“A lot of us women lawyers, we looked the same, like robots on an assembly line,” says Bonnie Flatt, a human resources coach/consultant who used to work as a practicing attorney.
Zappos, a company that prides itself on putting culture first, acknowledges “weirdness” as one of its core values.
The difference between a work environment that expects attorneys to conform to a certain appearance and a company that intentionally celebrates uniqueness is distinct and illustrates how authenticity is viewed by different companies and organizations.
For all types of organizations, culture and engagement is the number one trend, says Flatt, founder of Bonnie Flatt and Associates in Toronto. “Authenticity is a piece of culture, and it allows people to bring their best selves to work,” she says. And if people are not allowed to truly be themselves at work, the consequences can be dire for productivity and profitability.
Research conducted by Gallup in 2014 shows that not only is 18 percent of the American workforce not engaged at work, but 26 percent of employees are actively disengaged. Flatt believes much of this disengagement stems from “employees not feeling that they are allowed to be people at work.”
“This has a huge impact on the bottom line,” she says. “But many CEOs and boards are not doing anything about it.”
In order to solve this pervasive problem of disengagement, Flatt believes it is imperative that people feel that the values and goals of their workplace align with their own—in many cases, what is needed is more dialogue and transparency.
For Tony Deblauwe, a human resources consultant in Santa Clara, California and Northern California Human Resources Association board member, workplace authenticity and transparency are interrelated. For example, when people fear asking questions at work, this automatically reduces transparency of management and the sense that one (regardless of rank in company) can authentically be herself.
“How a leader chooses to answer questions leads to authenticity, or the lack thereof,” says Deblauwe, who has extensive human resources experience in the high-tech industry at both startups and large corporations. “How they choose to respond can set all wheels in motion.”
When transparency and authenticity are absent from company leadership, Deblauwe says this leads to water cooler gossip, because people aren’t sure where they stand. Thus, engagement and productivity dwindle. He believes executives and management need to be aligned in authenticity and transparency, and that human resources needs to act as stewards of the established culture. “Human resources can help reinforce a culture of authenticity, transparency, and trust,” he says. “But if executives don’t value transparency, it doesn’t matter what human resources does.”
It’s also important, says Deblauwe, for companies to “give people latitude for their humanity.”
“Don’t shackle them and don’t get in their way,” he says. “Everyone expects that.”
At Zappos, which started as an online shoe seller, the term “work-life integration” is not even used. “We don’t like to use that term, because it’s all life,” says Erica Javellana, a human resources liaison at Zappos.
In 2005, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh started a business strategy that centers in company culture. But culture was not merely a strategy—it was, and still is, everything. “We put culture first, and have faith that the rest will follow,” Javellana says. Zappos consistently earns annual revenue in excess of $1 billion.
“When we foster an environment that allows people to be their whole selves, people want to come to work,” says Javellana, who acknowledges that as Zappos has gotten larger, it has been more challenging to maintain a consistent culture of authenticity, fun, and “weirdness.”
“That keeps us on our toes and we’re OK with that,” she says.
Deblauwe knows it can be more difficult for larger companies to maintain a culture of transparency and authenticity. The key, he says, is to avoid hierarchical structures. “In bigger companies, authenticity can get tested,” he says.
Flatt says that as companies grow, the role of human resources as protectors of company culture becomes incredibly important. “HR owns the culture,” she says. “HR creates learning opportunities for the culture to come alive.
In The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business, a book authored by former British Petroleum CEO John Browne, Peter Sands, CEO of Standard Chartered, writes: “In a world where business success is all about unleashing people’s creative energy and imagination, it makes no sense to cripple such talent. The evidence points in one direction: people are more satisfied and more productive if they can bring their whole selves to work.”
Flatt echoes this as she remembers when she used to feel like a “clone” executive and attorney. “Formerly people did not know me as a human being. Now I can engage my human spirit and bring joy and love to work.”