Why Me? More About Workplace Bullying, Office Gossip, and the Autistic Employee

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

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:

  1. To promote social bonding;
  2. To fill in “missing information”; and,
  3. 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,

Nicole

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12 thoughts on “Why Me? More About Workplace Bullying, Office Gossip, and the Autistic Employee

  1. I just experienced just this thing, and wrote it into my blog, Asper-ations. The entry is “Learning from Experiences”. http://aspie99645.blogspot.com/ I didn’t mention the 2 aides from the other room in my entry (3 aides and a speech therapist in all).

    I had a very dark night, thinking ‘Why me? Again! It must really be my fault!” I’m still working that out. I’m not responsible if people are jealous or burnt out on their own job. I was fortunate that the higher ups backed me. They said I was the best sped aide in the school. My mom used to tell me that the other kids didn’t like me because I was so smart. Yep, you seem to hit the nail on the head in this article.

    The ‘bonding’ part of gossip also makes sense. Them against me. I’ve faced that all my life. I was clueless to all the tension building up until it was spoken aloud by someone.

    Glad you’re back!

    • Hello Tabitha:

      Thank you for the welcome :). I read your post (thank you for sharing, BTW) and I really feel for what you describe you’ve gone through at your job. I’m sometimes not good at reading body language, either. I also noticed you went into details about your events — I’m still debating as to whether I should include my current experiences in my next post (as coworkers have Googled me before and found my blog) but I will just say that my experience has been more like being treated like the village idiot by some coworkers (while the higher ups tend to like me and my work). Hence why I used that particular quote from Asperger’s on the Job.

      And you are right. You are not responsible for their backbiting, petty behavior, and mistreatment. And you’re blessed for having someone willing to stand up to them, and you’re doing well not to cower to them.

      Thanks for reading. Hope to see you around again soon.

      -Nicole

  2. Libraries are the best place to work. I have worked in university libraries, small branch libraries of a big city system, a downtown dept. of the Cleveland public library, several bookmobiles, and 30 years (mostly part time) in our small town local library.
    Sometimes we would discuss each others “quirks” but it was in a good way, we would laugh at ourselves & exchange ideas on dealing with dificult people. Many artisticly talented people work in libraries. I havee worked with an art instructor and a part time member of the Cleveland public orchestra. Also many graduate students who have dropped in and dropped out of their various majors.

    Most people who work in libraries do not have a degree in library science (MLS) those that do are the heads of departments or directors of public libraries. However, a 4 year degree is an advantage. And a knowledge of computers is now necessary.

    It’ s a sort of running joke that the “odd” people end up in libraries. Perhaps they are perceived as a safe haven. Usually they are. Our disturbances are usually caused by confused patrons. We are taught to be gentle and call the guards or 911 to handle any situation that is heading out of control. Which, unfortunatly, is becoming more frequent. But it’s still a great place to work.

    • Hi Marian:

      You know what’s funny is that I’ve considered a career in library science — I have been a library freak since I was a kid (my mother would always take me to the local library in the various places we moved to and lived, plus it was a bit of a safe haven for me in junior high and high school) and I’m pretty well versed at researching and finding things. I’m a creative sort, though, so I’m torn between library science, graphic design/desktop publishing type work, and freelance writing. Oy. 🙂 But then again, you mentioned the creative types ending up in libraries, so there you go.

      But I get your point. I’ve even noticed at our own public libraries in Columbus there is that same feeling of a safe haven with a friendly atmosphere. And I would think that for the reasons you described, libraries would be an Aspie-friendly workplace.

      Thanks for reading. Hope to see you around again soon.

      -Nicole

  3. What happened to the “the basics of workplace bullying” link referenced in the 2nd paragraph of this article? I was looking forward to reading Part 1, but the link doesn’t work. 😦

  4. Nicole, thank you for this insightful article. It’s a shame to see that high school politics make their way into the workplace later in life. You always hear parents telling their high school students to “grow up” when you’ll see them doing the same shameless things in their place of work.

  5. I have been bullied all my life and it has caused me a lot of grief. It started in kindergarten! I read in my school records that I was found in the bathroom crying and terrified; I remembered what happened: 2 girls held my hands and feet and another rammed their head into my stomach. I thought bullying ended after school; boy was I wrong, I deal with grown-up bullies! When I was a young woman in my 20’s; it caused me to almost commit suicide…as a result I spent 7 years on disability..dying inside. I went back to work determined not to be pushed around…(1) tried to have a mentor to tell me when they thought I was not doing things right-did not work (I was the second leading employee in customer praise out of 200 people…and I needed help? My thinking was certainly wrong),
    (2) became passive-did not work, (3) became aggressive (made management angry), and (4) I asked God to teach me to love my enemies (bullies). For 3 years, God and I have been working on this; I have learned that I can love without liking someone and I do not have to put up with misbehavior…I have learned to be assertive. (1) I wrote a letter to the Human Resource Director and had an Lawyer friend look it over and sent it:
    since I had been bullied before and almost committed suicide and became disabled years ago and that when I disclose this: it becomes a disability again and my employer must protect me, (2) I can firmly and jokingly “call-out” a bully in front of others and it is okay…the bully does it to me to slander and humiliate me-fair game, and (3) I now can quietly without anger -go the management about a bully. My assertiveness has not ended all the bullying nor has it made everything perfect and others happy; I don’t care…I am being loving to myself and to others and my anger is in control: Praise be to God!

    • Hello Kim:

      The bullying started for me in school too. The last set of statistics I came across mentioned that around 90% of children on the autism spectrum are bullied. I have myself been bullied in workplaces before, although what I went through cannot possibly touch what you went through.

      I decided to explore this topic due to some issues I was experiencing in my current workplace at the time. I have on file with personnel that I have Asperger Syndrome, which legally makes me disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is a self-protective measure, namely, because I see Asperger’s more as a valid neurological difference. But in the world of bullies and jackasses, sometimes CYA is your best defense.

      Bravo to you for surviving, for taking steps to help yourself, and for making your way out of the slough of Despond. I am glad that you have God as a way of support and help. Anything we can do to positively affect change, help ourselves, and get ourselves through is a plus. Its is a good thing that you have learned to handle bullying in a constructive manner.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences. Continued blessings to you on your journey. Let’s keep praying for a day when bullying is an exception and not a rule or rite of passage for us Aspie/Autistic employees.

      -Nicole

  6. What does one do when faced with all of this and management is part of it? The CEO isn’t guilty of bullying and actually likes me but I’ve already consulted him in the past about bullying in my previous department. If I do it again I become the common denominator and lose credibility.

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