Category: Workplace

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

Fieldwork as an Aspie

Fieldwork as an Aspie

Fieldwork is all but certain to play a part in your career as a natural scientist. Even if you plan on exclusively analyzing data, working in a lab, or teaching, your education will likely include a field component somewhere along the line. Working in the field can create challenging situations for Aspies that aren’t an issue in other types of work. Whether you are taking a course at a field station, occasionally collecting samples for your research, or working a full-time field job, you should be aware of and prepared to meet these challenges.

Perhaps the most obvious issue with fieldwork is socialization. Not only will the number of people with whom you can regularly interact decrease, but you will probably be spending long periods of time in their company. For some work you will have to spend weeks at a time working with only one person. As an Aspie this can be a terrifying prospect. What if interacting with this person drains you too much to work? How do you cope if you don’t get along with this person? How do you move from seeing a person on and off during the workday to spending the full day working exclusively with them? Socially exhausting situations like this are unfortunate, but they may be unavoidable depending on your line of work.

My first full-time field job is a good example of this struggle. After graduating from college I spent a summer working as an electrofishing technician for a state agency. My unit would send out 2-5 person teams on 4-day data collection trips every week, weather allowing. This is what the job demanded. My first time working with a new person was always socially intimidating, especially if it would only be the two of us that week. Working ten plus hour days together, eating dinner together, then doing that three more times can get exhausting even for neurotypicals, so you can understand how an Aspie might be extremely stressed.

Your first line of defense concerning fieldwork is deciding whether a position is right for you. The last thing I want to do is discourage Aspies from pursuing fieldwork, but you should know that the nature of the job often requires situations like the one I’ve just described. It is important that you read up on a job before applying. You need to have a good understanding of what that position will expect of you, and what you need in order work well. Don’t despair if this limits you, though, because there are plenty of jobs that can give you field experience without the socially intimidating conditions. You just need to sort out which ones are which.

When in the field, try to identify and retreat to “your space” whenever you can and feel you need to. This can be your hotel room or cabin if you have one, a walk away from the campsite, etc. It won’t always be possible to do this, but there will be opportunities for you to step away from your partner/group. You can explain that, when appropriate, you need a little alone time. This is not an unreasonable request, and your teammates will understand. Even if the whole group eats dinner together, you are not required to eat with them. Neurotypicals may consider you rude for disappearing without explanation, but most will understand so long as you make it clear that you need time to unwind, and that it isn’t personal.

Another helpful strategy is to familiarize yourself with the expedition details beforehand. If you are preparing for a marine research cruise, there may be an opportunity to do a walkthrough of the ship before departure day. This will allow you to start acclimating to the environment gradually, potentially striking that from your list of stressors. If you will be spending some time at a field station, you are likely to find online photos, videos, and maps of the station that can similarly help. For short-term expeditions, I recommend you participate in the planning process as much as possible. Provided you are not in charge of the trip, hearing those who are discuss equipment and methods that will be used, as well as the team’s goals and priorities will give you a better sense of what to expect. This will also give you a chance to ask questions.

Finally, know that it is ok to discuss your needs and apprehensions with your partner or teammates. If you feel comfortable having an open conversation, your team’s understanding can go a long way toward alleviating your social stresses. In my experience, scientists are generally aware of Asperger’s Syndrome and tend to be supportive of their colleagues on the spectrum. However, you should not feel pressured to share your diagnosis and personal struggles with anyone. Only do this once you trust your teammates and are comfortable enough to be open with them.

I hope these strategies for coping with the challenges of conducting fieldwork as an Aspie are as helpful to you as they have been to me. This post will be updated as I continue my career, encounter new challenges, and develop new ways to meet them. If you have your own related challenges or advice that you would like to share, feel free to reach out. I am always happy to learn from the experiences of others.

I would like to clarify that the above personal anecdote is in no way a criticism of or complaint about any of my coworkers or the agency in general. The people I met in this job were all wonderful, fascinating people, and I did enjoy my time there. I simply want to characterize the fears and frustrations I experienced as an Aspie in this situation that my neurotypical coworkers likely did not.

Working with Neurotypicals

Working with Neurotypicals

As an Aspie or otherwise autistic person, you’re probably aware that the majority of the world isn’t like you. According to the CDC in 2014, approximately 1-2% of the human population is autistic. The harsh truth of living as an autistic person is that this world wasn’t built for us, and in many ways simply isn’t well-adapted to our needs and abilities. This can cause miscommunications and problems in the workplace, especially in high-pressure jobs. Regardless of your career path and goals, you will statistically work for many neurotypicals during your life, and most of your coworkers will be neurotypicals. While your bosses should (key word) make an effort to adapt to your way of communicating on the job, you should always try to meet them in the middle. The importance of getting along with your coworkers should not be forgotten either. This post is meant to share a few lessons I’ve learned while working for and with neurotypicals that apply at several different levels of employment, from minimum-wage high school student to degree-holding scientist.

