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Reframing Authenticity

July 13, 2021 | By Lyn Leis

Three people in conversation

TAGS: diversity and inclusion, member voices, privacy, recruiting, trends and predictions,

I’m saying “No, thank you” to the idea of bringing your authentic self to work. I’m over it.

In May, I shared some thoughts about what our current wave of diversity hiring looks like, and the recent calls to bring our authentic selves to work. In it, I offered some initial concerns on the demand that employees be themselves at work and the appearance that companies are ready for that. I also shared a few links that are worth your time to gain some perspective on this, particularly Jodi-Ann Burey’s TEDx talk Why You Should Not Bring Your Authentic Self to Work. In her talk, Burey presents the idea of being invited to a party on Halloween: She asks us to imagine being told definitively that it is not a costume party, that we need not spend time, energy, and money on transforming ourselves for the evening, and that we should just come as we are. She asks us to feel the relief and comfort that this concept might bring. Then, when we arrive at this party, she tells us that everyone is in fact elaborately costumed, including the friend who invited us. There is even a costume contest! Not only were people expected to dress up, but those who did so the best would be rewarded. This is how Burey says she feels when we she is told to bring her “full, authentic self to work.”

This example has stuck with me, along with all the emotions I felt when she revealed the twist that this was absolutely a costume party. Confused. Out of place. Vulnerable. Betrayed. Left behind. That feeling that I would have been perfectly capable of dressing up and competing in the contest had I just been told what this environment would be like. Then, there are the questions about why someone would deceive me about the theme. Was it on purpose or an oversight? Maybe things had changed, and they forgot to tell me. Whatever the reason, I would now feel massively uncomfortable, less than, and under a microscope the whole night.

This metaphor also gets to the heart of the authenticity problem: Those of us who plan the party don’t realize or consider all the ways in which we exclude our guests. We’ve planned the party according to the defaults that are obvious to us. It’s a party on Halloween, so obviously people should dress up. Of course we will have a contest. Truthfully, other people originally designed this party ages ago; we just picked up the plans from them and keep running it that way because it works for us. When the metaphor is for the workplace, we host the party every day, and people need to attend it to survive.

By now, many of us have realized that our (compulsory) guests want to show up to the party in a variety of ways. And in theory, we’re fine with that. We tell them to show up however they’d like, that it’s just important that they’re here. But ultimately, we keep planning the same party–maybe with a few minor tweaks here and there–and people who try to show up authentically keep feeling the same ways. Confused. Out of place. Vulnerable. Betrayed. Left behind.

It is so important to understand how power works in this setup. The people in power in a society define the defaults, and the defaults dictate how our structures are designed. The typical defaults in the American workplace are white, cis, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, and middle or upper class, among others. The experience of our workplace was designed to benefit people with those identities. Those are the people who get the memo to dress up, and those are the people winning the contests. No matter how much we tell someone that they can come as they are, we are still perpetuating an environment that causes real harm to the emotional, psychological, physical, financial, and spiritual well-being of a huge and intersectional portion of our workforce.

This is not to deny the efforts that are being advanced in so many workplaces around the country. There are plenty of folx who recognize the need to redesign our approach to employment and employees. It’s not yet the most inclusive movement it can be, but it is a valiant start. We need to keep doing that work. But I hope we all have the humility to realize that we have still only taken baby steps, and are not actually ready for people to fully show up. If you look even briefly you will find countless stories of people answering the call for authenticity and facing a difficult, messy, uphill battle when they do. For example, I really loved Sandra Buatti-Ramos’ piece on the NACE Blog Presenting My Authentic Self. Many of us are ready to do so, but the workplace isn’t ready for us.

Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking more about this idea of authenticity, reading about it, and talking with friends and colleagues, and I’ve discovered a piece of this puzzle that is informing how I want to talk about authenticity in this moment: Even in a more accepting environment, not everyone wants to bring their full authentic self to work. For many of us, the ability to take down our armor and live our full identities out loud offers fulfillment, relief, and productivity at work. For many others, it may not. The need and desire to express the different aspects of our identities may change over time, may change with different groups of people, and may change based on our environment. In many cases, keeping pieces of ourselves private may offer some necessary protection. Sometimes we need our armor. And really, we don’t owe anyone in the workplace all of ourselves. So, as leaders, managers, and coworkers we need to find a way not to impose restrictions on how people bring themselves to work, but we also can’t demand that they share their whole selves with us. We need to hold space for our people but give them full agency over how they show up at work.

This is the framework that I’m using now in conversations with students, employers, and peers. I’m ditching “authenticity” and the “authentic self;” I don’t find them helpful. I’m choosing instead to ask, “How do you want to show up at work?,” “How can I help you bring yourself to work the way you want to?,” and “How are we creating space for people to show up as they wish?” It’s a small shift in my language but a giant reframe that feels better to me for now. I’m sure it will evolve over time, and I look forward to hearing how others will approach this. Whatever it looks like in the future, I feel confident in saying:

Bye, authenticity.

Lyn Leis is associate director of Career & Faculty Partnerships at Mercy College. Opinions represented here are her own.