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If There's Trouble
You've passed the test! Now you have a job. When that happens,
the focus of your life will change. You are no longer faced with
the problems of finding a job. Now you are faced with the questions
1) how can I advance in my chosen career and 2] how can I prevent
or minimize problems in the workplace which might cost me the job
I worked so hard to get? These are issues for every person in the
workforce and every individual with disabilities, but they are particularly
challenging for an individual with attention deficit disorder or
a specific learning disability, since these impairments often present
problems in social adaptability, as well as in doing certain job
tasks, and thus make the workplace that much more challenging.
This article is divided into two parts: getting ahead while on
the job and how to handle trouble when it starts.
B. GETTING AHEAD
1. ADVANCEMENT ISSUES
Job advancement is challenging for everyone but the challenge
is particularly difficult for people with disabilities. Today's
trends, such as lessening the number of middle managers, the devaluation
of loyalty, and downsizing, make advancement difficult for everyone.
It is wise to start thinking about promotion potential when you
interview for or accept the job.
During the discussion, find a way to mention your interest in
the future. You may want to ask, "Where does this job lead?"
and "What happened to the person who held this position?"
If it is a generic position within the company, ask, "What
jobs do the people in this position do after five years?" This
shows the employer that you intend to stay with the company and
may break the stereotype that a person with a disability wants to
stay in the same job forever.
Assess your future boss. If he or she appears to be moving up,
you may move up with your manager. Ask them how they got to where
they are today.
When discussing reasonable accommodation, make every effort to
keep all of the responsibilities that are part of the job, particularly
those that will help you advance.
For example, a manager may hire a person with a learning disability
and re-move team management elements from the position, because
he or she believes a person with this disability has social skills
deficits, Supervision and leadership lead to advancement. For this
reason, if you have disclosed your disability, ask the manager to
describe the accommodations the firm will provide and assure that
they will not hamper your advancement in the future.
2. BE AN EXCELLENT EMPLOYEE
Once you are hired, you need to be an excellent employee. Most
successful people with disabilities report that they are treated
in a manner similar to that of other minorities. It is necessary
for them to be significantly better than their peers in order to
keep their jobs. Advancement, however, requires more than doing
a good job.
Volunteer to perform work that expands your responsibilities.
If something needs to be done that is a higher level than your present
job, do it even if it takes extra time. Network within the company
to become aware of needs and openings as they arise. Be sure that
your boss and top management are aware of your activities. This
can be achieved through discussions and memos.
Remember, appearing to do a good job is as important as actually
doing a good job. The impression that you are making is as important
as what you are actually doing.
Unfortunately, disabilities can get in the way of your supervisor
seeing you for what you are. Therefore, you may need to make some
extra effort to have your competence recognized.
Conversely, others may have such low expectations, that everything
you do well is considered "amazing." You will need to
do everything possible to counteract this prejudice.
One way to develop a positive image is to gain visibility outside
the company. Consider joining a professional association, networking
with colleagues, volunteering for projects, writing articles and
running for office within an organization.
Richard Pimentel, senior vice president, Windmills Training Group,
who has trained thousands of employers regarding the hiring and
recruiting of people with disabilities, points out that supervisors
are often hesitant to give feedback to people with disabilities.
"Suppose two employees are painting widgets," he suggests.
"Instead of painting them red, they paint them yellow. Now,
Mary is non-disabled and Tom is blind. So, the boss goes to Mary
and says, 'Hey, Mary, you're painting the widgets the wrong color!
Paint them red. RED. You got that?'
"But, why is Tom painting the widgets yellow? Because he's
disabled. The boss is afraid to tell Tom to paint the widgets red.
So, he tells everyone else how incompetent Tom is and that disabled
people won't work out."
To counteract this problem, Pimentel says that people with disabilities
need to request effective reality checks. "Make an appointment
with your boss," he advises."Ask him or her how you are
doing. Ask, "How is my production? How can I improve? How can
I get along better with you?" Listen to the response and act
on the advice.
After a year or more on the job, Pimentel recommends making a
plan with your supervisor for promotion. He suggests that you say,
"I'm interested in a promotion. What is your understanding
of what's possible? What do I need to do? Can you introduce me to
You and your supervisor can modify your job to give you the experience
you need for promotion. You will have to ask your supervisor about
the promotion, perhaps because someone told them when you were hired
that you would stay where you are. You can be promoted, but it's
a lot of work.
3. UP THE LADDER
Here are some things you can do at the entry level which can help
- Cultivate a positive self-image. Many people
with disabilities feel "grateful to have a job." Remember
that your employer should be happy to have you on the job.
