The Issue with the “Authentic Self” in the Workplace
By Nialena Ali and Deborah Cohen
The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in 2020 and the shooting of six Asian women in an Atlanta spa in 2021 marked another period of intense racial reckoning in America. While the Black Lives Matter protests have waned and use of the Stop Asian Hate hashtag has dwindled, many employers are still grappling with the stark reality that these movements brought to light – many of their employees of color face bias, prejudice and discrimination both in and outside of the workplace. In particular, there has been much attention to how white supremacy culture in the workplace can create exhaustion and hardships for people of color.
In well meaning efforts to counter white supremacy culture and create work environments where people of color are included and celebrated, some employers and employees have endorsed the term “the authentic self”. Encouraging employees to be their authentic selves has been promoted as an antidote to code switching and other assimilationist practices where people of color have explicitly or implicitly been instructed to hide important parts of their identity, culture and heritage. While the intention to encourage the authentic self in the workplace is noble, it is important to recognize the etymology, context, and trappings of the term.
The concept of authenticity has been explored throughout history by many writers, from ancient Greek philosophers to Enlightenment authors, to existentialists and contemporary social theorists. One of the most notable theorists of authenticity is 18th century Genevan philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings focused on conceptions of the self, inwardness, self-reflection and introspection. Rousseau inquired as to whether our actions expressed essential aspects of our identity or whether they come from a peripheral place. He argued that the individual must determine whether their actions align with their values and promoted the idea that our lifestyles and conduct be guided from a source within.
Rousseau’s theories of authenticity have been adapted in the 21st century, and are often evoked by life coaches and self-help book authors today. Modern day advocates for authenticity use the term to encourage readers to be their truest form of self, express how they feel and address discrepancies between their inner desires and their current occupation and lifestyle.
For practical reasons, employers may want to reconsider encouraging employees to be their authentic selves. Similar to other practices born out of the self-help or therapy world, becoming one’s authentic self is a very individual process that is more appropriate for people to explore off the clock. Also, a common tenet of the authentic self is questioning if one’s job aligns with their values and desires. While this is an important question that we should all ask ourselves, it is not an ideal question for an employer to ask all of their employees as it could encourage a mass exodus.
Beyond the practical reasons, bringing our authentic selves to the workplace raises some professional and legal concerns. Despite its appealing sound, “bringing your whole, authentic self to work” can be an invitation to bring regressive parts of our personalities into the workplace (e.g immature, combative, narcissistic, or complaining). The authentic self can easily be misconstrued as unfiltered, which can open the door to a range of inappropriate behaviors that can expose an organization to legal action and cause greater harm to employees and clients of color. Whether stemming from tradition, family, or individuals, there are authentic beliefs rooted in bias that should not be permitted in the workplace, such as viewing women as incompetent, people of color as inferior or LGBTQ people as immoral. There are also authentic behaviors that could create a hostile work environment or be considered harassment, such as swearing or oversharing sexual information.
For those wanting to embrace the concept of authenticity in the workplace without writing a blank check for bad behavior, we appreciate Forbes magazine’s recommendation. Forbes reframes the authentic self from a self-help tool to a management skill, advocating that employees be assigned to areas where they feel most compelled and committed in order to boost innovation, engagement and performance. In accordance with our concerns, Forbes also states that the authentic self does not mean an unfiltered self and emphasizes that basic standards of decency should not be abandoned.
We recommend considering alternatives to the authentic self because it proposes a race-neutral attempt at solving a race-specific problem. If the concept of the authentic self was adopted into the workplace to create equitable and inclusive spaces for people of color – spaces where people of color can eat their meals in the breakroom without being judged, wear their natural hair without being touched or wear religious garments without being otherized – encouraging everyone to be their authentic selves will not achieve this. There are many authentic aspects of the self (such as food, dress and hairstyles) that White people are more easily able to bring to work without repercussion compared to people of color. If the issue is that there is a double standard where people of color must code-switch and assimilate in order to be respected and successful, then an anti-assimilation policy that directly addresses this is necessary.
Rather than encouraging employees to be their authentic selves, we recommend employers practice affirmative equity. Affirmative equity is the practice of creating diverse, equitable and inclusive environments that do not center or preference dominant social identities as the norm and do not impose negative consequences for failure or refusal to conform. Achieving affirmative equity requires dismantling the barriers that prevent people of color from actualizing their full employment potential while simultaneously operationalizing policies, practices, attitudes, and actions that produce equitable power, access, and employment opportunities for all people regardless of race.
Affirmative equity shifts the burden to change company culture from the employee to the employer. Recognizing the many ways that people of color have been penalized for exhibiting their cultures at work, or denied work opportunities all together, to encourage people of color to bring more of themselves to the workplace without providing reassurances that they will not be punished, is requiring a vulnerability that can compromise careers. As writer and podcaster Jodi-Ann Burey stated in her 2020 Tedx Talk, “The call to brave work with more authenticity undeservedly disadvantages people of color…What difference would it make to allege value for diversity without sustaining evidence of that value in any meaningful way? Without accountability to examine these systems of bias and power, the call for authenticity fails.”
Some examples of affirmative equity practices that employers can adopt include:
- Reviewing dress codes to include a range of racial, ethnic and gender identities
- Setting standards of what is acceptable in the workplace without perpetuating white supremacy and sexism
- Standardizing performance evaluations and setting clear requirements for promotion to avoid double standards and moving goal posts for people of color
- Encouraging communication styles that are informed by multiple cultural norms (e.g. facial expressions or lack thereof, use of hand gestures, speaking out, waiting to be called on, interrupting, asking versus telling, showing emotion, stoicism, use of first names instead of titles etc.)
- Having people of color in leadership positions with decision making power
- Providing annual antiracism training to staff
- Creating racial equity messaging through weekly newsletters and wall signage
For more guidance on bringing affirmative equity into the workplace, Human In Common recommends our Interrupting Racism Level 3 training, Operationalizing Racial Equity in Employment. This training encourages participants to identify barriers faced by employees of color and create solutions to dismantle these barriers and amplify racial equity in the workplace. Only through the intentional development of affirmative equity policies, will we create a workplace culture where People of Color are able to bring our traditions, cultures, racial identities, and ethnic heritage to work without fear of being overlooked or pushed to the margins.