DE&I

How HR can encourage employees of color to bring their full selves to work

Employee authenticity is possible in an environment where leaders are educated about non-white experiences.
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Sorry to Bother You/Universal Pictures via Giphy

· 3 min read

Imagine wearing a mask every day at work. Uncomfortable, right?

Studies suggest that many people of color mask their true selves at work. It’s a reality seen in the 2018 dark comedy Sorry to Bother You, when Cassius “Cash” Green, a Black telemarketer, uses a “white voice” at work to help him close sales faster. It also gets him promoted.

But this form of code-switching, which includes changing mannerisms, tone of voice, and/or vernacular, according to coaching platform BetterUp, can negatively affect an employee’s worklife and, by extension, their company, said Deborah Grayson Riegel, a communication and leadership expert who’s taught at Columbia and Wharton Business Schools.

“When people feel like they can bring their true selves to work, they’re more productive, more engaged, and stay at their jobs longer,” Grayson Riegel told HR Brew. “[These] are tremendous benefits for the organization, and for the individual.”

Workplace experts share how HR can encourage employee authenticity.

Check yourself. HR pros don’t know what they don’t know, said Janice Gassam Asare, workplace equity consultant and founder of consulting firm BWG Business Solutions, and should educate themselves about non-white experiences.

“Sometimes leaders have a lack of understanding regarding the vernacular, tone, and language used by non-white employees, particularly when it comes to Black employees and Black women employees,” Gassam Asare told HR Brew. Her suggestion: “Watch a show that centers the Black woman experience…there’s a lot of things you can learn [and] a lot of nuances that you may not be aware of that you can learn through shows, media, books.”

And this applies to more than language: It’s the food someone brings for lunch or the way they style their hair. “Create an environment where people aren’t hyper-scrutinized” for how they show up at work, she said.

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Set the tone. Don’t assume everyone has the same lived experience, Gassam Asare said, especially during the holiday season. It can be easy to assume everyone celebrates or honors a certain day in the same way, but HR leaders should approach conversations with curiosity, letting employees know they care about their lives, but without being overbearing or nosy, she added.

Grayson Riegel suggested creating a mechanism that employees can use to give HR pros feedback on the language being used, among other things. This, she said, can help create “a culture where people feel safe giving you feedback.”

The name’s objectivity. When white people promote other white people, or people with similar background/mannerisms to them, Grayson Riegel said this is usually due to a similarity bias. But managers need to avoid giving special treatment to employees just because they’re similar.

They also need to avoid allowing their biases to affect how they judge performance, Gassam Asare said, and should help promote objectivity. A multiple feedback system, for example, which includes manager feedback, customer or peer reviews, and a self-evaluation, can help avoid promotions based on a manager’s “feelings about the person.”

“I would peel back the layers and say, ‘Why is that? What are the opportunities based on? Is it based on one leader saying you’re deserving of a promotion?’” Gassam Asare said. “If that’s the system, that opens the door for a lot of bias.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.