Survival in the Workplace
by Stephen Shore
Because most of us must work for a living, attention to surviving in the workplace is vital. I shall report my experiences.
First Jobs after College and Fitting in.
After receiving my bachelor’s in Music Education and Accounting & Information Systems I set forth to work in a medium sized Certified Public Accountants firm. Boy was that a mistake. I went to work at an accounting firm, from which I was let go after three months.
I spent hour after hour preparing financial statements by hand for the auditing of mutual funds; so much so that I got tendonitis of the wrist. As the low man on the totem pole, I would spend much time verifying the work others had done. Even though I had just graduated as an honor’s student with a bachelor’s degree in the field, I often felt my coworkers were talking in another language when they explained procedures and where different documents were located. It seemed as if I had been dropped into a foreign culture. I felt like I needed to be shown step by step in a discrete manner to get a grasp of what was expected of me. No one was willing to do that for me.
I was closely supervised and was expected to fit in with all of the accountant/business employees. The business uniform is the suit and tieâ€¦ which drove me nuts. I can’t stand to wear a tie. The only way I could survive was to ride my bicycle from where I lived (about 7 miles) to work and enjoy the out-of-doors for an hour and a half each day. It took 45 minutes to get to work this way as opposed to the 2 hours by public transportation. Made sense to me.
Riding my bicycle to work and changing into my suit in the basement of the office was too weird for them. The personnel officer told me that I had better take public transportation and arrive at the office in my suit. Thinking back to that time I realize that I could not have chosen a place that was more conservative and conformist had I tried. Probably all financial institutions are like this. After a while I spent most of my time in their library reading business reference books as the supply of work seemed to dry up. On occasion, I would seek out work from other coworkers, or drop into one of the senior manager’s office for a chat.
An assignment with a fellow accountant at the firm didn’t work out well at all. I could never really understand what he wanted and he seemed irritated at the things I did. The bank where we worked was overheated. In response to that I would often open the window and take off my shoes when I was sitting at the desk out of view of other people. He didn’t like that at all. While auditing a ledger I mentioned to him that it was difficult to read some of the numbers.
One day the personnel officer called me into his office and told me he was letting me go. He said that I just didn’t seem to fit in and suggested that there may have been a disability that I had failed to disclose to him when I interviewed for the job. That disability may very well have been there. To me, however, it was something of the past and it never occurred to me that accommodation may have been needed. I just thought I was stupid because I didn’t “get it.” Getting fired was very humiliating and embarrassing to me. With a fuzzy, heavy feeling in my head I gathered my belongings and left.
My next job was at a large bank as a portfolio accountant. I made trades for, received interest and dividends for, and created regular financial reports for $750,000,000 of pension fund money. I had now learned better how to blend into the business world. They tolerated my riding my bicycle to work. However, I was miserable being involved in the business culture.
In addition, the assumption that I had left the bullies behind in junior high school, was incorrect. They were here too. Save for friends from India and Ethiopia, I kept to myself. I simply was not interested in spending the day yacking about team sports and how much a certain couch cost. I stayed at this large bank for the next year and a quarter but was unhappy there. I love the study of business, accounting and taxation but I cannot stand working with the people who choose these areas for their careers.
I left this job after 15 months to teach business at the vocational and college level.
The strange thing is, that I find the STUDY of business, taxes, the stock market, etc. fascinating. I also enjoy TEACHING business subjects; but not as much as teaching music. I just can’t tolerate working with the personality types who are attracted to this field.
A Better Fit
I realized that teaching was for me. There was no close supervision with someone watching my every move. My supervisors and students were closer o accepting me as myself then in any previous position. They actually respected that I rode my bicycle to work. My next place of employment was at a finishing school for secretaries. A warning like what is issued by the robot on the TV show Lost in Space should have gone off in my head: Too strict a dress codeâ€¦ I was let go from that place after two years.
The Best Fit
When I got my job as professor of music and computers in January 1994, I new I had found my niche. I could do what I loved and expend much less energy trying to blend in. As long as students are happy, learning what they are supposed to, the administration is happy too.
There are some people there who respect what I do for the school and serve as mentors. They inform me of potential political blunders I may be about to make and are ready to help bail me out if I get into trouble. It is often difficult for me to read the political wind of things and I’m terribly susceptible to bully-types that cross my path.
Those of us in the Fine and Performing Arts are frequently expected to be somewhat quirky and that suits me fine! By the way, I don’t have to wear a tie! Some people at work may sense that I’m different but most of the school community has no true sense of what I’m really about.
After this trip through various places of employment some things became clear to me. To survive as a full-time employee of an organization, these tenets must be followed by me.
1. I must know myself well enough to know where in the workplace I fit in. I seriously misjudged that as I entered the business world. The conformity along with the suit & tie thing just doesn’t work for me.
2. Close supervision of my day-to-day activities doesn’t work for me. I do much better if I’m given a task and a period of time to figure out what must be done, usually in a way that it hasn’t been done before.
3. Find a mentor or mentors I can trust. They can save your employment life.
4. Having an interest in a particular field doesn’t mean that it is good for me to work in.
5. There is more to life than work. [[Really?]] Yup! I’m still learning that.
My work at the college, however, was circumvented by a politically oriented challenge that I was unable to meet. As new full-time faculty member at this school, I had the full backing and support of my dean in teaching my classes along with course and curriculum development. Upon her direction and with the approval of the chair of my department, I set out to restructure the music area degree offerings and add new courses to the curriculum. Where it was only possible to declare a general major of music, my idea was to create different options within that degree. My sense that students would more readily identify with a specific program rather then a general music degree came to fruition as the number of declared music majors doubled soon after the change was implemented.
