Can Employees Really Bring Their Whole Selves to Work During Polarizing Times?

January 26, 2021      By Human Insights & HCM Strategic Advisory Group

Ultimate Takeaway
  • Recent events and growing divides bring new challenges to organizational inclusiveness—even bringing to light concepts like the paradox of tolerance.
  • Creating a culture of inclusion requires a combination of culture assessment, change management, DEI&B efforts, organizational core values and strategies to address people and events that conflict with those values.
  • Creating an employee-centric work environment that accepts, values, and prioritizes its people isn't just a powerful business strategy—it's the right thing to do.

UKG’s Human Insights & HCM Advisory Group team consists of distinguished HR practitioners and HCM experts with an acute pulse on industry trends, best practices, and technological innovations. Recent events inspired a healthy debate among us about how organizations should handle polarizing issues and the impact these efforts have on employees. Here’s the culmination of our discussion—we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! 

In recent years, there’s been a public push for employers to foster more diverse and accepting workplaces by inviting people to “bring their whole selves” to work. Historically, employees have been conditioned to develop “safe” professional personas, covering up core aspects of their personalities to protect their jobs, their reputations, and their future opportunities. A recent Deloitte study found that 61% of all respondents actively cover up at least one part of their identity at work and, unsurprisingly, this was especially true for underrepresented groups, who already face significant barriers to entry and often feel intense pressure to “fit in.” 

This kind of “covering” wreaks long-term damage on employee health and morale and has an insidious impact on organizational effectiveness. Decades of research suggest that workplace diversity increases innovation, improves financial performance, and disrupts entrenched ways of thinking, but only when supported by an inclusive and accepting culture. Google’s Project Aristotle, which analyzed data from 180 internal teams and research across organizational psychology and team effectiveness, determined that psychological safety—a culture of trust and acceptance—was the most important differentiating factor that set high-performing teams apart.

Clearly, an environment where people feel safe to be themselves, speak up, and take risks is beneficial for both people and their organizations. Encouraging people to “bring their whole selves” is a foundational move towards more diverse and equitable workplaces. But as recent events continue to highlight our society’s intense polarization, challenges arise for organizations who’ve encouraged the authentic “showing up” of their varied employees. What happens when people’s “whole selves” conflict with the company’s values? 

Current events and corporate culture 

Nearly every organization overhauled their operational strategies at some point during this past year, which in turn impacted their culture. Quarantine orders and COVID safety measures changed when, how, and where we work while economic uncertainties, long-term health concerns, and the obliteration of reliable childcare served as a great equalizer in some ways while highlighting and heightening inequity in others. We’re being thrust into each other’s homes and lives in ways never seen before—and at the same time, economic, social, and political upheaval propelled organizations into the driver’s seat of social change. Considering these unprecedented realities, companies who carefully construct an intentional, meaningful culture of inclusion will have a significant advantage as employers and producers. 

Recent events and growing divides bring new challenges to organizational inclusiveness. Citing the paradox of tolerance, a society—or organization—cannot allow intolerance to overrun the tolerant majority. It’s a delicate balance, to be sure. There is no one-size-fits-all plan. However, there are some universal guidelines to consider as your organization navigates this landscape and overarching best practices you can apply to strengthen ties between your people despite intense, long-standing polarization

TL;DR: The goal is to develop positive, inclusive cultures that invite people to bring their whole selves to work. To be successful, organizations should establish clear, publicized core values and focus on hiring and retaining people whose principles and values, such as those based on mutual trust and respect, align with their own. 

Here’s how.

Culture assessment

One of the first steps an organization can take is to determine a starting point. What does the company culture look like today? Is the company culture one that can support and promote employees bringing their whole selves to work? Has HR dealt with recent discrimination or workforce bullying cases? A culture assessment can help leaders take actionable steps to encourage employees bringing their whole selves to work. There are many ways to assess organizational culture, but some of the most effective include pulse surveys, engagement surveys, feedback surveys, and suggestion boxes. Understanding what employees want and need is key to creating an environment where they feel safe and productive sharing, yet clearly understand the boundaries—especially when emotions are heightened. Obviously, if there have been cases of blatant discrimination, pay disparity, or escalations between employees based on politics, race, or personal beliefs, these will need to be transparently addressed with employees to establish a clear position of no-tolerance. 

Once you have assessed your culture, your next step will be to create a change management strategy. 

Navigating and accepting change 

Have you ever spent a significant amount of time building something, implementing a new process, or developing a new strategy and it completely fails? Too often, we get into the tactical side of developing before fully envisioning the impact – something we especially want to avoid when it comes to emotionally-charged subjects. Before you find yourself buried in the project, here are a couple of ways to best navigate any new change. 

Ask yourself, “Is our organization ready for change?” 

