Israel Folau’s recent dismissal as a result of his provocative tweets has generated a fierce and polarising debate. Sidestepping the specific facts about Folau’s case, the issue raises key questions for leaders about how to balance encouraging employees to be themselves when doing so can offend others.

Increasingly many employers will tell you that they want you to bring your whole self to work. It’s a mantra that speaks to their desire to create an inclusive environment where employees feel comfortable being themselves, often with the hope that this translates into engagement, retention and higher performance.

In reality, bringing your whole self to work can often be disastrous. Most companies have policies in place to prevent employees doing exactly this, and it’s time to take a more sensible approach to talking about – and creating – inclusive environments.

Lots of people want you to show off your whole self

What does it mean to bring your whole self to work? The phrase is widely used. Employers such as Whole Foods use it as part of their career pitch, and there are TEDx talks and books aplenty on the subject. 

It generally refers to a desire to create an environment where employees feel comfortable not having to put on a fake work persona, don’t have to hide aspects of their life that are important to them, and can be accepted for who they are. A desire to create authenticity is often mentioned.

One of the most commonly-used examples related to sexuality. Many LGBTI people will talk passionately and compellingly about the importance of being open with colleagues about their sexuality, and can often describe the pain they or others have gone through when they have felt the need to conceal a fundamental part of who they are from their co-workers. 

The benefits of bringing yourself to work are fairly clear. Some studies claim that “inauthentic leaders” are up to 20% less productive than their peers, and one researcher found that up to 75% of employees wanted their co-workers to share more about themselves.

But your whole self might be better off hidden

Instinctively it can be hard to argue that people should feel that they have to be someone different at work, or hide a fundamental part of who they are – their sexuality, for example, or as many would argue in Folau’s case, his religious beliefs.

But here’s the problem with the concept: your whole self might be better off hidden.

Authenticity is not necessarily a good thing. If you are a virulent racist, believe women are inferior to men, or perhaps just passionate about your right to work in the nude then these are things that you almost certainly shouldn’t be authentically demonstrating.

You might feel that you are being true to yourself by refusing to share an office with homosexual colleagues, but it’s very unlikely that doing so will foster a productive work environment, and – with perhaps a few exceptions – there are not many employers that would tolerate, let alone encourage that sort of whole self being brought to work.

And in fact most organisations have controls in place to prevent exactly this; they often seek to screen out the authentic liars and criminals during recruitment, and have explicit policies governing how employees should and shouldn’t behave towards each other – precisely because they are well aware that they don’t want everyone they employ to bring 100% of themselves to work all the time.

Four simple suggestions

So should we stop encouraging authenticity, and instead be open about asking people to put on a standardised corporate persona when they turn up each day? Of course not.

Like many things, the concept is based on sound logic and is a laudable aspiration, but has been watered down and blurred a little through over-use. It just needs a little refining, and here are four simple suggestions.

1.      Explicitly define your culture

The starting point is to be completely open about what culture you promote and what behaviours you expect. This removes much of the doubt, and makes it clear to employees (and candidates) what sort of authenticity is likely to be more acceptable.

Jack Ma recently caused a storm by saying that Alibaba employees should expect to work 72 hours a week if they want to succeed. Regardless of whether that’s sensible, it is certainly a very clear statement about the corporate culture, and no new hire could complain if eyes are raised when they walk out of the office at 5pm.

You should ensure that you clearly define your organisation’s values so that no-one is in any doubt as to whether or not they can turn up naked on their first day.

2.      Recruit for fit

 This can be a little more complicated, and if done carelessly can leave you exposed to a host of issues, but you should be clear about your culture in your recruitment.

If staff bring their dogs to work on Fridays or are all expected to ride on the company’s float at Mardi Gras then that’s probably worth sharing with candidates, either as part of your marketing or in the interviews.

As a rule of thumb, the prouder you are about your unique working environment or culture, the more important this is likely to be.

3.      Focus on your leaders

Your leaders have a fundamental role to play in embedding and reinforcing your culture. Your leadership development – formal programs and activity, objectives, promotion criteria – should all be aligned to drive a strong focus on displaying and rewarding the values that you stand for.

This most likely means explicit training and guidance on how to do that, and what to do when things go wrong; bringing your wrong self to work can often raise emotions and rapidly escalate, and how your leaders manage these situations will be as important as how well they can recite your corporate purpose and values.

4.Use the right language

If you’re currently encouraging people to bring their whole selves to work then you should stop.

Adam Grant makes the distinction nicely; bring your best self to work instead. Make it clear to people what that looks like, and don’t use lazy words that suggest everyone can be whoever they want, whenever they want. That’s almost certainly not what you want, so don’t say otherwise. 

Israel Folau’s dismissal, and the fall-out from it, will no doubt dominate news headlines for a while yet. But leaders should see it as an opportunity to clarify and confirm exactly what part of themselves they do – and don’t – want to encourage their employees to bring to work.

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