After following the bureaucratic maze of policies and procedures along with much collaboration with other faculty and staff, the restructured program was approved by an all college vote. Within this victory for my department and the others involved were sown the seeds of destruction for my continuing as a professor at this school.
Subtle Social Situations Rear Their Ugly Heads
There was a long-term faculty member, who held much power, that felt put out by my failure to consult with him in the restructuring plans. This person taught a single music class, had been in the college for almost two decades, and was very influential in determining academic policies within the institution. As I was new to the college, it never occurred to me to consult with the chair of another, seemingly unrelated, department as I went about my plans to reconfigure the music program.
While I did confer with other members of the music department as I went about these modifications, I should have expanded my inquiry towards additional people who were working within the music department. Perhaps my over reliance on the documented organization chart rather than the informal organization led to my overlooking this person.
My not sensing this situation, combined with the challenges of my not being able to read subtle social situations (office politics), resulted in this person’s initial displeasure with my working at the college. Unaware of the gravity of the situation in this person’s mind I never took steps to make amends for my transgressions towards him. From that point on he was always at the ready to oppose further plans for developing the music department.
For my first three years at this school I enjoyed a well-established support system that encompassed colleagues as well as administration ranging from the dean all the way up to and including the president of the college. Despite the attempts of the faculty member I had offended, along with his cadre of who supported his wish to have me let go from the position of music professor, the administration saw that I was continuing to make a substantial contribution to the college and kept me on. Some of these contributions to the college included the doubling of declared music majors and the donation of almost $40,000 of musical equipment to the school via grant proposals.
Unfortunately, over these three years, the support base I had established with the administration and other faculty eroded away as they left the college for various reasons. Lacking this support, the offended faculty member was able to get the school to conduct a nationwide search for the music position I had now held for three years. Two national searches were mounted. With the first, I was one of the top three candidates for the position. Another person was chosen but declined the position. The second time, I received the greatest number of votes from the search committee. Despite the search committee’s recommendation of my candidacy for the position I had already held for three years, along with the agreement from the dean of the department, the music position was suddenly terminated.
This greater than one year process of losing this job has been very painful to me. For a time that I thought, like the others at this college, that I had a good shot a chance for having a job for life that I could enjoy. This position seemed to be a dream. I could do what I loved and there was time to pursue my interests in other areas such as autism, bicycles and other areas. Losing the job, in spite of following all the procedures I thought necessary to retain the position, was a blow to my belief that by adhering to the rules I could attain my goal to keep this position.
As this long drawn out process continued, I realized that losing the job was indeed to become a reality. I needed to do something to sublimate the energy created by the angst of the looming possibility of becoming unemployed.
This made me very angry towards the perpetrators responsible for my job loss. As this seemed so terribly unfair to me, with much trepidation, I filed legal action with governmental agencies and with the union. It seemed, since the school was had so blatantly gone against the teacher’s contract, I should be able to win my position back. I was very reluctant to do request assistance from the teacher’s union as confrontation is very difficult for me. I suspect that confrontation is very difficult for me because it involves strong, unpredictable emotional behaviors and reactions. Being a person that likes things to be scripted out before they happen, the unknowns of confrontation can be very frightening.
The result was an additional year, and no more, of employment. Even though I was still working and the actual prospect of joblessness was yet to occur, I experienced a big change in attitude towards my place of work. Until this time, aside from my wife and family, I gave this position first priority insofar as devoting my time and energy. Because I received such positive feedback from the president of the school and other superiors, I felt what I did there was good and needed by the school.
After realizing that the school – or specifically, a few key people — did not view me on that basis, I chose to redirect my energies elsewhere. It no longer seemed to be necessary to be friendly with most of the people there and certainly no need to perform any job functions that were beyond what was described in the teacher’s contract. It was these additional things beyond the bare teaching and advising students that gave me a lot of satisfaction of doing a complete and good job.
This caused me to withdraw emotionally from the school that was previously a source of so much pleasure. The position became a mere shell of its former self. I did as I saw many other teachers do: arrive, teach, help the students, and leave. It was very difficult changing my work philosophy here to this minimalist approach as it is my nature to continually work towards making the school a better place for the students. Seeing that there was no future here made anything that related to continued development of the school irrelevant.
Whereas this position had been a source of enthusiasm and energy for me; it now was an emotional drain. Suddenly I realized a possible reason why others at this institution seemed to put just a minimal effort there. Perhaps they too, had been burned by office politics and felt unappreciated.
Onward and Beyond
I have finished writing Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome (2001, Autism Asperger Publishing Company). Using the autobiographical form, my observations from working with people on the autism spectrum and other realizations are woven throughout the book. I am now happily enrolled in a doctoral program in special education with a concentration on helping people on the autism spectrum reach their fullest potential.
Currently, when not working with people on the autism spectrum and studying, I teach computers and statistics at various colleges in Massachusetts.
Excerpted from Shore, S. (2001). Beyond the wall: Personal experiences with autism and Asperger Syndrome.
Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Autism Asperger Publishing Company Beyond the Wall is at http://www.asperger.net/wall.htm.
Beyond the Wall is available at Amazon.com.