It is estimated that more than half of us cover up some part of our identity at work to try to fit in – with members of under-represented groups feeling the most pressure of all to disguise aspects of themselves.
So, it is no surprise to find companies urging employees and potential new recruits to “bring your whole self to work” in a bid to set themselves apart in the battle to recruit and retain staff in a competitive marketplace.
But all too often the promise of a place of psychological safety turns out to be too good to be true. You can bring your whole self to work – just not, you know, that bit…
Imagine turning up at your new employer’s team event to find you’re the only one in formal attire – everyone else is in jeans and sneakers. When you check the email later, you see it does indeed state “formal” – but your colleagues already knew to ignore it. The “in crowd” knew the hidden rules of the game.
Something similar happens every time a person from a historically marginalised group joins a company that boldly claims: “We allow you to bring your whole self to work.” The reality is often very different. You can bring your whole self to work but you can’t be so obvious about your gender situation or so outspoken in meetings – or be quite so African American.
It is all too easy to rely on superficial slogans that at first sight appear admirable but are not backed up by real action to bring about lasting change for under-represented groups within an organization. The same reflex action was seen in the summer of 2020 in the wake of the death of George Floyd, when companies rushed to post a black square on social media.
But such gestures usually fail to address the underlying problems. They are no substitute for a true strategic plan, accountability and purposeful measurement when it comes to creating cultural change.
If an organization has hardly any women at senior level, for example, statements about how it “can do better” are no substitute for actually doing better by tackling unconscious bias, sexism, and gender bias in its departments, systems, and processes. Similarly, having a float at the local Pride event is pointless unless a company tackles the homophobia and transphobia that its LGBTQ+ employees are encountering every day.
A true strategic plan is a particularly important element when it comes to cultural change. Many organizations convince themselves that they have a strategic plan – when, in reality, they do not. They probably have a strategy and even goals. But what is often missing is a month-by-month detailed plan of how to achieve those goals.
If you are planning to tackle gender bias in recruitment, for example, you need to set out when you are going to start examining your recruitment process, how you are going to redesign it and how you will relaunch the new process. You also need to be clear about how you will measure the effectiveness of the changes – and how you will hold people accountable to the new process.
Business leaders need to publish a two-year plan, with managers at all levels developing their own month-by-month plans to support the changes and set out how they will be held accountable for embedding them – usually as part of the performance management process.
With a true strategic plan, accountability and purposeful measurement, even diversity’s greatest myth of “bring your whole self to work” can be turned into reality.