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Authenticity in the Workplace

Guest Post: Scott Burden, The Pride Center, Lehigh University

I remember the first time that I painted my nails. I felt liberated. I felt years of internalized femme-phobia, homophobia, and toxic masculinity shedding from my body. And yet, I still was fearful. I was fearful of what other people would say about me at work. I was fearful of how higher up administrators at Lehigh would view me. What if I was treated differently because I was a man wearing nail polish? Simultaneously, I also recognized the privilege that I carried. I was afforded the protection of working full-time in an LGBTQIA+ center. It is literally my job to show up for and support the queer community at Lehigh. This recognition is important because not everyone is as protected in their workplace as I am.

Being authentic and staying true to yourself in any environment is a challenging, vulnerable process. It takes courage and it also takes a recognition that people may not fully accept your truest, most authentic self. For various reasons, safety included, not everyone is able to show up as their most authentic self in all spaces, especially in a workplace context. Workplace environments can be challenging for several reasons. As a new employee, you are likely trying to impress your colleagues and supervisor, excel in your job responsibilities, and build a community at work where you can feel supported and thrive. This might mean having to sacrifice who you are out of fear that you will not be accepted. That can be a scary prospect and can lead to negative mental health outcomes and a shorter tenure at your place of employment. So what are some strategies that might help you show up as your most authentic self at your job? While this can look different for everyone, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Research. When you are starting your job search process, do your research! If working for a company that values diversity and inclusion is important to you, research companies non-discrimination policies, check out if they have employee affinity groups that affirm and support your various identities, and ask about the company’s efforts towards supporting difference during the interview process. There are also several lists out there that rank corporations commitment to diversity and inclusion. One great resource is the Corporate Equality Index that has rated hundreds of companies. It is also important to note that companies may claim to support diversity and inclusion but have a vastly different culture during the work day. Be in tune to these nuances as you go through the interview process.

  2. Find your people. As you begin a new job, it is likely that you will want to build community at work. This can be a difficult process, especially for folks who find themself less-represented in their workplace. That said, it is so important to find people at work that will support your most authentic self, even if you cannot always show up at work in this way. Attend networking events at work, go to your employers LGBTQIA+ and/or Black affinity group meetings, try and strike up conversation with people who you think will support you.

  3. Push yourself. Challenge yourself to speak up when you see something at work that is inhibiting the success of all people. This process will absolutely look different for people based on social identity. If you find yourself occupying several spaces of privilege, push yourself to advocate for others who may feel like their voice is not listened to. If you do find yourself on the margins, push yourself to find people that you know will be supportive. Visual signs of diversity and inclusion are also deeply important. Challenge yourself to put the rainbow flag or ally sticker on your desk! This will be an indicator for others that you are likely a safer person and will hopefully help to build a more caring community in your workplace.

  4. Self-care. Above all else, take care of yourself. You might find yourself in a job that is not supportive of your whole being. If that is the case and you cannot leave your place of employment (which is absolutely valid), be sure to take time to care for yourself in and outside of work. Take your lunch breaks. Practice meditation. Grab a massage. Try to meet people outside of work who will value and affirm your full self.

I have been painting my nails and pushing myself to practice authenticity in my workplace for the past two years. It has been an incredible journey where I have learned so much about myself and others. While not easy, I have found that challenging myself in these ways has been so good for my mental health. I encourage you to consider what vulnerability looks like for you in the workplace as you begin your journey into a career or are 40 years in.

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