Workplace Red Flags

I know that there is information out there about red flags in employment. I work in an industry with employment practices that are just one giant red flag, so there are probably too many for me to state within a post. Still, from what I’ve found, many helped me continue to gaslight myself, as I didn’t realize that I deserved respect, support, and accommodations regarding my disabilities. Because of my disabilities, I have normalized a lot of bullying and trauma. I highly suspect that those who are neurodivergent are at a much higher risk of being subject to workplace bullying and toxic work environments. Our communication differences and needs may single us out as a target. Especially if we are late-diagnosed, we may have learned to see these struggles as “our fault” due to social conditioning. So in this post, I am explicitly highlighting red flags that can be precursors—or in cases where patterns emerge, violations—of disability employment rights. If you are ADHD, you have these rights. If you are autistic, you have these rights. If you have a chronic illness, you have these rights.

Secondly, I want to emphasize that if you see red flags, and they are impacting your well-being, you cannot “self-care” your way through the situation. I say self-care in quotes to refer specifically to the capitalist interpretation of self-care. Work will bleed into the rest of your life regardless of how well you take care of yourself outside of it. I was pole-dancing, meditating, eating well, practicing gratitude and coaching strategies, sticking to a routine, maintaining work/life boundaries to the extent that I had control, and engaging in things I loved outside of work. I still hit my breaking point. None of that mattered, and in fact, it all crumbled when my body could no longer maintain the level of stress that work was imposing on it daily.

Self-care is also recognizing unsafe situations, getting support, and standing up for your needs. I am SO aware that this is much more easily said than done, but I hope that we can more do so if we can see and address these situations before we have exhausted all of our resources. Although, as a society, we have normalized employers stomping on many of these things, it is not acceptable or healthy, and the individual is left to pay for the costs to their health and well-being. These costs are often exponential for those of us with disabilities. Begin gathering evidence, exploring your options, and looking for new employment (if you are able) as soon as possible. It becomes a lot harder to do these things if you push on to the point of severe burnout. Based on my research, self-employment may be the best way to meet our needs for many autistics and ADHDers. However, I sadly understand how impossible that can be without resources and financial support.

Another barrier to identifying or acting on red flags may occur if you have any trauma history (which many of us do due to how society reacts to our differences). I am a professional compartmentalizer. Since I was a child, I have excelled at making a box inside my brain, putting the bad things in the box and then closing and hiding the box. This was a survival mechanism. It is how my brain kept me safe. But it is not without a long-term cost, and eventually, if the box gets too full, I will collapse. But because of the box, I tend to minimize my experiences. “Oh, I already feel fine again; it must not have been that bad.” Ok… was it not that bad? Or was it so bad that it went into the box? I have had to learn to ask myself this question.

Everyone will have their own unique trauma responses, and it might be an over-response rather than compartmentalization. If you are used to an over-response, you might also dismiss or struggle to identify legitimate concerns. It is crucial to identify your response and realize that you have created defences that might have allowed you to survive in an unsafe situation, but you shouldn’t have to do so at your job! And trauma is compounding. The more your brain is taught that a situation is unsafe, the more exhausting and devastating that situation will be, even if you are a compartmentalizer like me. (My last therapist believed that every neurodivergent should have trauma therapy, and I am inclined to agree. If it is accessible to you, and you can find someone you trust, I highly recommend it.)

My Instagram page has a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) version of this for an overview of the flags, but because I am autistic and love information, this is the “very long; like reading” version. This version will highlight some things I’ve experienced, give specific examples, and discuss why I normalized them and shouldn’t have.

Disclaimer: I am based in Ontario, Canada, so my observations will be somewhat specific to my interpretation of Ontario’s disability and accommodation law. Any action that could negatively impact you (unfortunately, that can be the case despite laws) should be taken with caution, knowledge of the laws where you live, and when needed, the support of a lawyer.

1) You are not allowed to say you don’t know something or are unsure how to proceed, or your concerns are dismissed with “just figure it out” or “do your best.” Bonus red flag points for not being given any additional time or flexibility to learn or for getting in trouble if you figure it out “wrong.”