Your culture survey can help identify several key indicators and sentiments that show whether it’s a good time to invoke minor or major changes (as well as how necessary changes might be). Familiarize yourself with the Kubler-Ross Change Curve (more commonly known as the five stages of grief) and identify where your organization lies on the curve. This will help you begin to understand the impact of emotional change and help shift the mindset of those leading the change and those taking the steps to accept change. It is at this point you proceed with guidelines and awareness on how change is going to proceed. 

Once you have established guidelines and awareness around the changes needed to “bring your whole self to work”, your next step will be to create a culture based on thoughtfully defined core values. 

Establishing core values and culture 

Many business leaders focus on the mission statement: what they do, the products or services they provide, the industries they serve. This “what” is critical to business success—but so is the “why.” What are the founding principles, the greater purpose? What do you stand for? What’s most important? These core values are own unique to every organization, and they exist whether they’re defined and publicly shared or not. The key to enabling people to bring their whole selves to work is to ensure the existing culture is in line with the stated values, and then to protect that culture by hiring and retaining people who share those same core values. 

But how? 

Corporate culture is a continually evolving entity that’s dependent upon all employees, both tenured and new. Coaching and mentoring relationships among tenured employees and new hires can serve as a gateway for new workers to learn about the culture of an organization, and as a driver of continuous support and growth among new generations of workers. Coaching and mentoring relationships cultivated during the onboarding process provide an opportunity for new workers to be assimilated into the culture deliberately and help them feel more comfortable bringing their whole selves to work while understanding overarching expectations.

In the same vein, the manager-employee relationship is critical. A Gallup study found that employees who feel as if their managers are invested in them and care about their personal lives are likely to be much more engaged than those who don’t. The phenomenon of cascading experience teaches us that interactions that start at the top trickle their way down, so emphasizing meaningful, trust-based relationships should be a priority for managers at every level of the organization. 

Both of these examples tie back to leadership development. In his book, “What’s Your And,” John Garrett describes how some organizations consider sharing “outside-of-work passions” as unprofessional. This traditional cultural paradigm makes it incredibly difficult for employees to deeply connect with their colleagues and makes work-life synergy nearly impossible. Teach your leaders about the benefits of bringing the whole self to work, whether through one-on-one conversations or by taking advantage of the many formal trainings currently available. 

Finally, seek opportunities to showcase employees’ authentic and unique selves, such as through team building opportunities, talent shows, or even encouraging aspects of personal branding in corporate “profiles” such as email signatures and bios. 

Recognizing diversity and inclusion 

Recognizing diversity is typically one of the foundational pieces that organizations prioritize so their employees can feel they can bring their true and authentic selves to the workplace. However, diversity is just one aspect of making an employee feel that they are unique and that they belong. Employees need to feel that they are valued and included, that they are recognized, respected and understood in an organization. Managers and leaders can seek to understand their employees by gaining a deeper understanding of the various personal aspects that make up individuals on their teams. Employees feel more recognized and valued when they know that their supervisors have invested time to learn about other aspects of their unique experiences.

One way leadership can do this is by moving beyond talking about diversity as a strategy, and more about making a conscious effort of creating a workplace inclusiveness strategy that empowers different people to come together. Publicly sharing these DEI&B efforts and impacts also clearly communicates to employees that discriminatory behaviors will simply not be tolerated. 

Addressing people, behaviors, and events that conflict with core values 

In the unfortunate instance that an inciting event occurs in your organization, leaders should consider several factors when determining their response. 

  1. Was the employees’ action legal? Would it hold up in a court of law? 
  2. Does it violate stated company policies? NOTE: This assumes company policies meet or exceed legal standards.
  3. Was it ethical within societal norms?
  4. Does it align with your company values and culture? Again, this assumes you’re meeting or exceeding legal standards. This is where some nuance and intention can guide the evolution of your culture.

Bringing it all together: Leading transparently

Coming to work as one’s whole self humanizes the workplace. The more points of connection individuals can offer to others, the easier it becomes to find common ground and strengthen relationships. According to Deloitte, feeling connected with colleagues is a key attribute to creating a sense of belonging at work. Fostering strong and respectful relationships among people from diverse backgrounds or opinions, but who share the same underlying values, is also one of the best ways to establish a culture acceptance and cohesion—not just at work, but for society at large. 

Ideally, we want to avoid discouraging employees. Anyone, regardless of their title or status on the organizational hierarchy, can model positive behavior and discourage punitive or belittling feedback. The aim is to offer employees an avenue to bring their whole selves to work in a fun, productive way that aligns with business expectations and company principles.

Consider the term eudaimonia—the optimal state of human existence—which entails bringing all of who you are to all of what you do. While that’s a rather lofty goal, business leaders can aspire to create that potential for their people. Creating an employee-centric work environment that accepts, values, and prioritizes its people is a powerful business strategy.

It’s also simply the right thing to do, especially in these challenging and complicated times. 


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