It has become a common complaint that I hear from executives and HR teams in my consulting practice: inappropriate, sometimes even disturbing, behavior at work in the name of “authenticity.” One employee was rude to a colleague, and when a supervisor stepped in, the employee snapped back, insisting that they were simply being authentic. Another employee announced, “I don’t trust White people,” and explained that that was her “authentic self.”
When I recently hosted a conversation about this idea on the social audio platform Clubhouse, every manager in the virtual room said they were facing this challenge. And at a corporate event, executives told me the last thing they want to do is encourage employees to be even more authentic.
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The recent push for authenticity in the workplace can be tricky to navigate. People should feel free to speak up when they see a problem, ask for help when they need it, and share their perspectives at work. After all, self-censorship in which people hold back on important ideas can damage organizations.
Also, being a truly diverse and inclusive organization means welcoming people to be their true selves rather than expecting them to conform to a personality type and stifling their originality. Many minorities already find it difficult to be authentic at work, knowing that some people’s biases (including unconscious ones) can be triggered when we simply act, speak, dress, or do our hair naturally. Encouraging authenticity can be a crucial way to free people from these kinds of worries.
But sometimes authenticity becomes incivility.
When employees are allowed to use authenticity to justify disrespectful or hurtful actions, everyone loses out. Other employees feel miserable and unsafe. The workplace culture sours. Leaders and managers can feel helpless, convinced that if they try to discourage such behaviors, they’ll be accused of denying employees’ authenticity. And often the biggest losers are the people misbehaving. With no one setting them on the right track or modeling acceptable norms, they miss the lesson — and the opportunity for growth.
In my work advising businesses on how to approach this issue, I’ve found that the following steps can make a big difference in creating a culture that values authenticity and respect.
Define ‘Authenticity’ Clearly
Each business needs to be specific about what it means when it encourages employees to be themselves.