Why we need to let people be themselves in the workplace

Chloe Hava


written on November 13, 2017

Want to create a loyal and productive workforce? Allow your employees to be comfortable in their own skin.

As we wait to hear which side was victorious in the same sex marriage postal vote this Wednesday, it was announced that conservatives are in the midst of preparing their own rival bill. Released on Monday, the bill will override anti-discrimination legislation to protect the personal beliefs of wedding vendors such as cake makers, who might refuse to bake for same sex couples.

As the temperature around the same-sex marriage debate reaches boiling point, out comes a survey that says Australian employees don’t feel like revealing too much about themselves in the workplace. The new research from LinkedIn shows that more than half of the workers surveyed feel like they need to suppress aspects of their personal life at the office. Among the findings are that one in five don’t feel comfortable being open about their sexuality for fear it will affect their career progression. The reasons people hold back is fear of being judged, with 35 per cent saying they were worried how others would perceive them, while another 57 per cent they would rather avoid conflict and keep shtum.

But research also shows that even straight white men get the identity blues. A 2015 Deloitte study showed that 45 per cent of this demographic felt they too had to hide certain things, such as their religious or political beliefs.

What identity suppression can do to productivity

The problem with all this self-editing is that on a personal level, it’s tiring to pretend to be something you’re not. And, from a business point of view, there is plenty of evidence to show that it has a negative effect on productivity. Half of the LinkedIn respondents said that being themselves at work increased their job satisfaction and nearly 40 per cent thought it had a good impact on their personal health.

“Workplaces are undergoing massive shifts in the way they work. With the influx of millennials joining the workforce, they are looking for organisations that align with their values and allows them to contribute while maintaining their identity,” says Matt Tindale, country manager for LinkedIn in Australia & New Zealand.

“When we bring our whole self to work, we unlock a more positive work experience and are more productive. Although diversity and inclusion have steadily become a priority for most businesses, our research shows that two in five professionals believe their organisations could be doing more when it comes to encouraging them to be themselves at work.”

In another study from 2016, insurance company Lloyd’s showed that when LGBTI staff are “out”, productivity increases by 15 to 30 per cent. Retention rates also increase by 10 per cent.

An organisation’s culture impacts how comfortable employees feel about being themselves, and this attitude is often felt from the top down. The Deloitte study showed that over half of respondents thought their company management expected them to hide their identity.

How you can help to transform culture?

It’s up to leadership to demonstrate what inclusion looks like in the workplace, and it should be something that is reflected in the core organisational values. Having a diverse leadership team that speaks openly about themselves can help people feel more comfortable in the workplace. For example, openly gay Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has spoken of the impact his disclosure has had on employees. “They felt there was hope, that you could have a career, you could have a life, and that was, to me, inspirational.”

But, at the end of the day, it’s middle management that’s in the trenches, and they are the ones who will roll out inclusive strategies. It’s important that they are aware of the organisation’s goals for inclusion and the consequences of not living up to expectations.

Some ways to help management be more inclusive are:

  • Educate leaders on the importance of inclusion, and how it can improve productivity, engagement and retention.
  • Involve all levels of management in the strategic practice by brainstorming ideas about inclusion.
  • Set goals that managers need to work towards around diversity and inclusion.

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