workplace bullying by its targets in part 3, I must say this before I continue: IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. But more on that later. Right now, I will deconstruct how bullies select their targets – with a little help from some excellent sources of information.
In part 1 of the series, I mentioned that bullies often select the “best and brightest” as their targets. What does this mean? According to the Workplace Bullying Institute and the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line, targets tend to have the following traits:
- Targets are more skilled and perform better on the job than their bullies. This is part of what I mean by “best and brightest”: these individuals are often very competent, possess a good deal of knowledge and wisdom about the job, strive to excel at their work, and care about the quality of their output. In addition, they may serve as “experts” – sometimes they are the individuals that others come to for information, advice, and guidance.
- Targets display honesty, integrity, and a sense of ethics. Bullies despise targets with these qualities because they themselves lack them: either a) the target’s integrity may call attention to the bully’s lack of it or b) the target may be a “whistleblower” who has exposed unethical or dishonest practices. The WBI also suggests that targets are guileless: I will touch on this again later.
- Targets are independent thinkers. They follow their own internal set of values, morals, and ethics, and this often puts them on a collision course with the less ethical bullies. Also, this independence can lead to other traits such as refusal to join established cliques (which in some cases might require “ass kissing”) and non-conformity.
- Targets are non-confrontational and not aggressive. Targets will seek more peaceful means to deal with a disagreement or confrontation; they will not play “tit for tat”, which means they do not return a bully’s aggression. Unfortunately, this makes them more prone to bullying because they bullies know instinctually that the targets will not strike back.
These traits are why I repeatedly used the term “best and brightest” in my last post. You may be reminding that person of his or her own shortcomings; by your performance, skill, and intelligence you may be either drawing more positive attention away from them and towards you OR you may be casting negative attention on that person because his or her work isn’t up to the same standard; or you may be more popular, better liked, or more respected than the bully. So instead of dealing with his or her own negative feelings and shortcomings, the bully chooses to take that aggression out on you. And the bully is drawn to you because you are honest, because you have ethics, and because you generally will not retaliate or defend yourself: you may even reason that you are taking the “peaceful” way out by avoiding conflict. And that is exactly what the bully is counting on.
Where Autism Enters the Picture
After reading the above list of traits that targets tend to possess, you may notice something. Many autistic employees tend to have those same kinds of traits: honesty (in some cases, blunt honesty), intelligence and independent thinking, and competence/skill. But there are a few additional traits in autistic people that may attract a bully even more:
- Naiveté and/or a lack of guile. Many of us tend to have an innocent view towards interpersonal relationships and thus may be overly trusting. On top of this, you also have our tendency to interpret whatever is said literally and to misread body language, tone of voice, and social cues. In the bully’s mind, this makes us an easy target — probably because that person perceives that he or she can “get away with it” because we won’t fight back or defend ourselves in the first place. And as Rudy Simone says in her book Asperger’s on the Job, autistic people are not “always quick to know when they are being bullied”.
- Perfectionism. The UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line has a more expansive list of traits that targets tend to have, and it’s interesting that perfectionism is included on their list. It has been documented that autistic people have a natural tendency towards perfectionism, which can sometimes also accompany conscientiousness and a strong work ethic. Perfectionism, while it can be sometimes destructive, can be a positive trait: it is often why an autistic employee produces higher quality work. And unfortunately, this higher quality work may cause a bully to target an individual.
- Non-conformity or perceived “oddness”.Other spectrum traits such as difficulty with social interaction and sensory issues may combine with the above to create a perception of eccentricity, non-conformity, or just plain “oddness” in the mind of the bully. Additionally, I’ve also observed that many autistic individuals tend to be non-conformists anyway – whether it be because of a unique, independent perception of the world and style of thinking, choice of dress and personal appearance, or other qualities. In other words, an autistic individual may stick out like a sore thumb, which may prompt the bully to target this individual even more – and I believe the idea behind this again is that he or she can “get away with it” because he or she has targeted “the weirdo”. Now this, unfortunately, is not that much different from school bullying – and shows both insecurity and an unmistakable lack of maturity on the part of the bully.
Workplace gossip can be a minefield in and of itself for autistic employees. Often we become the subject of workplace gossip and may not find out until the gossip has already been spread and the rumors about us established in the workplace. In some cases, the gossip can be a troubling, minor annoyance; in other cases, it can be downright detrimental to our mental health, emotions, and careers.
Why do employees gossip in the workplace? There are three common reasons why the gossip happens:
- To promote social bonding;
- To fill in “missing information”; and,
- To hurt or slander others.
The first reason, social bonding, was suggested by psychologist Robin Dunbar in his book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. In other words, gossip serves the function of bonding a social group together, similar to grooming habits among primates. However, the latter two reasons – filling in missing information and slandering someone – seem to pertain more to gossip about autistic employees. Why is this? A couple of reasons:
- Speculation.Simone mentions that we become the subject of gossip because of autistic/Asperger-specific traits, such as “the inability or lack of desire to socialize, chitchat, display all of the little emblems of normality (in speech, movement, gestures)” which make us “stand apart from the crowd and lead other to speculate”. And said speculation tends to happen to fill in the missing information, especially when our conditions are not disclosed. Why? The gossiping employees, feeling uncomfortable at their lack of understanding or information about us/our mannerisms/our quirks, are probably trying to figure out what is behind all of this and are filling in their own “information”. While part of the human condition, such speculation can unfortunately lead to misinformation, misunderstandings, and rumors.
- Slander. Gossip can have malicious intent, which is to slander or hurt someone. Malicious gossip can discredit a person, cause others in the workplace to view him/her in a negative light, and single that person out. This can have negative effects even if the employee loves his/her job on the whole. As one person interviewed forAsperger’s on the Job put it, “I have the best job ever. Problem is, I’m surrounded by group-think types who treat me like the village idiot”. And gossip, as one of the readers who commented on my last post pointed out, can be part of a larger bullying campaign to harm, discredit, or drive an employee out of the workplace in question – and if unchecked, or even approved by management (either overtly or tacitly), it can do just that.
Now that I’ve unpacked a little bit more of the mechanics of workplace bullying and the role gossip can play, I hope this post has helped you the readers understand a little bit more behind the problem of workplace bullying and how it affects autistic employees. In the last segment of this series, I will address YOU – you are neither alone nor at fault, and there are steps that you can take if you are being bullied or being subjected to workplace gossip. Tune in next time to read more. And until then, please talk back to me. Have you found yourself targeted because of autistic/Aspergian traits in the workplace? How did the bullying/gossip affect you? What steps are you taking to heal and/or pick up the pieces and start over?
Until next time,