Autism and Addressing Workforce Bullying

Autism and bullying at work. At some point, bullying in the workforce is something that many interns and employees are exposed to, directly or indirectly. While the workplace is largely becoming a more inclusive and considerate space, neurodivergent people are more likely to experience bullying. Contributor Katie Newton shares how to recognize workplace bullying, how to reduce misunderstandings, and how to document continued violations so that management can take action to solve the problem.

Unlike in middle school and high school, bullying in college and the workforce is less punishable by state laws and school policies. However, this does not mean that the behaviors are any less toxic or bothersome to the individuals being bullied. In a college internship, an entry-level job, or even later in your career, bullying can still be an issue.

Recognizing Bullying

Bullying in the workplace is different from what students may have seen or experienced in college or other settings. For example, “social bullying in the workplace might happen by leaving someone out of a meeting on purpose or publicly reprimanding someone” (Nagele-Piazza, 2018).

The U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that “although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)” (2019). However, much of the day-to-day bullying seen in workplaces might not be criminal. If sexual remarks or physical advances are involved, this type of unwanted attention will be considered sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can be reported legally through a Human Resources (HR) department and will be punishable by law.

Regardless of the laws surrounding a behavior, everyone has the right to feel safe, productive, and confident in the workplace. To protect yourself and focus on your career, you need to be aware of your own needs and advocate for yourself.

Clearing Misunderstandings and Misconceptions

There are steps to take to ensure a civil workplace. A mentor or administrator in HR may be able to decode some of the actions you perceive as bullying. Perhaps it was meant to be a joke or part of regular workplace banter. If this is the case, having an open discussion with the one saying the upsetting words is important. If you are comfortable speaking with or emailing the perpetrator, let them know why what they said made you feel uncomfortable. Next, communicate that you would not like that sort of language to be part of your social conversations with them.

If you felt like you were purposely left out of a meeting or discussion, be direct but not accusatory about it. Ask them if there was a reason and strive for a mutual understanding. They may have perceived some of your actions (for example, not wanting to chit-chat during lunch one day) as a sign that you did not want to be included in another activity (for example, going to play trivia after work). Whatever the problem or behavior was, be sure to address it specifically and attempt to decipher the intention behind it.

Work to remain emotionally self-regulated and open to hearing the other person’s point of view. Confronting them too harshly may create an issue or problem where there really was only a misunderstanding. Listen and understand how the other person is feeling. Communicate your side and relay your own feelings. By doing these two things, a resolution can be reached.

In other situations, if you aren’t ready to stand up to the person and attempt to end the dispute directly, try having less of a reaction when they are confronting you. Another option is removing yourself from the situation. Remember, you are in control of your own emotions and reactions. By not getting outwardly upset, they may move on and let it go.

Whether or not what you perceived was a misunderstanding, something intentional, or some kind of confrontation, if the uncomfortable and unwanted behaviors continue, make sure to document what was said or done. Also document where it happened and when. That way, if you need to discuss the issue with HR, management, or someone else who can assist you, you will have concrete examples of violations. Having documentation is much more effective than communicating a feeling that is upsetting you.

Reporting Bullying

More and more workplaces are developing their own anti-bullying policies. Read your employee handbook. Is there is a system in place regarding points of contact, filing complaints, and potential consequences for aggressors? If your company does not have such information available, consider discussing the behaviors with your mentor if you have one, or a supervisor.

If your mentor or supervisor is the one bullying, the HR department will be responsible for your complaints even when it involves a boss or owner. Often, people don’t feel comfortable walking into the HR department. It can feel vulnerable to document a complaint. For that reason, many companies have an email address, an anonymous hotline, or other corporate channel to file workplace complaints. These alternatives typically are enough to ensure that actions are taken. If the bullying continues, you may consider moving to a less toxic environment, such as another department, store, or office location. You might seek new employment, and you might consider consulting an attorney. Legal action may be warranted.

Bullying at work is not something to just get through or put up with. It is important to speak up and take the necessary steps to have a healthy work environment. Bottom line: if you are struggling to address the issue yourself, find a boss, mentor, colleague, or HR person who can support you and help you change the situation.

Have you ever experienced a hostile workplace or bullying on your job site?
Let me know how you handled it in the comments below!

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Katie is a part time speech and language pathologist and part time professional runner. Katie received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Boston University in Speech, Hearing, and Language Sciences and Speech-Language Pathology, respectively. She also trains on the Boston Athletic Association High Performance Team. Katie has experience in public and private schools as well as private clinic settings. She works with children and young adults with a variety of disabilities, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Katie loves to share executive functioning and planning tips along with the more traditional social language strategies to help students succeed.

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