This Black History Month, we're having conversations about the importance of authenticity at work and encouraging a culture of authenticity. How are you fostering a culture of authenticity at your organization?

Whether we're anxiously awaiting a job interview, the first day at work or a career-defining presentation, we're often told to remember one simple saying: "Be yourself." This age-old statement is ambiguous enough to elicit various ideas and questions about how to do that literally – how actually to execute being oneself in the workplace. One way of conceptualizing it is through the lens of authenticity, of being, per Merriam-Webster, "true to one's own personality, spirit or character."

Many underrepresented individuals routinely suppress their authenticity at work to conform to certain pre-existing notions of appropriate workplace behaviors and norms. When we feel like we'll be judged or treated differently because of personal traits, attributes and expressions that feel normal and appropriate to us but abnormal and inappropriate to others, work can become a tense, disorienting experience filled with frustration and self-doubt. To support and empower underrepresented communities and continue deconstructing inequitable workplace behaviors and norms, we should talk about how to encourage and support a culture of authenticity at work continually.

Here are five things you can do to help continually encourage and support authentic expression in the workplace:

  1. Encourage finding strength in being one's authentic, best self.

When we're comfortable with being our authentic selves at work - comfortable with being who we are and bringing our unique perspectives and insights to the table - we can start working toward becoming our best selves at work, too. Being authentic helps us set the stage for creating lasting, meaningful impact in our roles as well. This study found that the more employees feel authentic, the greater their job satisfaction, engagement and self-reported performance. Attempting to be someone that we aren't can be burdensome and exhausting – and ultimately detract from our experience and effectiveness at work.

"In my mind, it's really about bringing your best self, your most effective self, to the table every single day. It is not about becoming an imitation of what someone else does and how they do it - and certainly not a reflection of what you think others expect you to be," says Kareem Rogers, senior vice president of implementation, National Account Services, at ADP. "Our shared goal should be to strengthen culture in a way that further values the individual, respects differences and creates the space for us to bring our best and most authentic selves."

  1. Recognize that authenticity can be a journey.

Seventy-two percent of people say they are authentic at work, taking an average of two to three months to show their true selves. We sometimes encounter norms and expectations that can take some time to adjust to before we feel ready to express ourselves authentically. And if we're not used to being authentic at work, it can take time to strengthen that muscle of authenticity, to start feeling comfortable with being one's authentic self around others.

"Becoming your authentic self is a journey," says Tiffany Davis, division vice president of human resources for National Account Services and Human Resource Outsourcing at ADP. "It's a balance of being professional, showing up in the right way. I think we all make those decisions around, 'What way do we want to show up at work? What's the appropriate tone, the appropriate language?'"

But frequently deciding how to speak, act and interact with others at work can have costs, particularly when these actions are not aligned with one's authenticity but rather with pre-existing notions of appropriate workplace behaviors and norms.

  1. Consider the implications of code-switching.

According to the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), code-switching is adapting one's communication, appearance and mannerisms to fit in. Black people and other people of color (POC) often feel pressured to code-switch. According to research cited in the Harvard Business Review's (HBR's) "Advancing Black Leaders" series, code-switching often occurs in spaces where negative stereotypes of Black people conflict with behaviors and norms generally considered appropriate. Considering the social and psychological repercussions of code-switching can help us remain mindful of the experiences of Black people and other POCs as they show up authentically at work.

"So many of us have to be chameleons in different areas of our lives," says Drew Lewis, vice president of global diversity and talent at ADP. "When you talk about [code-switching] in the corporate environment, for folks like us, where we tend to be, numerically, less represented, we feel like we have to adapt in order to be accepted. I'd like to think that's not always going to be the case."

  1. Build diverse teams.

If leaders hire and retain underrepresented individuals at their organizations, currently employed underrepresented individuals can start to feel more welcome as they begin to see more people who look like them. This type of visibility is also important in the leadership arena, where underrepresented individuals who occupy leadership positions can represent and work to empower other underrepresented individuals across a given organization.

"The extent to which you can sit in a meeting and see people who look like you or just see other individuals from diverse backgrounds so that everyone doesn't look the same, can make people feel welcome," says Njeri Nginyo, vice president and assistant general counsel of the Global Contracts Team at ADP.

There's a business case for building diverse teams, too. According to a 2019 analysis by McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the bottom quartile by 36 percent in terms of profitability, while companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.

  1. Support conversations about lived experiences.

If leaders and allies can identify opportunities to discuss lived experiences with underrepresented employees in a safe, respectful and compassionate way, they can begin to make positive steps toward encouraging a culture of authenticity at work. Having meaningful one-to-one conversations about lived experiences can foster relatability, empathy, trust and even offer insight into how individuals experience the same workplace differently. It can also help leaders and allies gauge the extent to which their co-workers feel a strong sense of connection in the workplace – that is, whether they feel seen, heard and valued.

"Allies can really lean into helping individuals who don't look like them and who don't have the same shared experience feel seen, heard and valued," Nginyo says. "That means really engaging in meaningful conversations. Understand how someone was raised, their upbringing. Seek some understanding of what their fears are, what their successes are."

Authenticity and being seen, heard and valued

Feeling connected – that is, feeling seen, heard and valued – is a driver of authentic expression. According to the ADP Research Institute® (ADPRI), if you feel connected, you feel safe presenting yourself authentically and voicing your thoughts and opinions. You feel confident that you will be given a fair shot at succeeding, that you will be assessed only by your actual contributions. The more we work to improve connection at our organizations, the more we become equipped to support and empower underrepresented communities in their expressions of authenticity at work.

Learn more about measuring feelings of being seen, heard and valued.

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