Friday, 26 October 2012

‘You Can’t Handle The Truth’: Forced To Create A ‘Legend’ In The Workplace

As regular readers will know in the past few years I have suffered in jobs as a result of individual words and sentences that I have uttered. These were not rude words or offensive sentences, they just did not fit with very exacting standards that employers have around every word you might utter. I have got into trouble for saying ‘I am not a cleaner’ when in fact I was not a cleaner. I have got into trouble for trying to notify my manager of a hospital appointment connected with my diabetes. I have got into trouble discussing the curriculum that the boy who lived in my house was studying. I have got into trouble for saying that I was not responsible for organising an even date that, in fact, I truly was not responsible for organising. I guess one problem is that as yet I have not learnt how to suck up all the blame being levelled at my managers as if it was my own fault; I do not step forward fast enough or enthusiastically enough to take the blame off their shoulders and as a result it is open season to criticise me as ‘inappropriate’ or rude or incompetent.  The censorship and self-censorship that develops can harm companies, see:

Now, I know from people who have written to me, that I am not alone in suffering such problems and that schools should teach young people that in any job, no matter how competent they might, they must always expect to be the ‘fall guy’ for any errors made around them even if they are not connected to them. My mistake has been not been ready to do that. Ironically as a consequence I am portrayed as the one creating a ‘blame culture’ simply because I am not able to absorb the blame into myself quickly enough. In this I am hampered further as it seems I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Whilst I doubt it has worsened in recent years, the clear changes in UK society and in working culture mean that there are more pitfalls that I may be missing with heavy consequences for my job and thus for the rest of my life which has been largely wrecked this year.

I began a new job in September and was relieved that a lot of the behaviour I have noted above was absent. This was both relaxing and also reminded me how abnormal the previous places actually were. Workers should behave as adults not primary school children and certainly it seemed as if that was more the case where I am now working, despite the fact that the company, like most in the UK is facing hard economic times and so instability. However, the seemingly warm reception I received in this job clearly led me into a false sense of security. I had originally gone there, scared from my previous jobs to mention anything about my life outside work or my past. However, with people confiding in me about their cancer treatment, medical conditions, marital problems, etc., I too opened up especially about some of the things that have hit me this year. Partly this was also because I have had to speak with people so much about losing my job, my house and household that they have now become mundane; they are the ache that has become dull so to me these things are no longer a big issue. To start viewing this way and even letting down my guard a little has proven to be a big mistake.

On Friday I was summoned to see my line manager who outlined the complaints against me. Now, these differ in nature to the problems I have had before. These days I avoid making statements unprompted even to people I think will not distort them. However, when people ask me questions I respond truthfully. Given that the workplace has an atmosphere of being open, people have asked direct personal questions that they might not have done elsewhere. The first was that I had been asked why I was eating biscuits during a training session. I explained briefly that this was because as a diabetic I tend to have a low blood sugar in the late afternoon especially when I have been on a day’s training as had been the case that day and so ran the risk of hypoglaecemia. I know I should not have used the word ‘hypoglaecemia’ but when you have had a condition 24 years as I have done, you tend to slip into these things. I have explained my diabetes to hundreds of people, so think nothing of it.

The second one was I was asked why I had left the lovely town on the south coast that I have recently moved from, by someone who still lives close by but is also employed now by the same company as me. I responded, ‘because I lost my house’. Now that is the truthful answer, it is the only reason why I left, but again that was an unacceptable answer. A similar situation came when waiting for a meeting to start there were comments at how the set-up of the room resembled that for an interview. I was asked as a newly appointed member of staff, how many interviews I had had. Again I told the truth: ‘67 in the past 4 years’.

I have noted before how people feel somehow contaminated by reference to redundancy and unemployment:  However, when asked a direct question, and this may be as a result of Asperger’s, I have the tendency to give the truth. Yet, me describing what has happened to me or my medical condition, not in an unprompted way, but in response to a question, is these days seen as ‘inappropriate’ and even verging on the offensive. Clearly I cannot read the mind of the person asking me the question. I have been alerted to the fact by one company that has interviewed me three times, that I give an answer without first having ascertaining the type of answer the questioner is looking for. I missed out on the training on this approach to answering at school, university and in work. In fact, I received the opposite: answer a question as directly and truthfully as you can. I know I am enthusiastic when talking with people and these days they will not tolerate an answer which is shorter than the question asked. I thought I had cracked that with the answers given above. However, now I have to also quickly judge whether the truthful answer is what they are seeking.

I am in no position to say ‘well that is my business’ as I could clearly have done with these three personal questions or even ‘why are you asking that?’ as that would clearly been seen as rude. You cannot be defensive as that rouses suspicion. The truth, if it encompasses failure or illness or simply bad luck is also unacceptable whether given briefly or explained in full. Thus, my line manager has now advised me to come up with what I call a ‘legend’. This is the term used by spies and undercover police to describe the false identity they establish. It is a fiction, weaving in elements of the truth, but in general appealing to the assumptions of the people that the agent will be working with whilst distancing this fictional personality from the agent’s genuine one. I need to learn this legend well and be able to respond with aspects of it whenever I am asked a personal question again. I have to be careful, as, unfortunately, I have already revealed the truth about my life to quite a few people. I also have to avoid slip-ups that contradict or differ from what I have said before.

Now, from the troublesome questions I have faced recently, I have to come up with an explanation for why I might eat carbohydrates in the afternoon, which does not reference any medical condition nor makes me appear a glutton. I suppose in future I must sneak off to the toilet to eat them. This presents an ideological challenge for me. Back in 2005 when the UK law put diabetics into the disabled category, I took the decision to ‘come out’ as a diabetic. Now it appears I have to go back into the medical closet and conceal my condition as best I can. In terms of why I left the town, I am rather stumped what to say. All the suggestions about house prices seem to be equally as negative and something along the lines that the area was going down clearly are not true to people who know the town. If I say it is simply because I tired of the place, that might make me look feckless. Even saying that I moved to be closer to family would sound like there was bad luck if not for me then for them, so that is out. With the interviews, clearly I have to severely reduce the number. I cannot really guess what the tolerable number of interviews would be over a 4-year period, do readers think 10 still sounds excessive?

The one thing that I must bury even deeper in my legend, is a sense of indignation.  People accuse me of self-pity, however, it is impossible to keep lying to yourself that things will get better or to take all the blame on to yourself for how you have been mistreated; as it is, I cannot shake the sense of guilt at what I may have done wrong, not helped by people telling me that I am a 'natural victim', something which I reject entirely as that is the path to racism and disability discrimination, things I will have no truck with.  As the government tells us that we need to suffer for the sake of the country, people in many workplaces see it as wrong to even indicate that you are suffering as a consequence.  I cannot reveal how badly I have been treated in previous jobs, the social class discrimination, the disability discrimination and the simple maliciousness I have encountered. I cannot express my dismay at the fact that in 2009 I earned £42,000 per year and had 35 days leave and now earn £26,000 (what I was earning in 2002) and get 19 days and 2 hours leave (what is the point of 2 hours’ leave?). I have to pretend that my life has not gone down the drain in so many ways and that my chances of ever owning even a flat, let alone a house, are now zero.   I have to conceal how the pressure from the bad treatment I have received has worsened my blood pressure and consequently my eye sight. My legend has to show me as a successful man, going places despite the worst economic depression in 80 years. It has to pander to the assumptions of the people who ask me questions. It has to provide the answers that they find acceptable, because it has been made very clear to me that in fact, they cannot handle the truth.

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