I work at a grocery store, which can be exhausting because I am on the autism spectrum, and after an incredibly busy shift, which is almost every day I work.

I get sensory overload and I find that if I listen to my music while helping to clean the store after close, it de-stresses me, lowers my overstimulation, calms me down and keeps me focused on the tasks at hand, such as conditioning the shelves or putting away returns.

Recently, I was reported while on break by a customer because I wore headphones to the bathroom -- while on break mind you -- and as such I didn't notice that the customer in question had tried to get my attention.

Now I've been told that unless I'm clocked out, I can't wear my headphones anymore including when cleaning up the store after close because of "safety reasons".

This has not been an issue prior to this. I have asked every manager who I have worked with over the past two years and they have approved.

There is no issue with other employees listening to their own music though they mainly use earbuds. When I pointed this out, the Manager On Duty only informed me that it "wasn't fair" that I used headphones, that "If I was allowed to do it then everyone else would want to do it". The manager told me that if I wore my headphones again, I would be fired.

I'm thinking of bringing this to corporate, but I am not sure I should.

My question is:

Does my manager have the right to restrict what I need to be able to do my job, and if so, to what extent?

  • 6
    "And now I've been told that unless I'm clocked out, I can't wear my headphones anymore to listen to music" - Who told you that?
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 18:26
  • 4
    So, you use your headphones dj-style? Any reasons not to buy/use earbuds like your coworkers? (That way it would be more discrete and able to listen)
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 18:28
  • 6
    What country are you located in? I would think your status as being on the autism spectrum may be protected in some jurisdictions.
    – Time4Tea
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 18:29
  • 2
    Were you clocked out when the customer tried to get your attention?
    – sf02
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 18:34
  • 9
    Have/are you willing to disclose your autism? Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 18:36

3 Answers 3


It doesn't sound like you're being singled out for wearing headphones, it sounds like you're being singled out because your wearing headphones caused a customer to feel ignored by a store employee. That's really not a good look for a retail store. Also, you can't be singled out for a behavior which you are the only one doing.

The customer who complained had no way of knowing that you were on break. I would assume that, had you not been wearing the headphones and were able to hear the customer you would not have muttered "I'm on my break" and otherwise totally ignored him or her. It's a misunderstanding for sure, but, had you not been wearing the headphones, it probably would not have happened and the customer would have had no complaint.

Further, you were (possibly? it's not clear from the question) not wearing the headphones in the way that you told managers that you would: had you had enough of your ears exposed that you could hear things around you, you would have heard the customer. So this incident is one in which the store has a legitimate issue.

There are a few possible solutions to this.

  1. Simply use earbuds as the other employees do-- there is apparently no problem with anyone else doing it, so there shouldn't be a problem with you doing it either. If you need the headphones specifically then obviously this won't be suitable.
  2. You could speak with the manager that said there was a safety concern (or managers, if it was a group decision, or the store manager if you need a higher authority) and see if you can't address their concerns even with the headphones on. This might not be possible-- there could be a legitimate safety issue for which the store could be liable related to your not being able to hear coworkers. It's also possible that the managers who said wearing the headphones was OK have themselves gotten into trouble over it.
  3. You could explain that you have a specific, exceptional need for the headphones. This would probably require you to disclose your autism if you have not already done so, and would be greatly supported by a medical professional's note (or other statement) certifying that you really do get a benefit out of the headphone use. But as stated in a comment on another answer, if there is a legitimate safety concern then this may not do much for you.


It doesn't sound like you're being singled out, it sounds like you are dealing with a privilege you enjoyed until it caused a problem (the "I was on break" defense will always fail if you were in an area where a customer can interact with you and you ignore/miss one). Now that it has caused a problem that privilege has been revoked. Your options include complying with the policy, as your coworkers currently do, trying to explore the store's actual concerns (if any) and address them, or demonstrating a legitimate, therapeutic need for the headphones. This will be a lot more persuasive than your personal statement about how much you value using headphones.

Presenting a sense of grievance, persecution, or victimization, based on what was described in the question, seems unwise to me. You, uniquely among store employees, were doing a thing, which caused a customer complaint (even though due to a misunderstanding), and customer complaints are often taken seriously in retail settings. A focus on how you can ensure that the store's goals are met in the future, while you continue to use headphones (or switch to earbuds) is how you can make sure your bosses listen to you. They'll care more about that than about what the store can do for you personally.


FULL DISCLOSURE: I am on the autism spectrum

If you are in the USA, you are covered by the Americans with disabilities act.

That said, your employer only needs to provide REASONABLE accommodations. That does not mean that they have to bend to your every wish and if they provide you with alternative accommodations, you must abide by their decision.

Your employer is on solid ground with citing safety concerns, as you already demonstrated by not hearing a customer while you were on break you could not hear emergency instructions.

While you are on company property and on company time (a break is company time, as you are not clocked out) the company assumes a level of liability for your health and safety, and are therefore within their rights to demand you be able to hear.

There are other reasonable accommodations, such as noise-reducing earplugs, such as they use at construction sites, earbuds, et cetera.

As I stated above, I am also autistic. While it is not easy dealing with the neurotypical world, we still have to live in it and we have to mitigate the difficulties and do the best we can to fit in. You are in the wrong here. Your management has made alternative suggestions and has done their job.

You are not being singled out, you are engaging in behavior that is putting the company at risk of liability should you or a customer get injured.

Do NOT go to corporate. You will be labeled as difficult, then likely fired with a flag on your file that reads DO NOT REHIRE


I’m going to disagree with other comments, I do think your employer is in need of education around mental disabilities. I don’t think you are asking too much simply asking to listen to music, you are a person first and an employee second. I also get sensory overload from my disabilities, I understand how helpful music can be in order to focus and tune out overwhelm. It’s difficult I think for people who don’t relate to understand. My therapist stresses to me that yes the world wasn’t built for neurodivergencies but for that reason we do deserve that accommodation to even the playing field a little and you know what it’s ok if it breaks their rigid structure a little. In advocating for ourselves we are advocating for others.

It might be different where you are, but this summary of ADA reasonable accomodations for OCD also references music for sensory overwhelm at work. And I’m also going to counter the idea that it’s a safety hazard. Deaf people exist and they work too, I do not think this is a safety hazard in a closed grocery store environment especially. And personally, I wouldn’t approach an employee with headphones on if I were that customer out of respect, if you have headphones on there’s obviously a reason (on break, disability, busy!) if anything your employer is supposed to refer you to another position within the store where you can wear your headphones unbothered so you can work.

  • @Lilienthal if you're going to remove a suspect link you should remove the reference to it in the message body as well. I'm not doing so because I think the original was spam. Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 3:51
  • 1
    @DanIsFiddlingByFirelight Thanks for letting me know, I missed the link actually being referenced in the post. In that case I'll actually revert the edit since it is part of the overall answer. I understand where you're coming from but it's rare for these types of links to be outright spam and it's not uncommon for law firms to summarise these kinds of topics.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 13:01

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