Uncomfortable Situations in the Workplace: Being Courteous while Standing Up for Yourself

Uncomfortable Situations in the Workplace: Being Courteous while Standing Up for Yourself

For Aspies and Neurotypicals alike, entering the workforce can be intimidating. The social etiquette involved with applying for a job is relatively straightforward, but what are you supposed to do when it’s time to move on? How do you juggle multiple job applications (or offers) at the same time? How do you approach your employer if you feel you’ve been treated unfairly? Each of these issues requires careful application of courtesy, self-advocacy, and economics.

The purpose of this post is to present a collection of lessons I have learned, not to outline an exhaustive guide to job market etiquette. I’m still figuring out how to navigate the American capitalist employment landscape myself and am by no means an expert. This blog is, however, aimed at aspiring natural scientists who will likely need to work in the private sector at some point in their careers, and will probably encounter issues unique to this line of work. My advice is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but it is rooted in my experience with this niche of the employment world.

Multiple Job Offers

The process of finding, applying for, and accepting a job has become streamlined and understandable thanks to the internet. Company webpages clearly explain what they are looking for in a candidate and (most times) outline the application and interview process thoroughly. Things on the applicant’s end can be decidedly messier.

For many budding scientists, our first encounter with the full-time job market is after graduating from college. This gives us a clear timeline for when we will be available to work, but also creates a looming deadline by which we all hope to have something lined up. The natural response is to hedge your bets by applying for multiple positions at once. This isn’t against any rules, but it can create an uncomfortable situation if you get multiple offers on different timelines. Some jobs may give you a window of a few days or more to accept or decline their offer, but others may not (it’s almost always acceptable to request a deadline if one isn’t given, by the way). Worse yet, one job may require you to accept or decline their offer before you hear back from other jobs.

An example from my career: While approaching college graduation I applied for multiple seasonal fieldwork positions. In the end I was turned down for all but one of them, which I gladly accepted. I would be working for a small invasive fish monitoring/removal company near campus for just above minimum wage. About two weeks after accepting the position I was contacted by one of the employers that had turned me down. The person they had chosen over me had accepted a job offer elsewhere, so they were willing to hire me after all. I was inclined to say no because I had already verbally accepted another offer, but this position was objectively better in every way (higher pay, more prestigious employer [state agency], better schedule, longer contract, more interesting work, etc.). I struggled with this situation for a while, but a mentor at the university encouraged me to take the better job offer. Her advice was that as a young person just entering a frequently hostile economy, no one can blame you for doing what is best for you. I accepted the new offer and let the small company know I would not be working with them that summer (uncomfortable email, but a good decision).

I feel this advice should apply to all age groups and career levels. Until you sign a contract to work for a specific employer, your primary concern should be getting the best deal for you. Don’t feel bad about it, and don’t feel forced to turn down an offer just because you’ve verbally committed somewhere else.

When Your Coworker is Laid Off

As I write this, I have been out of work for about a month and a half due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I wasn’t necessarily laid off, it’s more that both of my jobs depend almost exclusively on the travel industry which is nonexistent in the United States these days. We have no customers, so there is no work. The lead-up to this sudden shutdown has taught me quite a bit about workplace etiquette regarding lay-offs. As our customer base started to dry up, the higher-ups were faced with a difficult decision. They seemed to have work for some, but not all employees. In the end they chose to temporarily lay off three of the most junior workers. Hindsight is 20/20, and in this case the layoffs were pointless because all work ceased less than a week later anyway. However, there is an important lesson to be learned from this situation. Employees who had been notified that they would be laid off had to come to work for a while before the changes took effect, and were working alongside those of us who still had secure employment (at least, we thought we did). This created an extremely uncomfortable dynamic that neither Aspies nor Neurotypicals are prepared for.

