Authenticity is a huge value for small businesses and their customers today. Customers prize authenticity, and the trait can be a key selling point helping a small business stand out from bigger competitors. But are you unwittingly building an inauthentic business by encouraging your employees to “fake it”?
Despite company policies that overtly promote inclusion and nondiscrimination, 75 percent of employees report “covering” their true selves at work, a recent study by Deloitte University reports. Uncovering Talent: A New Model for Inclusion defines “covering” as downplaying one’s differences from the mainstream in ways that negatively affect productivity and self-esteem.
While covering was most prevalent among underrepresented groups such as African-Americans (94 percent), LGBT employees (91 percent) and women (80 percent), 50 percent of straight white men report they, too, are less than authentic at work. People with health issues, young employees or seniors may also cover. In short, just about everyone is doing it.
Covering includes changing one’s appearance to avoid being associated with one’s group, avoiding associating with other members of one’s group, and avoiding behavior associated with that group. (For example, a disabled employee might try to avoid using her cane, or a mother might avoid mentioning her children or day-care arrangements.)
Start Being Real
Why do employees cover? Whether it’s overtly stated or not, respondents feel that leadership (61 percent) as well as company culture (59 percent) encourages covering.
When people aren’t authentic, it hurts not only their self-images, but also the business. Some 50 percent of respondents say covering makes them feel less loyal to their employers.
We often assume small businesses are naturally more open and authentic than big corporations. But in reality, their smaller size can make small businesses a hothouse environment where the tendency is to hire those who look, act and think alike, and where those who don’t fit in get snubbed. To get your employees to “start being real,” start by being honest with yourself:
Are your stated policies just lip service? You may pride yourself on nondiscriminatory policies, but are your hiring, promotion and firing policies truly inclusive? How diverse is your workforce—not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but age, gender, marital status or sexual orientation?
Do you truly embrace diversity? Even if your team is diverse, do you truly embrace that diversity, or are you unwittingly crushing it? Consider the norms you promote in your business and whether they truly have a business reason behind them, or are just what you feel comfortable with.
What unspoken attitudes are you and your employees expressing? Offhand remarks, jokes or casual statements that you may not think twice about can cause lasting wounds to someone who already feels like they don’t fit the company culture. Spend some time listening to what’s being said (and not said) in your workplace and see what needs to change.
Consider whether you’re covering. As the boss, yes, you need to project confidence and that means faking it from time to time. But if you feel like you’re often hiding your real self to put a false front forward to prospects, employees or clients, maybe it’s time to reassess what that’s costing you and whether the gains are worthwhile. Being more authentic yourself can free your employees to do so as well.
Reassess how well your business expresses your authentic self. Has your original vision for your business faded as it's grown? Look into your heart to see if your business is aligned with what you consider most important in life. Your business is your life’s work—is it worth it?
Share your vision with your team. Make sure your employees understand where you’re coming from and what your mission for the business is. Only then can they truly get on board.
Going forward, hire for a different kind of fit—not whether a person “fits in” with your team, but whether their authentic self is a fit with your business’s mission and vision. Look beyond the superficial, and into the candidate’s passions. If an employee truly cares about accomplishing your business’s goals, it shouldn’t matter whether he or she is a he or she, uses a wheelchair or leaves half an hour early to pick up the kids from day care.
Read more articles on company culture.
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