- Avoid unrealistic expectations. Some people
with disabilities have experienced unrealistic positive feedback
throughout childhood in the special education system. Unrealistic
expectations can not be sustained in most jobs. Getting a job
is exciting. But some people with disabilities (particularly attention
deficit disorder) may have a tendency to entertain unrealistic
expectations. A security guard may see himself as doing the work
of "Dirty Harry." A paralegal may see herself as a Supreme
Court Justice in the making. Unrealistic expectations of these
types frequently lead to arrogance and a feeling that the job
is a dead end, when a more balanced perspective would lead to
the conclusion that the work is interesting and rewarding in itself.
- Avoid arrogance. Unrealistic expectations
can lead to a poor attitude in an-other way. Some individuals
with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder accept
jobs alongside people with lesser educational backgrounds. If
you feel that you are better than others on your job or that your
job is below you, you should 1] remind yourself that all work
is valuable and 2] monitor your behavior so that any initial negative
feelings you may have do not show.
- Your manager is not your parent. Remember
that managers are managers, not parents or teachers. They are
willing to be helpful but do not have any responsibility for your
personal life. They will not necessarily compliment you for a
job well done. They frequently have limited time to teach you.
- Extra hours can help you advance. Extra hours
can help you advance, if you spend the extra time fulfilling duties
that are at a higher level than your current job. Many successful
individuals with learning disabilities and/or attention deficit
disorder report that long hours were a common experience for them.
- Your advancement is important. Your work towards
a promotion helps all employees with learning disabilities and
attention deficit disorder.
- You are engaged in a learning process. The
learning process you engage in while working towards a promotion
is as important as receiving the promotion. Keeping this in mind
enables you to relax about seeking a promotion. People who have
spent their childhoods under strong stress often become overly
determined and undermine their own progress.
- The challenge of success. People with disabilities
have a particularly difficult time receiving promotions. However,
through choosing a job with the potential for advancement, assuring
that reasonable accommodation does not remove challenges, working
hard, being visible, communicating well with the supervisor and
others on the job, and developing self-confidence, it is still
possible to climb the ladder of success.
- Select a positive role model. As you move
up, the techniques of success change. It is essential to study
the expected behaviors of the top people and emulate them. Some
of the above advice will always be helpful, but other parts may
- Don't forget self-employment. Some individuals
(with or without disabilities and with or without accommodations)
are not most highly productive working for other people. If advancement
is denied you, and you have fairly considered the strategies suggested
in this book, plus others you have developed for yourself, it
may be that self-employment is the key to success. If you reach
this conclusion, this century appears to have been made for you.
The revolution in information technology and has made possible
an entirely new approach to working. Large organizations are hiring
less people and subcontracting out tasks. Many people operate
successful and profitable service businesses from their homes.
Clerical assistance is often pro-vided by others who work out
of their homes and are linked by telephone, fax machine and modem.
The day of the rugged individualist has been re-invented!
C. IF THERE'S TROUBLE
This is a book about success in the work place, and so it seems
almost out of place to talk about trouble - what might go wrong.
But the hard fact is that at some time or other virtually every
individual, with or without a disability, will experience a set-back
in his or her career, whether it is a failure to obtain a desired
promotion, a demotion, lay-off, or termination. How you handle a
set-back can be more important than how you handle success.
This issue can be particularly important for individuals with
learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder, because those
disabilities are often accompanied by deficits in socialization
which make job trouble harder to foresee, more startling when it
occurs, and more challenging to the individual's self-esteem than
it would be for others who do not have these disabilities.
One story will serve as an example. PB was a writer for a newspaper
in a major city. His writing skills were excellent, but he also
was an individual with attention deficit disorder. As a result of
his impairment, he frequently forgot the security pass he was required
to display when entering his firm's building on the weekends. There
were a number of complaints about his failure to display the pass.
Matters came to a head one weekend. Confronted with an important
deadline, PB rushed to work, again forgetting his pass. He was absorbed
in the process of mentally composing his story as he rushed through
the lobby of his building and "blew past" the security
desk without, of course, displaying his pass. The guard, whom PB
knew by sight (and who knew PB by sight) refused to allow him entry.
Startled, PB said: "You know who I am, and I'm in a hurry -
I've got a deadline." When the guard continued to refuse, PB
insulted him, boarded the elevator and went to his office to work
on his story. The guard, by this time furious at PB's insults, called
his superiors who contacted PB's employer. The employer, confronted
with repeated prior security breaches, and a (by now) inflammatory
incident, fired PB on the spot. Outraged, PB explained: "But
I was only doing my job!." In PB's mind, the security incidents
were like so many speeding tickets - unfortunate, but unrelated
to his work. To the employer, they were breaches of company rules
which required that employees - in addition to performing their
functions- must also be "good citizens" - i.e. punctual,
courteous, and orderly in their workplace behavior.
