January 16, 2015

Mentoring in the Workplace

This is a guest post by Dawn Marcotte*. I'd be interested to hear any feedback or experiences you'd like to share in the comments. Remember your comments can help others. 

"I got the job!"

What a great phrase to be able to say, but now what?

Getting the job is a huge accomplishment, keeping the job is now the goal.

The working world is filled with unwritten rules, company specific culture, and a whole new range of skills to be mastered. It also doesn't come with therapists or any of the support autistic kids generally get in school. However, a new job does come with a boss, peers and coworkers. This is where those hard won social skills will really come in handy.

Anyone who is new to a company should cultivate a relationship with the people they will be working with as well as with management. Some companies may provide a designated 'buddy' or mentor for new employees. If not, ask for one or ask one of the people around you if they would be willing to help you as you settle in to your new job. 

However, you may not be able to find a mentor right away.  Don't give up, you can actually develop relationships with several people, so that one person doesn't feel overwhelmed with questions.  Even if the company provides you with a designated mentor it is a good idea to build relationships with others in your department and throughout the company. No matter how good your skills are in you chosen industry, part of being successful at work is the social interactions required to do your job.

Written vs. Unwritten Rules

If a manual of office policies has been provided, read it. But don't be surprised if not all of the rules are followed. This is where it is time to ask others when you see a variance.  A simple phrase such as,
"I read in the manual we are supposed to dress business casual but I see others wearing jeans on Friday's. I wanted to be sure before I wore jeans that this it is okay."

When it is phrased like that others are not going to feel they are being accused of doing something they shouldn't and you will get clarification on one of those unwritten rules. There are times when rules change, but the manual hasn't been updated. Also, don't feel pressured to do what others are doing, if you are more comfortable following the rules, then follow them.


Another aspect of company culture is how the company likes to share information. Does your boss or mentor want you to email them your questions? Leave a voicemail? Have a face to face meeting? IM? 

The only way to find out is to ask. A favorite method of communication should be used for all communications, whether they are related to a job specific task or a general question.

When you are new to a position it is a good idea to ask your boss or HR manager how they want you to address any questions you may have.  Some bosses may want you to schedule a weekly meeting or some other rhythm for submitting questions and getting answers. Other bosses may expect you to just figure it out for yourself. If they expect you to figure it out you can do this by developing relationships with your coworkers and peers.

If you have been assigned a mentor it is a good idea to ask about anything you may have a question about. However, you don't want to pester people with a lot of questions so write them down first. Schedule a meeting with them to review the questions, writing down the answers so you can refer back to them later. If you have not been assigned a mentor you have a couple of other options.

two people looking at a laptop computer from iStock on OneQuarterMama.ca
Two people looking at a laptop computer

Choosing Your Mentor

Often when a new person starts the department may have some sort of welcome. They may introduce the other people in the department, have food or just introduce you in a meeting. However, you are introduced smile and make brief eye contact with as many of the people in the room as possible. 

Later you can approach them individually to introduce yourself and make a connection. Then as you begin working you can write down your questions. Once you have 2 or 3 questions you can approach one of the people and ask them, "I have a couple of quick questions. Do you have a moment you could spare to help me?"

You don't want to ask more than 3 questions at a time and you probably don't want to ask the same person more than once a day. This will help you avoid being seen as vulnerable or lacking confidence. If you are young and this is an entrance level position you may have a bit more leeway, because those around you know you lack life experience. 

Asking more than one person will also keep you from depending on one individual who may or may not be honest. Unfortunately there are bullies and hurtful people in the workforce. They may see you as a threat to them or just enjoy hurting others, but as the new person you won't know who those individuals are right away. By asking more than one person you begin to build relationships with others around you. 

Another option is actually using online groups. Forums such as WrongPlanet.net have an entire section devoted to adult life and working. Utilize the group to ask your questions and see what kind of feedback you get. You may be surprised at how much help other autistics can be even when they don't work at the same place you do.


When you are asking questions and getting answers it can be a good time to ask for feedback on your own behavior. Ask about any habits you may have that others find offensive or that could lead to problems down the road. This could be something like speaking in too loud of a voice when you are on the phone, asking questions at the wrong times, wearing perfume that is too smelly or some meeting etiquette you are getting wrong. 

It has been my experience that most NT people are not prepared to answer this kind of question honestly when it addresses personal habits.They won't want to hurt your feelings or make you feel bad about yourself. They may feel more comfortable addressing job specific items. If you don't want to share your diagnosis you can simply say,
 "I know I have had some habits that drive my family crazy and I don't want to do the same thing at work so please tell me if there is something I need to do differently."
You may not want to ask this more than once to any one individual, but as you build working relationships with others you can remind them occasionally that you welcome any feedback they have for you to help you in the company. Traditionally this kind of feedback will come from either a manager or HR person if someone makes a complaint about you.

It is important to accept their feedback graciously with a simple, "Thank you for being honest, I will work on that." Then be sure to actually work on it and make changes as needed.

Being honest with managers and coworkers is the best policy. Being open about any issues or difficulties you may be having will help others feel more comfortable helping you. For example if the environment is louder than expected and you have trouble with that, talk to your manager and offer a solution you would like to try. Managers don't like to have employees complain when they don't have a solution, it is just one more problem for them to try to solve. However, if you say something like, 
"I have been having trouble concentrating at my desk because of the noise, would it be alright for me to wear noise cancelling earbuds so I can focus better?"  

This is a way to open the conversation and allow the manager or HR representative help you fix the problem, before it begins to affect your job performance. 

Keeping a job is about more than just doing the specific job tasks, it is also about building relationships with others. This takes time and effort, but is well worth it in terms of staying employed.

*Dawn Marcotte is the CEO of www.ASD-DR.com, a website designed to help teens and young adults on the spectrum live to their highest potential.

You may be interested in my other posts about being Autistic at work.

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