If you find yourself in a situation like this or will soon, there is one significant pitfall you need to work to avoid. If you have any sort of positive relationship with your coworker who has been laid off, you need to be supportive without unintentionally making it about you. This seems obvious, but I have seen Neurotypicals fall into this trap as easily as anyone on the spectrum. Your comment may be intended to communicate a “We’re all in this together, I support you” sentiment, but it can easily come across as “I am equating my situation to yours even though you were laid off and I wasn’t.” Before you speak to your coworker, triple-check what you are about to say to make sure they won’t feel invalidated by it. Once you have expressed support, it would be wise to listen to what they have to say and let them vent if they need to. Generally, try to avoid comparing their problems to yours by recounting a time you dealt with something similar. Your goal here, at least in your first conversation about the layoff, is not to give advice or to “put their problems in perspective.” Your goal is to be supportive. This process won’t be necessary for every coworker, but it is generally good practice with anyone that you would consider a “work friend” or with whom you speak frequently. Just because your workplace is getting chaotic doesn’t mean your relationships with your coworkers should suffer.

If There is a Dispute about Unpaid Wages

Wage theft is a profoundly serious issue, and I sincerely hope you are never victimized by it. Essentially, if you think your employer is not paying you the wages you have earned (whether by paying you less than minimum wage, deducting money from your paycheck beyond tax withholding and other required deductions, or by not giving you overtime pay) the first thing you should do is gather up all of your documents and crunch the numbers. You absolutely do not want to accuse your employer of wage theft without the numbers to back it up. If the math supports your claim, you need to have a respectful conversation with your employer about the situation. Write everything down; it is vital that you document every interaction with your employer regarding your wages from this point forward. If you open the conversation with a polite enquiry, explain your understanding of your contract and how the law applies to your situation, and make clear what you are asking for, you will probably get one of three responses.

  1. If your boss explains that your position is subject to different legal circumstances than you thought (e.g. you fall under a union contract that has different overtime rules than generally apply) or otherwise shares novel information that changes your calculations, you should graciously and politely accept their explanation. Make sure to ask enough questions to fully understand their legal reasoning, then double-check it yourself at home to ensure you are being treated fairly. If your employer’s explanation doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, legal action of some sort may be warranted.
  2. If your boss realizes there has been some sort of mistake in paying you, hopefully they will seek to remedy the situation quickly to avoid further embarrassment.
  3. If your boss denies that you were underpaid or otherwise wronged but does not provide a satisfactory explanation for the discrepancy in your math, you may need to take legal action.

This may seem to be an awfully quick escalation, but it is important to remember that employment is a contract. You provide your employer with your time and effort, and in return they pay you. The terms of your contract are subject to many government regulations. If your employer is not fulfilling their obligations to you under your contract, or if the contract itself does not satisfy employment regulations, your employer is breaking the law. If the result of your initial conversation with your employer is a legally unsatisfactory explanation and you still believe you have been shorted, you generally have two options*. You can file a civil lawsuit, which will almost certainly require you to hire a lawyer and pay other court-related costs while being relatively quick, or you can file a wage claim with the appropriate state agency. The wage claim process is generally cheaper than filing suit, but often takes much longer. Additionally, each state handles this process differently. If you can’t afford a lawyer/the amount you are claiming wouldn’t make a suit worth it, your best course of action is to research your state’s wage claim adjudication process online. Try searching for “state name wage claim.”

This is a very uncomfortable situation, but wage theft is a serious enough offense that you can’t afford to ignore it. Especially in the natural sciences, we need every cent we earn! Situations like this necessitate that you advocate for yourself, and self-advocacy is a valuable life skill we could all use a little more practice at. Future employers will understand why you didn’t list this employer as a reference, and you won’t be blacklisted from all jobs in your field. You will be ok.

*My experience comes exclusively from the United States where lawyers are plentiful, and most state governments will have some form of wage claim process. Depending on your country you may or may not have these or other options available to you. Regardless, an internet search is a good place to start.

Negotiating Your Pay or Salary

In many jobs, your hourly rate of pay or regular salary will vary depending on your experience even when first hired. This is because a more experienced employee may be considered more valuable to an employer than a less experienced person. Large and complex employers, like government agencies or big corporations or universities, often have regulations governing how much a person with a given amount of experience or education should be paid for a given set of responsibilities. The idea behind systems like this is to ensure fair and equitable pay across work units and between individuals. In the natural sciences, you are especially likely to encounter heavily regulated payment systems when working for state or federal agencies, which represent a significant portion of non-academic jobs in our field.

