On the Job
Dale S. Brown
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.
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 people?"
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 with promotion.
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 increase.
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.
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.
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 damage control.
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:
Learning Disabilities Association of America
© 2004 LDA of America