Understanding Unwritten Rules in the Workplace for Autistic Job-seekers
By Liz Vande Putte
One of the biggest challenges we face as autistic employees is working out the unwritten social rules that everyone else seems to live by. Sometimes neurotypical people can get upset or offended when we ask about unwritten rules, and a lot of neurotypical people aren’t even aware that there are unwritten rules; they can’t explain them to us even if we ask. How do we find out what the unwritten rules are, and how not to break them?
Your neurokin (our fantastic community of neurodivergent people) are a great resource for solving this problem. We understand what it’s like not to know these silent laws and what happens when we get it wrong; a lot of us have spent decades deciphering social rules and expectations for our own survival. Because we have learnt these from experience (and a lot of trial and error along with it) we can actually explain these rules in a way that neurotypical people can’t. Online and social media support groups are a supportive and knowledge-filled place to ask your unwritten rule questions.
If you’re starting a new job, one of the perks of being new is that you’re expected (and encouraged) to ask lots of questions, so you can ask a trusted colleague about some of the strange rules of the workplace in your first two or three weeks. After this time, many workplaces expect you to somehow know everything, so asking a lot of questions can seem annoying, even if your employer and colleagues know you’re autistic or neurodivergent. The HR (human resources) department may be the more understanding than other co-workers, and their job is to support you in the workplace – use them!
Watch and learn
Observation can be a good way of working out the unwritten rules of your workplace, so watch what other people do and take cues from them. Remember that every workplace has a hierarchy, with owners, managers and people who have been there a long time at the top and everyone else fitting in beneath them.
Many organisations have a chart showing which explains the structure of the business and this can be a really helpful guide to the unwritten social hierarchy as it often follows the same order. People at the top of the social/work hierarchy are allowed to break some of the rules (it’s unfair, but it’s a kind of reward for being at the top), so try to take your cues from colleagues on the same level as you. The boss might be allowed to leave their dirty mug in the kitchen for someone else to wash up, but everyone else is probably expected to wash their own.
Social etiquette in the workplace
Lots of the unwritten rules in the workplace are about social etiquette. Some standard ones are:
- Say good morning to people when you arrive for work. Include receptionists, security staff and all the people in your working area or your team, basically everyone you have to interact with.
- When you go for your lunch break it is also a good idea to tell someone that is where you are going and when you expect to be back.
- When you leave work, say goodbye or good evening to the people you greet in the morning if they are still in the workplace.
- Try not to interrupt people when they are talking on the phone, or are talking to another co-worker unless it is urgent. Often, emails are a good way to ask questions because then you have the answer written down to refer back to if you need to.
- If you are making a cup of tea or coffee ask the other people in your office (or team) if they would like one too.
- Hot drinks are a great ice-breaker on your first day. You can introduce yourself to your colleagues by asking them whether they like tea or coffee (and how they take it) and making a list you can refer to when you make hot drinks for them in the future.
Lunch and break times
Lunch and break times can be difficult to navigate because they are unstructured, so we’re left without any guidance on what to do. Some of the challenges include:
- Where to eat
- What to eat
- What if someone else’s food smells bad?
- How to do small talk
- How to avoid small talk and have some time to yourself
Here are some answers and strategies you can use for each challenge:
- Some workplaces have a canteen where you can buy food or eat your own packed lunch, while some workplaces have a break room where you can eat a packed lunch, heat a microwave meal, or eat something you have bought that day. Lots of office jobs allow you to eat your lunch at your desk, but some don’t – food and drink don’t mix well with computers! Ask where it is OK to eat lunch – but be mindful of the fact that eating at your desk won’t give you a break from the office environment.
- You may find it best to bring a packed lunch to take all the uncertainty out of what to eat – lots of us autistic folk have food allergies and sensitivities that make eating out or buying a sandwich difficult.
- Some people might bring food we hate the smell of, so it’s a good idea to have a back up place to eat lunch if the break room or office smells of stinky sandwich! It’s actually considered rude to eat really smelly food in an office or shared environment, so it’s OK to speak up if someone is eating something offensive to your nose.
- We’ve got an article all about small talk coming up/published here to help guide you through this challenge.
- If there is a park or somewhere outside to sit near your workplace this can be a good place to eat your lunch and have a break from the office environment. Having a walk in the middle of the day is a good opportunity for processing the events of the morning and for spending some quiet time, which can really help you get through the day without being too overwhelmed.
Using your phone
Many workplaces don’t allow you to use your phone during your workday, although this varies from job to job. Generally, if you are working in retail or hospitality and are serving customers the majority of the time, you shouldn’t use your phone to go on social media, watch videos or play games. In fact, many workplaces don’t even let you have your phone in your pocket while you are working. Break times and lunch times are both good times to use your phone, but if you are expecting a very important call you can ask your manager if you may keep your phone on you that day.
In office jobs it is a bit different, and you are usually allowed to have your phone on you. However, the rule about break times and lunch times for using your phone still apply so you’ll still have to keep YouTube, social media and checking personal emails for those periods. If you need to answer a call it is best to go somewhere private to speak, not only for your privacy but so you don’t disturb people who are working. Go into a corridor, or even into the toilet to take or make personal phone calls. You should keep this to a minimum, though, and only answer or make calls that can’t wait for another time. The same goes for text messages, although you don’t need to text in a private area unless you have keyboard sounds turned on.
Working with a coach or mentor can help you address the expectation of sticking to these unwritten workplace rules. Having someone who you can ask, without judgement, about the nonsensical things that are expected is a big help. A work coach or mentor can also help you explain your neurodivergence to your colleagues so that they understand why you might act (and react) differently to them. Being openly neurodivergent in a workplace setting takes a lot of courage, but you don’t have to do this alone.
If you’re interested in finding more about coaching through Enna, check out our coaching page here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.