In a neurotypical work setting, it’s considered polite and professional to ‘soften the blow’ when giving negative performance feedback to employees. There’s a certain way neurotypical people communicate with one another that conveys strong feelings (such as disappointment and anger) without making an outward display of those emotions or using those exact descriptors.
When communicating neurotypical to neurotypical, the underlying meaning of certain looks, gestures, tonal inflections, and words are conveyed and understood without much need for clarification.
However, autistic people do not usually pick up on this type of subtle communication; even if that communication is conveying something that may make or break our ability to keep a job.
If you’re a supervisor, you may believe that your words, facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures clearly communicate that your employee had better “shape up or ship out”, but they won’t pick up on it–and they’ll be shocked and traumatized when you ‘suddenly’ fire them.
Autistic People Don’t Speak the ‘Language’
Let’s say you manage 10 employees in your department, and you notice that two of them behave differently from the other eight.
The first one shows up for work 10 to 15 minutes late each morning.
You’ve let him know what you think about his tardiness by saying things like, “Lots of traffic on the road this morning?” or “Couldn’t get your car to start?” or “Do you need a new battery for your watch?” It’s your natural, neurotypical way of conveying that you are not happy with his consistent lateness, but he’s likely not taking the hint and even getting thrown off by questions about his watch and car, which have no relevance to his job.
He’s not dim, he just has a literal brain that isn’t making the connection.
Your second employee seems abrupt when she speaks to customers on the phone.
You hear her consistently giving relevant information on each customer call, but her voice sounds a bit flat, and she doesn’t engage in small talk. This makes you wonder if your valued customers are getting offended. You’ve let her know that you’d like her to change her phone voice by saying things like, “You catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar.” or “Smile when you’re on the phone, customers can hear that.” or “Was that Mrs. Tate? How’s the weather in Oklahoma?”
Again, in your mind, you’re clearly conveying that she needs to put some pep into her phone voice and make small talk, but she isn’t picking up on that. She may even wonder why you keep mentioning honey, vinegar, and the weather when these things have nothing to do with her job.
She’s not dim, either, she just doesn’t speak the (neurotypical) language.
You Can Be Direct Without Being Unprofessional
Oftentimes, neurotypical people equate being direct with being unprofessional, and it doesn’t have to be. When you offer clear and direct feedback to your autistic employees, you are offering an accommodation to someone whose brain works differently.
You’re not being unprofessional, you’re leveling the playing field between your neurotypical and autistic workers by speaking to each in a language they can understand.
For example, with the autistic employee who is consistently tardy, schedule a one-on-one meeting with him at a time that is mutually agreed upon. Explain that he has consistently been coming in 10 or 15 minutes late every morning.
(He may not even realize he’s doing this as autistic and those with ADHD often struggle with ‘time blindness’, which is literally the inability to sense the passing of time.)
Once you’ve clearly conveyed what the problem is, explain your reasoning for needing everyone to show up on time for their shift. It may seem ‘obvious’ to you that employees need to show up on time because that’s just what’s expected of them, but autistic people often don’t operate that way.
We need to know the ‘why’ of everything in order to fully understand what’s expected of us. The meaning and reasoning behind something are often the keys to solidifying information in our brains.
After you’ve explained what’s not working and why, brainstorm some ideas together that can help your employee clock in on time each morning (or, depending on the nature of your business), consider offering flexible start and stop times.
The same formula applies to telling an autistic employee that their vocal tone doesn’t sound as ‘customer service friendly’ as you believe it should or that they are expected to make small talk with clients.
Again, schedule a one-on-one meeting with her at a time that is mutually agreed upon, and explain the vocal tone you’re hearing when she speaks. It may surprise you to know that autistic people often cannot hear the tone, inflection, or volume of their voice. Just as in the above example, explain why the tone she is currently using may make neurotypical customers think she’s being rude. Furthermore, specifically state that small talk is expected and why. Then, brainstorm ideas together for ways she can speak to the customers in a way that better reflects your brand.
An Important Note on Masking
In that second example, you’re asking your autistic employee to mask her tone of voice. Masking is very draining for us. Talking, walking, and behaving in ways that are not natural to our neurology can put a strain on our mental health over the long term. So, be sure you both understand and agree on the most comfortable way for her to do this.
The subtle, side-of-the-mouth approach to giving performance feedback won’t work with your autistic employees. Scheduling one-on-one meetings to explain what’s not working, why it needs to be done differently, and brainstorming together to find a solution makes for a positive, comfortable work environment that keeps your company on the cutting edge of neurodivergent inclusion.