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Dilemma of the Month: Should You Draw the Line With Employees’ Individuality?

Back Article May 12, 2021 By Suzanne Lucas

Some of my employees have asked about bringing their “authentic self” to the workplace. I want to encourage individuality and the good things that come with that, but how can I still make it clear that they need to behave appropriately at work?

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First, it would be helpful to have an understanding of what “authentic self” means. Not to be confused with being unfiltered — saying and doing whatever one wants, regardless of the impact it has on others — the term generally refers to one’s actions aligning with one’s core values. 

So having people bring their authentic selves to work isn’t a bad thing — but bringing individuality into the workplace doesn’t mean behaving in a professional manner is thrown out the door. For example, while we might lounge around in pajama pants and drink out of the milk carton at home, we would not do that in the office. We would drink it from a glass. One can still bring their authentic self into the workplace, but “authentic self” doesn’t necessarily mean behaving at work the way one does at home.

Employers who discourage their employees from expressing their individuality are at risk of losing their staff, because if the employees are forced to act in a way that doesn’t align with their values and makes them feel unhappy or demoralized, that’s reason enough to leave.

We shouldn’t have to hide who we are at work, and we should strive to show the best parts of ourselves while still being professional and considerate of others. Here are some things that are OK to bring to work and some things we should leave at home.

Bring: A picture of your family, whatever that looks like.

Leave at home: Unending stories about your dating drama and ex-partners.

Bring: Your sense of humor.

Leave at home: Your off-color, racist, ageist or sexist jokes, or others that discriminate against any groups of people.

Bring: Clothes that reflect your personality and your culture. If you like bright colors, wear bright colors. If you want to wear all black, wear all black.

Leave at home: Clothes that are not professional for the field in which you work. 

Bring: Your passion for projects and purposes. 

Leave at home: Your disdain for people who disagree with you. If it’s OK for you to say, “I’m passionate about cause A,” then other people need to feel comfortable saying, “I’m passionate about cause B.”

Bring: Your ideas. If you’re new to the job or the company, your ideas may get rejected because you simply don’t have the experience to recognize the pitfalls yet. But do speak up. Your company hired you because you have knowledge, skills, abilities and a background that it thought would be a good fit.

Leave at home: Whining, interrupting others and trying to take credit for other people’s ideas. Don’t bring up the same thing repeatedly because you think it’s the best thing ever, even when your manager rejected it.

Bring: Food from your culture and your background. While office potlucks may not return to the workplace for a while, feel free to bring your favorite foods for lunch. If it has a strong smell, put it in a tight-fitting container in the break room fridge.

Leave at home: Demanding that people adjust their diets to your whims. Vegans and omnivores get to share the fridge. Likewise, table manners can vary from culture to culture, but it’s unlikely that your culture is OK with you being a slob. And even if it is, you have to change when you work with other people.

Bring: Your experience.

Leave at home: Your belief that you know everything. You don’t. Be open to new ideas. Remember that you need to be flexible with other people’s opinions and cultures if you expect them to be flexible with yours. You’re all working together, so work hard to be part of the team.

Bring: Your goals. You can accomplish great things. Be prepared to learn and grow and make mistakes and grow some more.

Leave at home: Your pride. You’re not perfect. Your way of doing things isn’t always going to be the best. 

Bringing your authentic self to work also means accepting that we do things differently sometimes to work as a team. It means you strive to be better at your job and a better human.

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Kim (not verified)May 13, 2021 - 6:02am

This is a good reminder for managers and leadership teams alike that cookie-cutter staff is not a reality and really, is not a good thing. Individuality combined with basic work appropriateness makes the workplace so much more inclusive and creative!

Visitor (not verified)May 13, 2021 - 1:36pm

It strikes me that one of the main ways I've heard this idea used recently is that people don't want to have to code switch their speech in the office anymore. What about that?

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