This case need never have happened. If PB had taken a broader
view of his duties, and considered compliance with security procedures
as part of his job, he would have been as conscientious about carrying
his pass and cooperating with the security procedures as he was
about his deadlines. He might have obtained as an accommodation,
the employer's agreement that he undertake his weekend work at home
or that he have a special arrangement with security personnel -
the right to obtain a temporary visitor's security pass for gaining
entry to the building in place of returning to his home to get his
regularly issued pass, for example. Today, security rules are extremely
important because of the threat of terrorism.
This article discusses damage control - what
you should do to avoid trouble or to minimize trouble once it erupts.
If PB had politely gone home to get his pass, he might have been
chewed out for being late and he might even have endangered his
deadline, but the odds are that he would not have been fired. His
employer would still have the services of a top-notch writer; he
would still be employed by that newspaper.
We are basing the following recommendations on the optimistic
premise that individuals (both employers and employees) acting in
good faith can solve most problems through honest and open discussion.
That premise is not universally a valid one. Not every employee
has the self-knowledge, self-discipline and drive to handle serious
strains on the working relationship. Not every employer will have
the in-sight, compassion and commitment to individuals with disabilities
to make a potentially difficult situation better. As a result, many
employment relationships go beyond the point of no return before
they can be salvaged. When that happens, tile employee has little
choice but to rethink his or her job strategies, re-evaluate his
strengths and weaknesses, locate another job, or (in appropriate
cases) assert his or her legal rights. However, not all problems
need to become insoluble. Here are some thoughts on strategies that
might prove helpful.
1. SOCIAL REQUIREMENTS OF JOBS
Most people, when they think of job "requirements" consider
only the academic qualifications, required on-the-job experience,
and competence in the work itself required of the employee. However,
a job also has "silent" requirements - ones that "go
without saying" to most of us. The "silent requirements"
of jobs include 1] cooperativeness in the work situation, both with
fellow employees and supervisors 2] compliance with "good citizenship"
rules, e.g. being on time; no unauthorized absences; no smoking,
etc. and 3] a record of "off the job conduct" which is
reasonably free from convictions for offenses whose commission may
affect job performance. Moreover, these "silent requirements"
become increasingly important as the seniority and pay of the positions
2. SIGNS OF TROUBLE
There's an excellent cartoon about a trial you should consider.
The Judge has turned to the jury and has asked whether the jury
has reached a verdict. 'The jury Foreman (who is tying a hangman's
knot) replies that it has. The humor lies in the fact that the Foreman's
answer is unnecessary. He has made it clear through his conduct
that 1] a decision has been reached and 2] it is a guilty verdict.
Some signs of trouble in the workplace are almost as obvious. Others
are subtle. Here are some of them.
- Negative Comments From Co-Workers and Supervisors
Trouble can begin with negative comments from co-workers and supervisors.
Snide or sarcastic comments about lateness, disorganization or
sloppiness in your work can be evidence of a growing perception
that your job performance is not "up to the company's standards."
If you do not understand a comment, write it down. For example,
one boss said to an employee with learning disabilities, "Finally,
you made it here on time. I'm glad to see you." The employee
was lucky. A co-worker explained, "He's trying to tell you
not to be late again." If these perceptions have any basis
in fact, and the comments are repeated, it may be time for you
to meet with your supervisor and request an informal review of
your job performance to date. This technique can defuse a situation
before it becomes ugly.
- Informal "Chats" About "Good Citizenship"
Frequently, a decision to withhold pay increases, deny promotion
or fire some-one is arrived at over a period of time. When things
are going wrong, sometimes, a supervisor will have a "chat"
with an employee about the standards of performance required by
the company. Frequently the supervisor is not comfortable with
a direct statement such as, "You're frequently late, and
I'm going to have to do something about it." Such confrontations
may trigger responses such as, "It's not my fault. It's all
the traffic I have to go through." As a result, a supervisor's
first approach to the problem may be indirect, in the hopes that
you will "get the hint." Discussions of this type might
include statements like, "We here at X Corp. pride ourselves
on being on time and ready for work." If you have such a
conversation, don't assume that the supervisor is simply passing
on information about company attitudes for no reason. He or she
is either 1] correct in the perception that your lateness has
been a problem or 2] incorrect. In either event, the supervisor's
concerns should be addressed. It may be helpful to ask, "Do
you feel I'm not meeting the standards? Could you tell me how
I fall short?"
