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Bringing Your 'Whole Self' to Work Is Harder Than It Sounds

By Sherrell Dorsey

We are not unaccustomed to becoming imposters by the time we reach our desks each morning. By design, we’ve been taught that professionalism in American office society mostly equates to assimilation -- requiring that, as employees, we self-adjust to fit into a ready-made office culture governed by unwritten rules. Our identities, which transcend across race, gender, marital status, sexuality, education and economic background, are not to be considered acceptable fodder for a politically-correct workplace environment.

Thus, the running concept of bringing one’s 'whole self' to work is riddled with ideological flaws. Largely, thought leaders mistakenly scapegoat the real need for a collective conversation on approaching the challenge. Instead, they place the onus for imparting passion, personality and personal creativity to a job solely on the backs of employees — not the leadership or company culture itself which sets the tone for safety and security for the entire organization. Employees, without proper leadership guidance, are forced to tuck away their identities for fear of risking their reputations, their jobs and their futures.

As part of our continued discussion on diversity in the workplace, we spoke with James Wright, a diversity and inclusion strategist whose track record includes over 10 years leading diversity communications and talent recruitment at companies like NBC Universal and AOL. He provided us with a broader perspective on thinking about this topic and the changing landscape of identity in corporate culture.

“The idea of bringing your 'whole self' to work is a complex topic,” Wright explained. “CEOs haven’t even been able to master this idea. Let’s consider Apple’s Tim Cook, who was the first Fortune 500 CEO to openly reveal his sexuality. Consider that his discomfort is indicative of an industry, a city, a society, where if a leader must 'park' themselves, it implicitly sends a message that the environment is not safe.”

Wright also submits that, in his experience, some leaders don’t fully bring themselves to their work environment until they have reached the C-Suite level. At this juncture, they have proven themselves, acclimated to the environment, and are now in a position of power where they can slowly become more open and comfortable sharing their true selves.

A recent story published in Fortune Magazine examined the challenges specifically faced by African-American males in corporate America:

“Many of these men, for example, spoke of having to constantly calibrate their public miens: striving to appear focused at the office but not too aggressive; hungry but not threatening; well-dressed but not showy; talented but not too damn talented. [...] Many were eager to discuss the subject of race and the pressure they sometimes feel from having two 'jobs' at the office: an official one, managing a team or division, and the other, 'representing' other African Americans who have yet to make it into the room.”

While challenges abound, Wright is hopeful that data will drive the landscape and grow the need for the business leaders to authentically develop strategies to encourage safe and nurturing environments for employees to thrive and feel comfortable bringing themselves to the work environment.  

“There are 75 million baby boomers in this country, with 10,000 retiring each day. Twenty years ago, having this conversation was unheard of. Religion, sexuality and politics were private matters that weren’t discussed in the workplace,” Wright said.

The workplace is changing drastically. With the advent of technology paired with the influx of millennials (the largest generation outnumbering baby boomers) in the workplace, generational divides are dictating acceptable standards of culture, challenging business-as-usual while requiring companies to accommodate.

The average millennial, Wright continued, was raised with the notion that who they are matters. And with their average tenure of two to three years at a company, most millennials are only vetting for organizations that align with their values and allow them to contribute while maintaining their identity. To be clear, millennials are seeking connections to the industry, not a company logo.

So, how does the changing shift in workplace culture and the growing presence of a sundry of identities translate into on-the-ground action when it comes to encouraging an environment that allows employees to bring their whole selves to work?

Wright suggested that leaders look to diversity and human-resource practitioners to stay abreast of cultural trends and shifts that will point to changing employee identities in the workplace. By knowing what the workforce will look like from a data standpoint, companies can actively develop strategies and programming to engage and support employees beyond tokenism and work to provide an supportive platform to create a thriving workplace environment where employees feel safe to bring their entire selves to the table.

Image credit: PWC Facebook
Sherrell Dorsey headshot

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

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