Job interview anecdotes - I could write a book!Charlotte Sabel copyright

There was the one where an MP (I won’t name names) spent most of the interview discussing Nazi henchmen and his mother who shared my name.
Interviewers – banter is good, but please try to be professional and job specific at this point.

The financial tv news editor who wore a crumpled t-shirt and questioned where I was going so ‘dressed up’, in a suit anyone would wear for a job interview.
Interviewers – try not to alienate or be overfamiliar or personal at this stage.

My personal favourite weird interview was the company director who headhunted me and then in the formal interview later expressed condolences for my father who had died seven years before, whom he didn’t know and learnt of by ‘Googling’ me and discovering I once did a sponsored walk in his memory. 
Interviewers - see above!

This behaviour is curious at best. But as an autistic, I find it really unsettling.

However, even if one gets through the traumatic interview stage, it is the hidden issues at work which cause people on the spectrum depression, confusion and in my case a nervous breakdown. Asking for physical adjustments is enough to be dealing with. ‘Can we dim the lights’? ‘Could I work alone in that corner office rather than in an open plan noisy space’? These are obvious.

On communication

It is the translation of neurotypical ambiguity which sends an Aspie into a tailspin. A new boss asked me to do something which I did by the end of the working week. I later realised he meant at any time during my employment! I thought I was being diligent. He thought I was odd, and the rest of the team thought I was showing off or after their jobs. The result was me being overlooked in everything and my eventual resignation.

I try to live by the maxim ‘say what you mean, and mean what you say’, and while I have learnt to live with the the inconsistencies of this in personal relationships, it is somehow much harder to cope with in formal settings, which nowadays are not so formal. 

As a highly articulate and educated person with a high IQ it is not metaphors I struggle with, it’s hidden meanings or mixed messages and poor communication skills. None of which should even feature at work, but sadly do. Smiley faces on emails, leaping to WhatsApp from email, no emails at all keeping one in the loop!

I often wonder if there should be a standard qualification in communication etiquette!

Nearly every bad relationship or occurrence in life is caused by an underlying misunderstanding or lack of communication. Yes, a lot of human communication is about what is unsaid, but in a formal, professional setting there must be a standard unambiguous operation whereby no one is left out.

In the virtual and remote world this can for some prove even more confusing. In a world of endless ways and means to communicate, whether it be sign language, Makaton or learning other peoples’ languages, using email, letters, text etc, surely communicating with an autistic cannot be so difficult!

Does there need to be a translation app for neurotypical to Aspie?

Autistic people can be hard workers, focused, efficient and productive. That is not to say non-autistics are not, but autistic and neurodivergent people often end up exasperated at the inefficiency and inconsistency in the workplace.

A female employer once asked me to wear jeans as my work suit policy made other women in the office uncomfortable. My vision of how one dressed at work was incompatible with theirs so I was the one who was made to feel uncomfortable, which is not how equality and diversity works.

Would these experiences have occurred if the employers had known about spectrum conditions and how to communicate in a more inclusive way?  I am not advocating an Orwellian Newspeak, but simply to adhere to the adage of saying what is kind, what is truthful and what is necessary in a plain way. Save the game playing, and undercurrents to flirting in ones private life! It is a tricky balance to get right.

Perhaps by speaking plainly and accommodating peoples’ preferences or behaviour then the workplace can attain that all elusive diversity.

Thankfully, the silver lining of my breakdown was the eventual diagnosis at the age of thirty-three of Asperger’s. Armed with this label, one might assume I could re-join the world of work and ask for all the adjustments I needed to have a fulfilling and happy career. Apparently, the world of work wants neurodivergent talent!

On disclosure

When we declare our sought-after ‘superhero’ Asperger status we will be able to walk into the perfect job after sailing through a tailor-made interview and be able to request any arrangements for the job we were born to do and live happily ever after. Or not. My experience and those of others on the spectrum is very different.

Much of the issue, is based on whether those on the spectrum disclose their 'superhero' status. There are specific recruitment companies there to help, but for most people diagnosed and undiagnosed, it is a minefield. The usual story sadly, is the interview stage where many will ‘fail’ for simply being themselves.

