How to turn the 'bring your whole self to work' myth into workplace reality

"Bring your whole self to work" is a phrase seen from companies everywhere. But, more often than not, it has a hollow ring to it and the promise of a place of psychological safety is rarely realised. You can bring your whole self to work – just not, you know, that bit.

Imagine turning up at your new employer's team event to find you're the only one in formal attire – everyone else is in jeans and trainers.

When you check the email later, you see it does indeed state formal – but your colleagues already knew to ignore it. The "in crowd" knew the hidden rules of the game.

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Something similar happens every time a person from a historically marginalised group joins a company that boldly claims: "We allow you to bring your whole self to work."

The reality is often very different. You can bring your whole self to work but you can't be so obvious about your gender situation or so outspoken in meetings – or be quite so African American.

Falling back on such superficially admirable, emotionally easy slogans and actions sidesteps the difficult work that needs to be done to create real change.

It's the same reflex that led to companies posting a black square on social media in the summer of 2020 in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

The problem is that such gestures usually fail to address the underlying problems. They are no substitute for a true strategic plan, accountability and purposeful measurement when it comes to creating cultural change.

If an organisation has hardly any women at senior level, for example, statements about how it can do better are no substitute for actually doing it better by tackling unconscious bias, sexism and gender bias in its departments, systems and processes.

Similarly, having a float at the local Pride event is pointless unless a company tackles the homophobia and transphobia that its LGBT+ employees are encountering every day.

A true strategic plan is a particularly important element when it comes to cultural change. Many organisations convince themselves that they have a strategic plan – when, in reality, they do not.

They probably have a strategy and even goals. But, in most cases, they do not have a month-by-month detailed plan of how to achieve those goals.

If you are planning to tackle gender bias in recruitment, for example, you need to set out when you are going to start examining your recruitment process, how you are going to redesign it and how you will relaunch the new process.

You also need to be clear about how you will measure the effectiveness of the changes – and how you will hold people accountable to the new process.

HR should take the lead on publishing a two-year plan, with business leaders at all levels developing their own month-by-month plans to support the changes and set out how they will be held accountable for embedding them – usually as part of the performance management process.

With a true strategic plan, accountability and purposeful measurement, even diversity's greatest myth of "bring your whole self to work" can be turned into reality.

Angela Peacock is global director of diversity and inclusion at training consultancy PDT Global, part of Affirmity