However, there are jobs without such systems in place where your salary or wage may be negotiated during your interview. The examples that come to mind are mid- to high-level environmental consulting positions at private firms, although I’m sure other instances exist in the natural sciences. This is not a blog about the dynamics of corporate hiring, and I am not qualified to coach anyone in subtle or manipulative negotiation tactics, but I can advise you to do your homework! When applying for a position that doesn’t have a clearly defined salary/wage, look online to see how much the average person with this job makes. You likely won’t find an exact number, but you should be able to arrive at a general range of amounts that seem appropriate. From this range, you can decide on the lowest amount you are willing to accept. It’s also wise to reach out to any trusted contacts or advisors that work or have worked in this industry or type of job. Armed with this information, you will be able to tell if the interviewer is trying to low-ball you (offer you a salary or wage that is well below normal for this job) or making a fair offer.

Once you have worked in a position for a while, there may come a time where you need to ask for a raise. Some employers implement regular across-the-board wage increases to counter the increasing cost of living in their area, but this is not guaranteed. Even with cost-of-living increases, over time you may have picked up additional responsibilities and/or become significantly more efficient in your work. At the middle to lower ranges of the income scale, you may also need to ask for a raise because of expenses that have increased faster than anticipated (e.g. Your rent or utilities went up more than you expected, or you incur unexpected medical bills).

Generally, discussions about pay are best handled in a dedicated meeting or discussion, even if only for five minutes. Don’t try to catch your boss as he/she walks through the workplace, as they are almost certainly occupied with something else. Request a one-on-one meeting with them at a defined time, and make clear what the meeting is about (You could say “I’d like to meet with you to discuss my contributions here at X,” not “We need to talk.”).

You should arrive to this meeting with two clear pieces of information. First, know what you want. What is your wage/salary currently, and to what amount do you want it increased? Don’t just vaguely ask for a raise without knowing exactly how much. Second, you need a justification. Your employment is a matter of economics for your boss, so the best way to get what you want is to make a sound economic argument. If you have significantly increased your work output or taken on significant additional responsibilities since your current rate was established, point to those facts as evidence of your increased value to the organization. Conventional wisdom holds that you shouldn’t offer your increasing expenses as justification for a raise, even if that is why you need one. Although some employers might be more predisposed to a “sympathy raise” than others, it is generally considered more professional to make a “workplace-centric” argument for a raise. In this case, it may be appropriate to ask for more responsibility/offer to take on additional work to justify a subsequent request for a raise.

These are general guidelines that likely apply in most work environments, but my most important piece of advice regarding raises is to determine what is and is not acceptable in your specific organization. If you have coworkers that you trust enough to ask about this sort of thing, do so. Determine what the “normal” procedure is, then operate within that range of appropriate behaviors. Asking for a raise is always terrifying, but if you prepare, remain polite and respectful, and make a reasonable request, the worst your boss will say is no.

When You Screw Up at Work

No one goes their entire lives without messing up at work. You are only human, and you will probably make hundreds of mistakes throughout your career. The sooner you accept this inevitability, the sooner you can begin to process mistakes healthily and learn from them.

The first step you should take after realizing your error is problem assessment. Calm down, then determine both the severity and solvability of the problem. Severity is how big the problem is (i.e. How expensive is the thing you broke? How many people will be affected by your error and for how long? What are the ultimate consequences of your mistake?) and solvability is how quickly and easily, and with how much help, the issue can be rectified.

If the problem can be resolved with relatively little time and effort, it may not be worth bothering your supervisor. This of course depends on the situation, but in a lot of cases your boss would probably prefer that you handle the problem yourself if possible. If, however, the problem is more significant/is not immediately solvable you need to be honest and up-front with your supervisor. Apologize for the mistake but try not to dwell on how bad you feel over it. Instead, work to be a part of the solution (“I know I messed up; how can I help to make it right?”). You may still be in some trouble depending on the severity of the consequences, but this will show your ability to learn from your mistakes and your desire to solve problems.

Photo Credit to Pexels

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