All humans want to fit in and be accepted. If faced with a neurotypical employer, one might withhold information at this stage.

We’ve all seen the pre-interview notes, asking if we need any adjustments, or if it is a big company, requesting equal opportunities information. But after long unemployment, or desire to work in this particular field, do we ask for the lights to be turned down, or if the office is open plan? Do we declare our 'superhero' status to someone who may have no knowledge other than media portrayals? Probably not.

If the application is successful, and a label is not disclosed at that point, then the real problems can begin. Even people who comprehend autism can make generalisations and comments which are as equally unhelpful as not knowing about someone’s diagnosis at all.

A close friend voiced disbelief at my Asperger’s because apparently, I ‘dressed very feminine’ and ‘had excellent eye contact’.

So a new job, a host of new faces and bosses we want to impress and co-operate with. Soon anxiety kicks in when the endless chitchat becomes too much or colleagues mistake our focused approach for being aloof or competitive. We may be among the best or the brightest, but can be overlooked in favour of the team players or the ‘ones who got the rule book’. By the time problems show up these employees have become depressed, isolated and bored. Now might be a good time to declare. I resign at this stage. Some are sacked. Many stay in miserable jobs with no prospects.

Many employers have no real knowledge of spectrum conditions and through no fault of their own have unconscious bias.

Many autistics treat me like the poster girl for Asperger’s, in awe at my ability to have been employed at all, ask for my advice. I can only imagine it is years of exhausting ‘masking’ which got me through. That or working in politics, where reading between the lines was essential to ascertain anything but where being honest definitely did me no favours!

The norm is, at best to have a job for a few years, struggle, become unhappy and move to another. At worst, to never have a job.

A university friend has more letters of qualification than he can fit on his CV but he has never worked in the field he is qualified for and works at jobs he could do with no qualifications.

Interestingly, many autistic people ‘fall’ into social care work. This is the case for me, whereas my background was politics and think tanks or private companies, the constant ‘faking it’ broke me. In social care, work can be flexible, instantly gratified, focused and often independent. Having a spectrum diagnosis and declaring it is useful in empathising with service users. Communications and behaviour are instantly elevated on all sides to a more beneficial level.

Change is coming!

The good news is that things are changing! Employers are better equipped in the quest for neurodivergent talent.

With the Covid effect, the world of work has been transformed.

Autistic people for the first time are reporting success in getting and retaining jobs because of the remote and more solitary nature. While many, including myself prefer the interactive and collaborative nature of work, there can be an upside to the flexible working life now available and a more blended way of working means more diversity and inclusivity.

Acceptance is all, and many employers recognise this more now.

Interestingly for many now homeworking, colleague banter and the irritations of much of office life may be a thing of the past for everyone! Though perhaps others will miss this.

The option for declaring our diagnosis should always be a choice and the positive discrimination quest for neurodivergent talent is a difficult path to navigate. There is no one size fits all approach and every situation can be different. There are job interviews where I have read the mood and all things go well, so even chatty more personal interviews have proved successful. Yet other interviews have resulted in failure or disaster at work later. Aspies must also take responsibility and try to hone their gut instinct on these matters.

Yet until employers and society at large are more aware of Spectrum conditions, people will feel reluctant in declaring and if there is no declaration how can they then make communications and practices more inclusive?

The connection therefore between disclosing and better experiences is a mixed bag. One should not have to disclose, because what works for one works for all. There need be no ‘special’ treatment. As I have often heard at neurodiversity events, all people can benefit from ‘Aspie friendly’ work practices. As with ethnic, religious and sexual orientation diversity, it will take time for a cultural shift.

That being said, now I am older and have a diagnosis, I understand myself better. I can be more open and confident about my abilities and any adjustments I need. Older people on the spectrum are at a disadvantage because there is still a stigma attached. A friend embarking on adult education did not declare his conditions out of embarrassment, while younger people gladly tick all the boxes on forms to get the help they need and deserve.

Change is coming, but as with all evolution and progress, it does not happen overnight.

Charlotte Sabel

September 2021