Why Authenticity at Work Is Crucial to Professional Success
Denying employees the opportunity to be their true selves at work threatens their performance — and the future of your business
This year has been unimaginably difficult for millions of Americans, myself included. So, when I had the chance to celebrate two big milestones in my life — my marriage and my fiftieth birthday — I seized the opportunity and shared a photo of my wife and me on LinkedIn. The response was mostly positive, with more than 1,000 people interacting with the post, but not everyone was supportive.
“Please, let’s keep LinkedIn a business site. Post this on Facebook where it belongs,” wrote Linda Stevens, Owner of LS Enterprises Promotional Items. And Mariam Morgan, another LinkedIn user who’s currently seeking employment, chimed in, “Agree with you Linda Stevens (thumbs up emoji).”
If these women genuinely cared about keeping LinkedIn’s content strictly professional, perhaps I would’ve been open to the feedback. If these women, especially Ms. Morgan, didn’t interact with other non-business posts on the platform, perhaps their points would be valid. After all, there has been some debate in the LinkedIn community about what’s appropriate for the platform and what’s not. But sadly, this is not that conversation.
Otherness and authenticity at work
I’m a Black woman, I’m an LGBTQ+ woman, and I’m the owner of Diversity Forward, a staffing agency with a laser focus on making the workforce more inclusive. Like everyone reading this, I have lived through a year in which many aspects of my identity have been challenged, by the courts, by the current administration, and by an intolerant public.
For me, posting a photo of my wife and me is not a passive thing. It’s the truest demonstration of who I am, and it’s a declaration of my mission. My wedding photo shows other LGBTQ+ professionals that my company is welcoming and that my workplace is one where they can be themselves. I didn’t share the photo as a means of feeding my ego or disregarding the unwritten rules about LinkedIn content shares. Quite the opposite, my post served as a piece of native advertising that reaffirmed my values, as a person, a leader, and a citizen.
Ms. Stevens and Ms. Morgan commented on my photo under the guise of policing my professionalism, but their replies are nothing more than virtual microaggressions. In the digital age, telling me not to post my wedding photo on LinkedIn is the equivalent of telling me to take down personal photos in my office. It’s these kinds of judgments that lead many Black people, especially Black women, to feel excluded and discriminated against at the office.
Furthermore, I have no illusions about Ms. Stevens’ and Ms. Morgan’s dissent and the undercurrent of bigotry in their comments. It’s not the personal nature of my photos that bothers them — it’s who’s being personal that’s the issue. It’s the bold, unapologetic display of queer love. They view my photo as unprofessional because it makes them uncomfortable, not because it’s misaligned with LinkedIn’s unofficial brand of acceptability.
But both women should keep in mind the importance of authenticity at work and how denying people the right to be their whole selves at work can damage their business results and employment prospects.
Authenticity at work is a right
A 2019 report from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University dove into the key reasons that authenticity at work is crucial to professional success:
- When we’re forced to separate the different aspects of our lives, we don’t deliver our best work.
- Without authenticity, the personal brand we build for ourselves isn’t true to who we are, thus rendering us cookie-cutter cogs in the machine instead of individuals with unique skillsets.
- A lack of freedom to be our authentic selves means we don’t have a chance to identify, develop, and use our strengths, and our employers are left in the dark, too.
- The more authentic we are, the more we can connect with our clients or customers.
- Through authenticity, we can ensure that our careers are better aligned with our identities and interests.
Additionally, authenticity is incredibly important to millennials, of which there are 72.1 million in the U.S., and Gen Z, who will singlehandedly reshape the economy by 2031. By telling employees to keep their true selves zipped up at work, you’re alienating a wide swath of the country’s working population.
Sure, there are instances where people can be too real at work — by delivering insensitive, poorly timed, and offensive feedback, sharing content that explicitly violates company values, or using derogatory language.
But a wedding photo on LinkedIn that celebrates two important milestones in my life is none of these things. I run the company that I represent, and that photo is quite possibly the best depiction of what we stand for. I don’t need to dilute my public persona to assuage close-minded people nor do I need to engage in respectability politics.
To the two women who commented on my photo, Ms. Stevens and Ms. Morgan, I encourage them to think twice before they comment on any post, especially when that comment is intended to quell the voices of the Black and LGBTQ+ communities. They may think they’re calling out content that’s unsuitable, but in this scenario, they are the ones who are most inappropriate.
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 Tita-Reid, Najoh. (June 8, 2020). Beware of burning out your black employees. Retrieved from: https://fortune.com/2020/06/08/black-people-workplace-racism-diversity/
 Kouchaki, Maryam, et al. (October 2, 2019). Take 5: The Case for Being More Authentic at Work. Retrieved from: https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/being-more-authentic-work
 Peart, Nathan. (December 11, 2019). Authenticity At Work: Why It Matters For Millennials And How It Can Improve Your Bottom Line. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanpeart/2019/12/11/authenticity-at-work-why-it-matters-for-millennials-and-how-it-can-improve-your-bottom-line/?sh=3d25ea2d2f75
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