- Less Desirable Assignments
Some supervisors, faced with a perception that an employee's performance
is substandard, may react by assigning individuals to less desirable
work, either in the hope that they will become dissatisfied with
the job and leave, or in the belief that the desirable work (and
the potential for advancement) should go to more de-serving workers.
If this happens, don't "blow your top." Perform the
work required for a period of time to the extent necessary. Show
your dedication to the company in as many ways as you can. Then
ask to meet with your supervisor and explore the possibility of
re-assignment after you have shown that the company's needs come
first. However, less desirable assignments are often a sign that
the job relationship has been irreparably damaged and so even
these strategies may not work.
- Extra Work and Weekend Work
Other supervisors, faced with a perception that an employee's
performance is substandard, may react by assigning individuals
to extra work and weekend work. The previous comments apply to
this situation also. Do not argue that you have worked hard all
week and are unwilling to accept the work.
- Complaints About "Overly Rigid " Adherence
Some individuals with attention deficit disorder and learning
disabilities work so hard at complying with the rules that they
become overly invested in following them. Seeing other employees
and management ignore these rules can be infuriating. It is always
inappropriate to comment on anyone else's following or not following
the rules. Your major job is monitoring your own behavior. Gauge
the level of strictness with which your company rules are enforced.
Watch what people do, not what the policy manuals say. Does everyone
come in at the starting time? When do they usually leave? What
about reports? One woman was the only person in her office who
filled out meeting reports, which were technically required. She
spent her time doing a job which was in fact unnecessary. Another
individual, for example, endangered his job by leaving work at
the precise moment his watch displayed the designated quitting
time, regardless of what other activities were taking place. A
supervisor, confronted with the departure of an employee at 5:00
P.M. in the middle of a conversation is unlikely to take a charitable
view of the matter.
- Transferring Your Work to Others
Sometimes a supervisor will transfer portions of an employee's
work to others rather than face the prospect of correcting the
employee if he perceives the confrontation will be uncomfortable,
or if he perceives that he is not "getting through"
to the employee. Again, a combination of initial willing acceptance,
followed by an informal job evaluation review with the supervisor
and a request for correction of the situation are the best remedies.
However, work re-assignment is often a sign that the job relationship
has been irreparably damaged and so even these strategies may
not work. (It is sadly true that a few employers are willing to
undertake far more extensive job restructuring efforts in order
to eliminate an employee than to accommodate him.)
- Negative Performance Evaluations
No one can miss the significance of a negative performance evaluation.
These are best handled by an honest and direct discussion of your
deficiencies and a request for guidance. Do not respond simply
by arguing that "Everyone is late." or that "Ms.
X has the same quality of work as I do, but you never complain
about her." Agree that you understand the serious nature
of the supervisor's concern (even if you disagree with it) and
enlist him or her as a partner in correcting matters.
- Promotion of Others with Less Seniority
Another sign can be the promotion of individuals with less seniority.
If this is repeated, and you receive no promotion, it is again
time for an informal performance review.
- Arguments with Supervisors
Be careful when you disagree with your supervisor. If he or she
is wrong, your task is education of the supervisor and correction
of the situation through the techniques we have discussed. If
the supervisor is right, you need to correct the situation and
let the company know you are doing so, cheerfully. Above all else,
do not begin to call in sick or refuse assignments as a means
of avoiding working for someone who is distasteful to you. No
one, with or without a disability has the right to refuse work
or to refuse to work for a particular supervisor. Do not argue
that other employees have engaged in conduct worse than that which
your supervisor is discussing. It is like telling a police officer
that he shouldn't give you a speeding ticket because another motorist
was going even faster than you were. If, however, the work situation
has truly become intolerable, you may need to look for another
3. OUTSIDE HELP
It is essential to gain perspective. Try to have some mentors
outside of the job with whom you can discuss work events. After
any event that bothers you, reflect on it and write it down. Note
down who was present and what was actually said. Then remember non-verbal
communication. Often, non-verbal communication creates a feeling
which is different from the words actually used. Note your feelings
about the meeting, even if they result in a picture of the meeting
which is different from the words actually used.
Describe the meeting to your mentors and ask their opinions. Enlist
all members of your social network who know about your disability
and are supportive. The social side of work is a serious challenge
for people with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder.
