Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Observations about (a review of)^2 Autism Employment

I am very thankful for articles by Jim Hoerricks. The latest is: A deep dive on the Buckland Review of Autism Employment: report and recommendations.

While I don’t live under the British Crown, I do live under the Canadian Crown which is a fork in the code (laws, worldviews, etc) that is a quite similar constitutional monarchy based on similar worldviews that grew from the unique history of Britain.

I started to make some personal observations from nearly 4 decades in the job market, having been one of the lucky 3 in 10 Autistic adults that had until recently been employed.

I noticed a problem.

Several of my observations can’t be attributed to the “executive dysfunction” that is regularly discussed as part of the neurodivergent experience, but “executive dysfunction” relating to the corporate culture at a specific workplace. This made me think of the article Executive Functioning as Ideology by Robert Chapman.

While I may no longer work there, the information silos, strict adherence to a chain of command, job title and description issues, Peter principle, and other failure patterns more specific to technology projects within the organization remain. While I may have been a “whistle-blower” or “canary in the coal mine”, my exit didn’t solve any problems other than removing the warning sounds.

Labour Market Barriers:

I have never had a regular job interview, so never faced that particular barrier fellow Autistic people face. I have thus far been approached by people who knew why they wanted to hire me from previously hearing about me and my specific skills and ways of working.

I know I would do poorly in a job interview as I’m aware my open manner of thinking and communicating doesn’t come off well as a first impression for some people. For some people, it always makes them uncomfortable and they never get used to it no matter how long they have known me. If I’m asked a question, I will offer as open, honest, and correct an answer I possibly can. I am aware that “honesty is the best policy” is a social lie, and that mismatch is a barrier to trying to survive in a neuronormative culture.

There was one important exception: I was an employee brought over as part of a merger, and the new employer didn’t really know why I was there. I wasn’t brought into the organization because they were aware of my skills and ways of working, but kept over a merger because of a job description of “Lead Systems Engineer”.

That job description didn’t describe what I did, but what a previous manager felt they would need to hire if I was no longer working at the organization. I generally don’t fit into any silo, and one of the reasons I have been hired over my career was specifically to collaborate across silos (including across organizations within the Free/Libre and Open Source Software movement).

I had recently been asked to vacate the "Lead Systems Engineer" job description to allow someone else to no longer feel they were in my shadow. This was in a corporate culture with a strict chain of command that treated job descriptions as exclusive jurisdiction, but what I was being asked to do (or rather, no longer do) somehow wasn’t seen as problematic by management.

Managers (mine and others) were complaining I wasn’t doing “my” job, and even more loudly claiming I was stepping in other peoples exclusive lanes. While Jim’s article discussed the need to “replacing woolly job specifications with focused, jargon-free descriptions“, I was in a situation of obvious stress where I had no job specifications at all. All I received were indecipherable complaints.

I was placed on "sick leave" for being Autistic at Work (apparently not the way they saw it), and less than 2 weeks later when I was still on "sick leave" the role was renamed to Senior Systems Analyst and assigned to a coworker.

Lesser barrier: interruptions.

While I regularly noted the cost of being interrupted (a 1 minute question actually costs a 30 minute context switch), I didn’t seem to have problems with the cubicle farms or inappropriate lighting. This situation improved after 2020 when remote work became possible, and I was able to work more efficiently in an office environment I created in my home (appropriate lighting, quiet, scheduled synchronous meetings rather than random interruptions).

Skill Mismatch and Underemployment:

This was partly discussed above in relation to “job descriptions”. I had skills and experience that were not being harnessed as most of my experience was being claimed to be the exclusive jurisdiction of other employees. While I am very much an “open source” type of person who wants to share knowledge, knowledge transfer was regularly blocked as allegedly being “rude” to suggest another employee didn’t already know something.

There were situations where I was the only employee remaining from the pre-merger organization that had specific corporate memory, but I wasn’t allowed to share. I was the author of software, but wasn’t allowed to describe how it worked or how to use it. I was told not to write documentation to describe processes in other departments, and then reprimanded that this documentation didn’t exist.