What this looked like for me:

This is something that I definitely normalized because it was SO common in my tech jobs. I was given work or projects for which I had no experience and no support in every job I have worked. I was given a big project in my first job where I had to work with a new framework with only six months of experience as a developer. No one else had any experience with the framework, so I had zero support when I was stuck. In one job, I was upfront that I didn’t know Ruby on Rails in my interview, the backend programming language used at the company. When I started, I was expected to work in this language that I didn’t know, and all the other developers were kept too busy to offer support. I taught myself a programming language in a month on the job with minimal support. In another job, this looked like putting me on a large, complex project with scope and parameters that even my employers were unfamiliar with as my very first project. Then when I asked for clarity or assistance on how to best approach things, my employers implied that I needed to take more initiative. In the end, a lack of clarity around requirements and my inexperience caused the timeline to run late, and I was chastised for that and not doing research “properly.”

While there is a fair expectation that you bring the experience and knowledge you have required and profess to have to do your job, it is unreasonable for employers to expect you to learn or work on new things without providing any level of support. In all of these cases, my needs were not unreasonable: I needed clear guidelines around what I needed to learn (in each of these cases, “figure it out” meant I was completely overwhelmed because I didn’t know enough to target my learning or search for information), time to do so without feeling excessive pressure to produce — with the knowledge that I might take some wrong steps or go in the wrong direction because I was learning, access to knowledgeable external support when I was stuck or had questions I couldn’t solve. If they cannot provide these things, it is not your failure. It is their failure to plan and to understand what are reasonable expectations of their employees. And in my experience, if you pull off the miracle once, they will continue to expect more miracles without reward. In my first job, after successfully delivering my project, I was expected to solve problems for my tech lead as a junior developer, which put me under substantial additional stress.

It took me a long time to see this pattern, despite being very good at patterns. Or perhaps it was because I saw the pattern that I assumed it was normal. I also know that as someone who has spent their life being encouraged to “overcome” struggles that turned out to be undiagnosed disabilities, I have a very warped sense of what is possible or reasonable. This puts me at additional risk in these situations. It’s difficult to distinguish an unreasonable request when something “easy” like tying your shoes took hours and hours of practice and determination, and you didn’t know why. I learned to assume that if I was struggling, it was my fault. I suspect this is common. It is not your fault. In fact, if you have a disability and you are struggling, in Ontario, the onus is legally on the employer to put effort into determining why and if you need accommodations before taking action against you.

2) Pushing for or guilting you over not sharing protected information (specifics of your health or disability that do not pertain to accommodation requests, protected medical information, etc.).

What this looked like for me:

When I started my job, I was experiencing the beginnings of autistic burnout. I didn’t know that at the time, but I did recognize that I was burnt out, and I knew I was struggling with my work. As I struggled to meet my employment expectations, I developed secondary depression, making it even harder to meet expectations. I wrote about my struggle with depression on a private Twitter account. While I did mention that it had affected my work, nothing was alarming or inappropriate. In fact, I was speaking about going on anti-depressants and only then realizing how much the depression had been making it even harder to think and program. I linked the depression to my burnout and suggested that burning out employees is a poor strategy if you want quality work. I was clearly referring to my previous employers as the catalyst for my burnout. A mutual who was connected to my employers shared my tweets with them. They brought me in for a meeting about how they had seen the post, and I was made to feel guilty for not disclosing sooner because it betrayed their trust and they “wanted me to trust them” (spoiler alert: an awful way to get an employee to trust you).

I gaslit myself over this for a long time. I believed that I was guilty of not disclosing. I don’t see the hidden meaning in conversation, so I take things at face value. I took their “concern” at face value and believed that they cared about my well-being. I was unaware of my rights regarding disclosure until I mentioned the event a year later to other people. You don’t owe ANY employer your protected medical information. Even for accommodation or leave requests, your disability does not need to be disclosed. For accommodations, you are only required to disclose the specific struggle you require accommodation for and provide a medical note as verification if requested. They should never push you to disclose or make you feel bad about not disclosing. In Ontario, they may have an obligation to ensure that a new or unusual performance issue is not a disability issue before taking disciplinary action. However, this does not entitle them to any specific diagnosis or health information beyond what they need to know.

3) Blaming you for issues or difficulties to a third party or client. Part of effective management is managing timelines, project scope, roles and responsibilities, etc. Discussing problems with you is one thing, but shifting blame in conversations with outside parties is a big red flag.

