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Authenticity: how do we keep it real?

Authenticity is a hot topic in boardrooms across the world (and it's not just for the big players either) but how does this play out in reality and what do we really mean by being authentic in the workplace? Importantly, as an HR leader, what is our role in creating an authentic culture and how much of a role model do we need to project?

Authenticity at base level means being real, showing our true selves - whether that's at corporate level or as individuals. I'd say that an organisation can't consider presenting an 'authentic brand' until it starts with the people within it. The best marketing in the world can only present a brand veneer unless the troops on the ground are also committed and dedicated card-carrying, flag-waving supporters. Once authenticity is deeply embedded, a solid, true corporate brand can emerge.

If you read our blog on well-being at work (last month), you'll note a common theme. We can have good ideas, the best intentions and plans to execute them - but it must start with the people you employ. Imagine turning up to work one day as CEO and announcing that the business is now going to practise authenticity. "Go on, be yourselves!" It just wouldn't work. We need to lead by example and create a culture where people are comfortable enough to be themselves.

A friend's daughter recently attended a second interview for a graduate position in a progressive firm of accountants. It was a very hot day and the choice to not wear tights would reveal a small ankle tattoo. "I can't go to an interview with a tattoo on show" she wailed. "Did you notice anyone there with a tattoo at your first interview" was the reply. "Yes, the partner who interviewed me had a small one on her wrist" came the response. "Well, there you go then, no judgements will be made". She got the job. The point is that there was precedent for the interviewee to be herself, not to hide anything.

Molson Coors have just announced its fantastic 'life leave' - 2 additional paid weeks of time off work for life's necessities. They cite preparing for a wedding, settling in a puppy, getting ready for exams - anything that you might just need a little extra time off for. This smacks to me of a business that takes care of its staff but also a business who might want to minimise the random 'sick' days with something more honest. I remember this being a thing many years ago when the US popularised 'duvet days' in the late 80s - stay home if you can't face work but you can only do it 3 times a year. It was ground-breaking back then!

So why is authenticity vital to any organisation? How does it benefit us and how is it implemented? Interestingly, Julie Choi of Forbes suggests we ask better questions to really understand potential candidates - finding out what makes them passionate and enthusiastic and seeing how that might relate to the position they're applying for.

"There is intense pressure to conform... to believe that the holistic individual you are “outside of the office” doesn’t translate or matter to who you are while at work. This kind of interaction creates a transactional mindset in which the employee is “just doing their job,” rather than being a dynamic individual with nuance and complexity who could be authentically engaged. And it is this transactional dynamic that then limits performance." Julie Choi, Forbes 2019

She goes on to say that by separating our 'work selves' from our 'real selves' we are creating limitations. By knowing ourselves and bringing our best selves to work, working within a culture that celebrates the best of who we are, we can begin to create an authentic brand. Authenticity boils down to 'being yourself' and celebrating everything that goes with it! By not confining people to behaving in a certain, expected way we can tease out the best in them.

Signs that you're not being true to yourself manifest when you no longer feel able to stand up for yourself or you're uncomfortable with an aspect of your role and are unable to say anything about it. Such constraints can only lead to unhappiness and introversion. Not working at your own pace, portraying a different, more 'expected' character (exhausting!) and not enjoying your work day are all signs that you aren't being authentic. This kind of negativity, company-wide, is destructive and harmful.

Mark Swartz of Monster says: Go ahead, show off that new tattoo. Or display the picture of your same-sex partner on your desk. Stop faking that you’re outgoing. Request accommodation for your hidden disability. 

As HR leaders, we need to encourage authenticity throughout the organisation - for everyone to lead by example, whatever their role. Changing the culture of a business can be like changing the direction of an ocean liner, depending on how much of an about-turn this will be. A good place to start is to task someone to be in charge of this project until it is part of the landscape. Getting buy-in from all stakeholders is vital so you need to be able to articulate why this is important. It might be a consideration to plant 'authenticity ambassadors' at every opportunity, from board level to new recruits.

Ultimately having the kind of environment that embraces and encourages the best traits in its staff will promote a happier, highly productive workplace with less churn and more positivity.

We'll address how to manage change at work in a future article. Contact us if you'd like to explore this in your own unique workplace - we love the challenge of improving well-being (and your bottom line) through authenticity and it's something we have a lot of experience of. And it's not just for the Times 100, it's for us all.

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