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Why asking minority employees to be fully authentic at work is an impossible request

Authenticity at work is all the rage these days with organizations large and small infusing their brands with messages of diversity, equity and inclusion. Attracting talent with the promise that in THIS workplace, you will finally be able to shed the mask and succeed by revealing and living your whole self. This messaging, created most likely by white, cisgender individuals is well intentioned and true at its core. But it fails to acknowledge that the “bring your whole self to work” works only for those already in the majority, benefiting from systemic structures of privilege where the risks of authenticity are minor to nonexistent. This reality is compounded by the fact that individuals in the minority, myself included, may not even know how to be fully ourselves at work as our professional personas have fused with the authenticity underneath. 

Without structural and cultural changes driven by the majority, minority individuals cannot begin to uncover and unmask without self-sabotaging our careers. Even before entering the workforce, we have learned to cover aspects of our identity, those that would categorize us as “outsiders” in order to fit in. Kenji Yoshino defines “covering” as the strategy through which an individual downplays a known stigmatized identity to blend into the mainstream. A black woman who straightens her hair to appear more like her white colleagues, a gay man who seeks to alter his mannerisms as to not reveal his sexuality, a Latin man who doesn’t challenge a racist joke about latinx communities or a woman who avoids talking about her children to prevent the perception that work is not her first priority. I have personally worked to cover my accent to not be perceived as less articulate, qualified or deserving. These covering strategies are rooted to a degree that we may not even realize we are doing them. We are wearing a mask that is invisible even to ourselves. 

Minorities at work have become really good at this. We know the spoken and unspoken rules we need to live by in order to make it. We have built layers of conformity in order to be successful. Authenticity for us comes at a really high cost. The risk of not fitting in is too high. So when companies ask us to remove those layers and just be ourselves, I speak for myself when I say, thanks, but not yet. I want to, but most organizational systems, processes and cultures aren’t ready to take all of me. Jodi-Ann Burey speaks of this beautifully in her Ted Talk when illustrating the majority rules. This is your party, you created the system, it is your time to lead and challenge it so that the minority can uncover without sacrificing perceptions of performance, access to opportunities and progression. Only when we see and most importantly FEEL that it is truly safe to uncover, we can begin to unlearn the patterns of behavior that have hidden us so well. 

I believe organizations are making headway to unveil and dismantle the systemic structures of oppression that benefit the white majority across the talent lifecycle from recruiting, performance management, employee experience/culture, benefits, progression/promotion, etc. Bringing our whole selves to work is a downstream benefit from this work. And it will take time. I invite you to work very closely with your under-represented employees to co-create your D&I strategy, paying intentional attention to the moments that matter for your minority team members and the messages you send both out loud and subliminally. Bring in and adequately compensate D&I professionals to advise you. You will find both quantitative and qualitative input that will help you make a difference and realize the aspirational environment where everyone can learn to bring their whole selves to work. 

Visual storytelling by FosterWe.com. All rights reserved.

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