You deserve and should seek out a support team to provide coaching
and advice. Ask your parents and friends. Stay in touch with college
counselors and professors - they may be willing to advise you on
occasion. Contact your local Learning Disabilities Association of
America chapter and see if one of the members would be willing to
mentor you. When you ask for help, ask for it in a time-limited
way, e.g., "Would you be willing to meet with me for one hour
a month/quarter and help me with work related issues?" Then
prepare for the meeting and use the mentor's time well.
Cultivate relationships with co-workers and managers who are not
your direct supervisor. Consider talking to co-workers about these
difficulties and asking their assessment. People who leave your
workplace are extremely valuable as mentors. They know the "cast
of characters" and may be willing to talk freely with you.
4. TALKING WITH THE SUPERVISOR
There is an art to talking with your supervisor. Here are a few
points to bear in mind.
- In asking your supervisor for feedback, be sensitive. Your
supervisor may not be able to explain exactly what the problem
is. He or she may just have a strong negative feeling, without
being able to articulate it. This is an extremely awkward situation
for both of you, because the negative reactions may be due to
your behavior or may be prejudice on the supervisor's part.
- People with ADD/LD sometimes have visible signs of their central
nervous system dysfunction which cause others to be uneasy in
their presence. They may occur in discussions with your supervisor,
co-workers and others. These signs may result from their need
consciously to monitor their physical movements, an activity which
others perform "without thinking." Active monitoring
requires attention as does the social content of the meeting.
Together, the active monitoring and the social tracking demands
overload the individual's capacity for sustained attention. As
a result, the individual with these disabilities either 1] loses
part of the conversation or 2] loses track of his or her physical
movements. Examples of such visible signs include: fidgeting,
holding the head at an angle, staring, blinking too much, asymmetrical
facial movements, moving in jerks rather than smoothly, sitting
in a ramrod straight, "at attention" posture. It is
worth tremendous effort and discipline to control these "soft
neurological signs." Some individuals have found that videotaping
a "rehearsal" of a meeting is helpful in this regard.
Unfortunately, it may not be possible to control them, and prejudice
may be the result. People may feel uneasy when they first meet
you and not know why. You may be denied the benefit of the doubt.
In this case, try not to internalize the negative non-verbal messages
that you may receive on occasion.
- Some strategies for the problem of a supervisor who has trouble
explaining his negative feelings are as follows: 1] write a note
to your supervisor asking for a meeting and give him time to reflect
2] after you have heard your supervisor out, ask for time to think
about your response and check his/her feedback with others 3]
make it easy for your supervisor to talk to you. Say, "Nobody's
performance is perfect. What are things I can do to be excellent?"
- If you have auditory/perceptual problems, you may need to request
written guidance. This is an option if you tend to "blow
up" when you are criticized verbally. Unfortunately, your
supervisor may be afraid to point out anything in writing due
to today's litigious climate. Also, in most organizations, written
negative feedback is the start to disciplinary action. Some things
to say are, "Would it be possible for you to jot down some
notes informally about things I could do better? After I review
it, we can throw it out." You might also say, "I need
your guidance but its tough for me to hear it and may be tough
for you to say it. Is there any possibility you can write down
some ways I could do better?"
Sometimes trouble cannot be avoided. If you are terminated from
your employment, endure the ordeal with style. You may be remembered
favorably for the grace with which you left the company. Remember,
you may have to list this employment on a future job application
form. If he is asked, an employer can say, "Yes, " X worked
here, and we were sorry it didn't work out. She has many admirable
skills, but the match wasn't quite right." The employer can
also say, "Yes, X worked here, and we had to fire her. She
was never on time, she was constantly disorganized and when she
did deign to put in an appearance, her work was poor." Which
would you prefer? Your conduct will decide which one is used. The
name of the game (even in your final moments with the company) is
One final thought. If you have not disclosed your disability and
you believe your difficulties with the job result from that disability,
you may wish to consider identifying your disability and requesting
reasonable accommodation. This is unlikely to prevent termination,
but it is necessary if you intend to contest the decision to terminate
your employment through a grievance procedure or litigation. It
may also be useful in negotiating a face saving resignation as an
alternative to termination, and it may limit the extent to which
the employer will subsequently "bad-mouth" you.
None of these strategies guarantees success. However, using one
or more with which you are comfortable will greatly increase the
chances for success. As in everything else, polite persistence will
eventually bring success.
This article is an updated and revised chapter from:
SUCCEEDING IN THE WORKPLACE - Attention Deficit Disorder and Learning
Disabilities in the Workplace: A Guide for Success
Edited by Peter S. Latham and Patricia H. Latham
Publisher: JKL COMMUNICATIONS
2700 Virginia Avenue, NW # 707
Washington, DC 20037
E-MAIL ADDRESS: firstname.lastname@example.org