What this looked like for me:

This situation was so stressful that it is a blank in my mind as to what happened. Still, I have documentation of writing to friends and saying that I was “thrown under the bus” in meetings with a client regarding a project with complications. You should never feel that way. People tend to succeed in an environment that supports them in doing so. This is a two-part failure: 1) things were allowed to progress to this point, and 2) the people with the power and role to take responsibility did not. I was also blamed for not communicating my struggles earlier, which was more gaslighting and deferral of responsibility. I had, in fact, expressed issues and my struggles repeatedly. I have documentation of doing so. I ignored this red flag because I am so used to taking responsibility for communication failures. As I mentioned in the first red flag, I had no awareness of reasonable expectations. When we take too much responsibility for others being unable or unwilling to understand, ask questions, or accommodate our differences, we run the risk of taking blame that we do not deserve.

4) Toxic positivity/ Attitude of “positive vibes only.”

What this looked like for me:

Any questions, hesitations, concerns or attempts to defend myself were frequently dismissed as “negativity.” My employers pulled me into additional meetings where I was accused of “bringing down the positivity.” Positivity was weaponized to defer any expectation that management takes any responsibility or solves issues. A “positive attitude” can solve anything! This is not true, and it is incredibly toxic. And because I have a different conversational style and differences in tone and how I express myself, I was often singled out in meetings for “getting heated,” “not caring about clients,” and my “attitude and tone.” Because this is a common occurrence for me socially, I took the blame and believed that I needed to “fix” myself or that if I was just more careful or used the right words, I could solve the problem. I repeatedly took it upon myself to talk about how my brain is wired and to educate them on disability and how it can impact social situations. I attempted to use conflict resolution techniques and carefully word explanations to show that I also took responsibility for miscommunications. In response, I was repeatedly told I was not trying hard enough. They implied that I was lying to save face when trying to correct misunderstandings. This is gaslighting, and it is not appropriate in any situation, but it is particularly inappropriate in a job situation where you cannot walk away. We have the right not to sit in meetings where our traits and communication are being demeaned, dehumanized and criticized. This is discrimination.

5) Using power dynamics (body language, outnumbering, not allowing you to leave) to instill discomfort.

What this looked like for me:

My employers brought me into video meetings where one party would verbally chastise me. At the same time, the other would use intimidating body language (the fact that this body language was so “loud” even I could interpret it was probably a red flag in itself). Other times, they would fire questions at me and not allow me to leave the meeting until I provided a “satisfactory” response. This was particularly damaging for me, as I often lose the ability to speak coherently or sometimes even speak when I am put under stress. Knowingly or not, they were able to use this against me by constructing situations in which I would struggle to talk. I began to live in constant fear of meetings, beyond even my usual discomfort in social situations. I was terrified of any verbal mistake or slip in my mask that would cause me to be subject to further questioning or another meeting. This is bullying. But again, many of us live in a reality where bullying towards us has been normalized, don’t we? That still doesn’t mean it is ok, and it may legally be an indication of a “poisoned environment.”

6) Being belittled or made feel like a burden when bringing up concerns or asking for accommodations.

What that looked like for me:

I expressed concern over context switching; I struggle with context switching — I can do it, but it takes a lot of energy and impacts the efficiency of my work. I was told, “that’s just how the job works.” When I mentioned in my performance review that I struggled with social communication and offered suggestions to help me succeed in meetings, I “just needed to practice my back and forth communication skills.” When I again brought up the cognitive impacts of context switching, I was told I should “just make checklists.” When I answered a question in my performance review about what things I didn’t like about the job, I was made to feel guilty for my answer! And told that we all have to do things we don’t want to do after I provided a detailed explanation of how specific tasks impacted me.

7) “We just want to make sure that you want to be here.”

I dismissed my gut feelings about this question because I struggled to develop a logical reason why it was unacceptable. Rational explanations are essential to me… often to my detriment, in cases where I ignore how icky something feels. Well, in this case, the bad feeling was very logically correct. This is a nasty and inappropriate question as it could be construed as an employer attempting to bully you into quitting your job. This is very much not allowed. How you feel personally about your job is absolutely none of their fucking business if you are doing your job. You do not have to leave a job if you don’t want to be there. In fact, many of us don’t have the privilege to be able to do so. Or I would have been gone long ago.

8) Heavy reliance on the word “just” in response to any raising of concerns.

I think that my examples have shown this one! “Just” is almost always a way to invalidate or dismiss you and your circumstances. If it is happening over and over again, you are not in a safe work environment. You deserve to have your concerns and your needs met, even if they are different than others!