I was allowed to be on an 80% contract as I had a wide variety of reasons to not want to be full time. Whenever I was allowed to work on solving a problem I easily gave more than full time hours, but also had considerable stress generated from organizational blocks to being able to work on solving technical problems.

From the report:

e.5 Autistic people have far more negative experiences of interviews, group tasks and psychometric tests. Autistic jobseekers must navigate vague, generic job descriptions, ambiguous interview questions and challenging sensory environments, often with an emphasis on social skills rather than job skills. Many feel they must mask their autistic traits to succeed.

In the case of this employer, job skills (in my case, technical skills) were not valued, and differences in social skills were a constant source of complaint and periodic formal reprimand.

Policy and Practice Gap:

I discuss this earlier in the context of workplace harassment policies.

Harassment policies should be applied in an intersectional way, but the more I read the more I notice they are not. The discomfort of some individuals who represent a “majority” being faced with “different” ways of being is prioritized over the reality or even existence of other employees.

In the case of this workplace, my Autistic Dialect was being misinterpreted as being “rude” and “condescending”, which demonstrated a lack of some pretty basic autism awareness. Individuals who felt uncomfortable with my dialect then complained to management that I was “harassing” them.

In one case it was someone whose manager was blocking knowledge sharing. The coworker would regularly notice a mismatch between how they expected our technology to work and how the technology actually worked. They would ask what went wrong, but any attempt to explain how the software worked was claimed to be “condescending”.

We would be discussing data and data management software that I had been managing or co-managing for 9 years, but they and their manager felt I should be deferring to them on how to manage data which they hadn’t seen yet as they hadn’t learned the management tools yet (tools which I authored the bulk of the software for). I was regularly told they didn't believe I had the relevant skills and experience (because of incorrect job titles and job descriptions), even though I had been doing that specific type of work already for 9 years.

Workplace policies and practices that weren’t neuronormative would have tried to facilitate communication between employees, rather than constantly claiming that any use of neurodivergent speech patterns at work was worthy of reprimand or claims of violating workplace harassment policies. Workplace harassment policies were in effect being used to harass neurodivergent employees.

For most of my career it was not a problem for me to ask “why” and get clarification on what was being asked of me (and what priority, etc). This was not allowed in that most recent workplace.  My asking "why" was regularly misinterpreted as a challenge (to authority, hierarchy, etc).

Awareness and Inclusion Efforts:

I find many Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies are performative, and never adequately seek to understand “inclusion into what”. I’m not thinking narrowly about neurotypes, but all forms of diversity.

I’ve observed “inclusion” interpreted narrowly as anyone being able to join an organization. Once hired, employees are expected to behave like every other employee, and never make so-called “normal” employees feel uncomfortable with any differences. Employees are expected to leave who they are as complex intersectional people at home.

I knew this workplace was aware of legal obligations in relation to “disabled” employees (Autism is still treated only as a disability under Ontario law), but there was no indication management attempted to learn what Autism was. There was only the all too common “there are other neurodivergent employees, and they aren’t having a problem at this moment” dismissal of the reality of equity seeking people.

While I wasn’t fired, I also didn’t have a job to return to after being forced on sick leave for being Autistic at work.

Long before I accepted I’m Autistic, I knew one of my skills was in analysing and trying to improve systems. While I was regularly hired as a systems administrator where it was understood I would try to understand/improve/manage computer systems, I do the same for any type of system whether it be government structures/policy or corporate structures/policies. I read articles on common failure patterns for technology and other businesses, and try to help in my workplaces to avoid them.

While my skills related to systems could have been harnessed, at the most recent workplace it was harassed. Any attempt to discuss business culture and patterns were misinterpreted as a critique about individual people. It essentially meant there was a mismatch between my skills and what was expected of me, as I was intended to silently follow a chain of command and arbitrary information silos, and to never to discuss or seek systemic improvements.

P.S.: If the subject doesn't make sense to you, read it as "Observations about a review of a review of Autism Employment". It is nerdy humour -- sorry :-)