Better to Ask Sooner than Later

This one applies mostly at lower-level positions where your boss gives you a task to complete unsupervised while they do other work. As soon as you are given the task, think it through from beginning to end. If there is a part of the task that you aren’t sure how to handle or that you know you’ll have to ask your boss about, do that immediately, rather than waiting until you reach that point of the task. I have been very guilty of failing this in the past. It’s often uncomfortable to ask a long series of questions after your boss explains a task, and it can be tempting to just say “Ok, sounds good!” and let your boss walk away. You know you’ll have to go ask for help later, but at least for now your boss isn’t worrying about you and trusts you to handle it, right? While it isn’t the end of the world to interrupt your boss half an hour later to ask them where a tool you need is, or to clarify a detail, it’s simply better to ask about any issues you foresee up front. Your boss will likely appreciate that you think through tasks from the beginning, and you get to avoid interrupting them if they start a different task or take a phone call.

Dealing with a Social Manager

In any job that requires you to work as part of a team, there is always the potential for a bad manager, project leader, or supervisor. The term “bad manager” can have many meanings depending on the context, but I have found a particular flavor of bad manager that often spells disaster for Aspies: a Social Manager. These types of managers tend to prioritize the social environment created by the team over other measures of success. While trying to foster a positive work environment is admirable, these people take it too far by focusing on getting the employees to like each other. Aspie employees are less likely to share this priority, and may find themselves on the manager’s bad side even while doing their jobs well. Social managers rarely have written protocols for work tasks, instead preserving them socially by relying on older employees to teach the newer ones. This can be infuriating for Aspies because communication isn’t always our strong suit and many of us benefit from specific, written directions. Social managers may also play favorites, granting employees with higher social ranks more implicit authority than others, even when everyone officially shares the same rank or job title.

These factors can create a confusing and stressful environment for employees on the spectrum, but there are steps you can take to improve your situation. Step one, buckle down and focus on getting good at your job. Step two, be polite and courteous to your coworkers and manager, but don’t worry about trying to befriend everyone. Step three, do your best to stay out of any workplace drama. Step four, if you would benefit from written protocols or something similar, be the one to write them! With any luck, you will become known as the hardworking employee who handles their responsibilities, doesn’t start any trouble, and measurably improves the workplace. Dealing with a social manager can be intimidating, but if you are diligent about working hard and staying out of any drama, you will probably be just fine.

Take Criticism Gracefully

Neurotypical or otherwise, your boss and coworkers are going to criticize you. Hopefully this will happen in a constructive and respectful way, but it is essential that your priority is to grow and learn from the experience regardless. I’ve been on the receiving end of a handful of dressing-downs over the years, some of which were arguably undeserved. While there is something to be said for standing up for yourself when treated unfairly, there are times when it is better to grit your teeth and move on. Picking your battles is a learned skill, and a vital one at that. I’ve also witnessed a number of coworkers, both autistic and neurotypical, dispute criticism from supervisors that was entirely warranted! Don’t let this be you! To succeed in any workplace, you need to approach each day with humility and in good faith. You are there to get work done, and to maintain a positive work environment. If a coworker or your boss is giving you any kind of criticism, remain calm, apologize for any mistakes, and focus on solving the problem at hand. More than likely this will 1) Get the work done faster, 2) Show your work ethic and drive to improve, and 3) Earn you respect from those involved. If a coworker is bullying or mistreating you, you should always be able to go to your superior about it. Be discrete and professional when doing so, but this is not something you should be afraid of doing! Lastly, if you are frustrated with petty workplace drama or feel that you were unfairly criticized, vent at home! Don’t air your dirty laundry at work, that will only create drama. Find a friend, family member, or significant other you can talk to and get things off your chest.

I’ve made a handy flowchart for handling criticism at work! It’s pretty simple, but this is the kind of thing I would have appreciated when first learning to handle conflict.

Respect Your Colleagues’ Time with Proper Communication

I don’t care if you’re the world’s foremost expert in your field, you need to respect others’ time and treat them fairly, or no one will want to listen to you or work with you. This means responding to emails as promptly as can be reasonably expected, not rudely dismissing the thoughts of your lab-mates or coworkers when planning a project, and actually showing up for meetings/events that you have committed to! This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen high-level professors become essentially unreachable because they were too busy to respond to emails for days at a time. Many of the same people have to reschedule meetings with students multiple times because their time-management skills are lacking. If your job requires frequent scheduling and other communications regarding plans, consider those communications one of your work responsibilities. Responding to any relevant or urgent emails should be on your daily to-do list, and if you decide you can’t make an appointment or event that has already been scheduled, contact the others involved as soon as you can. These habits will show your coworkers, supervisors, and students that you respect them and don’t want to waste their time.

Photo Credit to Pexels