On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
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Should employees really bring their whole selves to work?

by Imani Doyle (she/her), Michelle Kedem (she/her), Saad Qureshi (he/they), and Talei Tarakinikini (she/her)

Over the past few years, the lines between the personal and the professional aspects of our lives have become increasingly blurred, and the idea of “bringing your whole self to work” has gained popularity. But, while employers striving to build a more inclusive culture is progress, encouraging or expecting employees  to bring every part of themselves to work may not be the best approach. 

A lack of separation between the personal and professional not only creates the potential for intra-office conflict, but it can also be emotionally draining and make sharing personal details feel compulsory for employees. So how do you create a workplace culture where openness is balanced with appropriate boundaries? Here are seven tips.  

1. Give employees boundary-setting autonomy

Supporting employees as whole people—not just as workers—means empowering employees to choose what parts of themselves they bring to work and what parts they keep private. Just as important is supporting them in navigating where those boundaries lie. As an employee becomes more comfortable at the organization, forms relationships, and experiences life events, they may choose to share more or less about themselves. Similarly, they may want to share more with some people than others. Best practices here for employers include checking in with your team about how they’re feeling in the workplace, making appropriate adjustments, and mediating any conflicts that may arise from a shift in boundaries. 

2. Be transparent about nonnegotiables.

It’s also important to recognize that there are some external, hard boundaries around professionalism and what parts of yourself you are able to bring to work. Whether your organization depends on clients for revenue or serves a particular community with established norms, there will likely be situations in which employees need to put aside some of their personal interests or adhere to certain standards of workplace conduct in order to be successful, such as following certain clothing norms, avoiding coarse language, or even working with clients they may not personally agree with.

As an employer, it is crucial that you’re realistic about the professional norms that do exist within your organization, and between it and external parties. Whenever possible, give employees the autonomy to set their own boundaries; when that’s not possible be upfront and explicit about what is expected in the workplace. 

3. Approach with empathy.

The workplace does not exist in a bubble. For many of us, it’s nearly impossible to compartmentalize the stress of recent Supreme Court rulings, the ongoing pandemic, and other upsetting current events from our work—especially when working at justice-oriented or mission-driven organizations that are often directly impacted by these events. 

Recognizing that these outside events will inevitably impact how employees show up at work and will sometimes manifest as behavior that has historically been considered “unprofessional,” such as becoming emotional during a meeting, is essential to creating an inclusive workplace. 

Of course, each employee’s reaction to an event will be different: some employees may want a space to process at work, while others won’t want to discuss it at all; some employees may be personally impacted by an event based on their identities, while to others, the impact of an event may be abstract. In addition, it is important to balance creating a supportive environment where employees have space to process and ensuring that you’re still able to complete necessary work. In some situations, it may be appropriate to acknowledge events at the beginning of a staff meeting or have a general check in without mentioning anything specific. Finding the balance may involve some trial and error, and will be different depending on the unique individuals that make up the team. 

But, even without explicitly bringing up current events, they will likely affect your team. Some employees may have a hard time focusing and need a little extra time on projects, while others may become emotional during meetings. An employer’s role here is to ensure employees know they will not be penalized for advocating for their needs or having an emotional response, and to approach them with empathy and understanding. 

4. Make reasonable accommodations. 

It’s nearly impossible to completely separate personal challenges from professional life. For example, an employee dealing with medical issues may need to be in and out of the office for doctors appointments, or an employee with young kids may have their Zoom meeting interrupted by a rambunctious toddler. 

Creating an inclusive workplace in these situations means normalizing the need to ask for and receive reasonable accommodations—even when those accomodations involve sharing more about their personal life than is typical in a workplace. For instance, the employee facing medical challenges may find it easier to tell coworkers that they’ll be in and out of the office due to health issues rather than thinking up an excuse each time they leave. Similarly, meeting toddler appearances on Zoom calls with patience and understanding sends the message that it’s ok to have this part of their personal life show up in their professional life. 

Employers can also proactively make policies that benefit everyone, instead of waiting for employees to ask for specific accommodations. For example, the organization can make it clear that sick days aren’t just for physical health issues, but for mental health needs as well. And, they can normalize allowing an employee to log off a bit early if an issue outside of work is impacting them emotionally.

In summary, don’t push employees to share more than they want to, but do make reasonable accommodations rooted in the understanding that employees are people with lives that will inevitably impact their needs in the workplace—whether they want them to or not. 

5. Set boundaries around time and space.

Employees used to leave their desks, computers, and coworkers behind in the office at the end of the work day. In recent years, however, many employees have begun to essentially carry their computers in their pockets. They’ll continue to receive Slack and email notifications after business hours or while on vacation. And, for employees working from home, their “office” and “home” are now literally the same thing. 

To create a work environment where employees feel supported, there needs to be clear boundaries between work and time off. To a large extent, employees need to set their own boundaries; as an employer, you can’t force them to disconnect at the end of the work day or while on PTO. But, you can empower workers to set such boundaries by setting clear expectations for when employees need to be accessible to their coworkers, and by modeling those behaviors yourself.  

6. Make room for diverse identities. 

An essential part of creating an empowering and open work environment is making room for employees of diverse identities. But, it’s important for employers to be intentional and thoughtful about the logistics and goals of the initiatives and policies they create to support employees who hold historically oppressed or underrepresented identities. 

For example, affinity groups can be a powerful way to make room for employee’s identities and create community at work. However, if they are not created strategically, they may end up exacerbating employees’ discomfort in the workplace. It’s important to remember that employees should never be forced to talk about their personal lives or identities at work. While you may offer employees the option to join an affinity group, participation should be optional; some employees may not feel comfortable being vulnerable in the workplace. 

Another common pitfall when creating affinity groups is forcing employees to pick between their identities by holding all of the groups at the same time. It may seem logistically easier to carve out a specific time for all affinity groups to meet, but the unintended consequence is that it erases the complexity of your employees and ultimately deprives them of one of the communities they need to thrive at work. Affinity groups, or any other DEI initiative, should be conceived and actualized with input from the people it's for—your employees. 

7. Have your team’s back. 

No matter how robust and well thought out your organization’s internal culture is around DEI, you can’t control how external parties act and react. But you can back your team by speaking up if an incident of bias occurs. By modeling this behavior, it sets the expectation that when a client, partner, or any other external party says something prejudiced—whether intentional or not—everyone is responsible for speaking up, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. When you speak up every single time, that builds trust within the team and makes them feel safe to be themselves in the workplace. 

The takeaway

It takes hard work, intentionality, and a willingness to adjust your expectations to create a workplace where every employee feels safe, included, and free to be themselves. At the end of the day, it’s about allowing each employee to decide what they do and do not want to share in the workplace, respecting that boundary when it’s set, and reacting with empathy when an employee’s personal life does spill into the workplace.