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Bring your whole self to work. But what if I don't want to?

Is bringing your whole self to work really having an impact on diversity, inclusion and welbeing? Employees should feel they have the choice to include themselves or not without pressure, argues Martin Kirke

Bring your whole self to work

Diversity and Inclusion seem to have become superglued together as if one can’t exist without the other. I’m not sure that’s a helpful or healthy way to look at it. To me diversity is about celebrating difference and recognising the evidence that organisations perform better with more diverse teams. Equally it is about supporting and promoting those with protected characteristics who are still so often discriminated against. Surely inclusion is about the basic human need to belong to a group and to not be excluded. We survived and evolved as a species partly because we formed groups to hunt, build shelter and later to farm. We do often want to join groups, teams, gangs and organisations with which we identify. But the need to be included varies enormously between individuals and some psychometric tests measure this. This is not about those who are happy in their own company versus those who want to party. At work we have to include ourselves fully in the team to get the work done but how far should employees engage once the work is done?

Today there is a mantra ‘Bring your whole self to work’ with which I have a few problems. Firstly in terms of diversity it is tokenism. I was at a meeting with a major bank in the City and saw that this slogan was painted on a wall with signatures of employees beneath it to show their support. I reckon that those who agreed with the sentiment probably rushed to sign. Those who didn’t really understand what it meant then followed, because they thought it was the right thing to do. A few who might have real prejudice probably signed in much the same way as they sit through mandatory unconscious bias training events and come out with the same bias and assumptions. So after most have signed it what behaviours have changed? What difference has it made to the organisation culture? How do we even know what the employees who signed thought it meant? I don’t suppose the bank would have been too keen on employees turning up drunk but that may well be how some like to spend Saturday nights which is part of their “'whole self’.

Not everyone wants to bring their whole self to work. Privacy is extremely important to some and the pressure from social media already tests the boundaries some choose to make between work and their social life. In coaching and mentoring young people at the start of their careers I have been asked how they should respond to friend requests on Facebook from their boss. Does refusing the request mean you are not bringing your whole self to work or don’t want to join in ?

A few who might have real prejudice probably signed in much the same way as they sit through mandatory unconscious bias training events and come out with the same bias and assumptions

We all know that some organisations and teams have a culture of socialising after work, often with alcohol. Even where this is less frequent there are the leaving dos, birthdays and welcome drinks. Leaders need to use their emotional intelligence to encourage people who don’t want to be included to opt out. It sounds simple but so often there is pressure to conform or a fear of not being seen as a team player. Nobody wants to be excluded but everyone has the right to choose not to include themselves.

Fortunately the mad craze where we had to go on team-building events, climbing mountains, abseiling and playing bizarre games in freezing muddy fields has long gone. Yet there is a worrying trend of distorting the positive wellbeing initiatives towards physical fitness. At HR exhibitions there are increasing numbers of stands from sports science companies or tech companies selling services to measure and monitor employee fitness. For example, you can buy a system to collect the data from wearable devices and monitor the fitness of employees. Competition between individuals and teams is encouraged with HR having access to the data to produce league tables of one team’s fitness versus another.

This may be an extreme example but I believe employees should feel they have the choice to include themselves or not without pressure. Going to the gym may be healthier than going out drinking but the principle is the same. There is also a risk that stereotyping in selection will increase and when you look at the promotional material for some of these suppliers, plastered with photos of male and female models in gyms, it doesn’t look exactly inclusive.

Benefits policies can have a positive impact on creating an inclusive culture. There is a trend towards benefits which provide expert help and support if you or a loved one gets a serious illness. Not medical cover, but rather the practical support needed at a time of receiving terrible news on a diagnosis. For example, help to navigate the NHS, find the best specialists, get carers and help to cope. For the price of a cup of coffee per employee per week these benefits give assurance to everyone. A cancer diagnosis can happen to anyone at any age, however fit, and most of us will have to care for someone at some point in our careers.

Employees must feel comfortable to opt in or opt out and this should be part of the culture we develop to promote employee engagement. So let’s think more about the I in inclusion – the individual freedoms to include or not include ourselves without judgements being made. Let’s also remember that for some divisions between work and the rest of our lives are important. Pressure to remove those divisions can be stressful and are simply not compatible with promoting wellbeing.

Published 5 February 2020

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