When I began my career, employees were told to leave their personal lives at the door. Bringing personal problems into the office was considered unnecessary at best and unprofessional at worst.
Today, organizations encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work. The word "authentic" is often used in recruiting material to describe a progressive, transparent and supportive organization. The idea is that if people are given the space and the freedom to be authentic at work, then creativity, collaboration, and connection to co-workers and the organization will flourish. More importantly from a business perspective, productivity and efficiency will increase due to the psychological connection that employees will feel to an organization that recognizes and values them.
I encountered what I call the authenticity myth early in my career. I worked for what I believed was a progressive company — there were women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA community in positions of leadership. I was told that my potential for success was limited only by my ambition.
After working for the company for a few years, I achieved a senior management position. I was open about the fact that I was gay and spoke of my partner, now husband, often. I was secure and felt I could be authentic at work without suffering damage to my career. One day I was talking with a colleague about potential career advancements, asking what I needed to do to position myself for promotion. I was told that I needed to “tone down the gay.” My coworker went on to say it was OK to be gay, but I did not need to bring attention to it at work. The implied meaning was that I should not talk about my spouse, friends, or life outside the office.
My experience illustrates the authenticity myth. Companies want authentic work cultures ... up to a point. If an employee’s whole self challenges the status quo, then those who fail to color inside the lines are often asked to conform or leave the organization. Genuinely authentic organizations do not directly or indirectly tell people to tone themselves down: Authenticity demands that space be given for people to amplify who they are inside and outside of work.
Successfully promoting authenticity requires more than a diversity and inclusion statement. Sometimes employees encounter bait-and-switch tactics when interviewing for a job. The organization claims to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and authenticity, but once employees are hired, they realize they must conform to the norms of the organization or risk being squeezed out.
Authentic organizational cultures are created by recognizing that employees are people first. Today, this means offering grace to employees when children or dogs interrupt Zoom meetings or being critical of older workers who may not readily understand or embrace all phases of technology.
Creating an authentic culture requires that employers invite challenges to established ideas and perceptions. Authenticity feels scary because challenging the status quo requires leaders to turn the mirror on themselves and the organization and ask if established norms and behaviors have created a culture of authenticity or one of conformity.
Everyday examples of where organizations fall short in creating an authentic and psychologically safe environment for employees are captured in the following situations:
• Instead of predominately honoring Christian holidays, does the organization hold space for other religions? Are people of the Jewish faith allowed to take Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off from work without using vacation or PTO? Are Buddhist employees given the opportunity to take Vesak off from work in honor of the Buddha?
• As an avid animal lover, I have seldom been given the space to celebrate when I have adopted a pet or to grieve when a pet passes away; however, employees who have or adopt children are celebrated. The joy and heartache I felt at these times in my life were real, yet these moments were rarely if ever, acknowledged.
• Heterosexual women who are expecting a child receive baby showers at work, yet male employees who are expanding their families either through surrogacy or adoption are typically ignored. There is a recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach in these situations does not always work; however, ignoring significant life events simply because of gender defeats the idea of authentic organizations and lays the foundation for employees to disconnect.
• Trans employees experience trauma from co-workers and leaders if their true identity and pronouns are either ignored or denied. Organizations versed in authenticity foster environments of safety, allowing employees to be who they are without fear of being ostracized or terminated.
Creating an authentic organization takes work. Leaders need to actively connect with employees beyond what the job demands, remain curious, and suspend judgment when employees introduce customs or suggestions that expand traditional boundaries.
Authenticity requires that leaders create cultures that provide space for employees to be who they are, honor the multidimensional talents that people bring to the workplace, and transcend legalistic diversity and inclusion requirements.
Authenticity does not require agreement or a complete understanding. It does require a willingness to listen, and a desire to remain curious without judging or demanding that people change to conform to predefined standards.