Bring All of Your Identities to Work

by Carrie Kerpen

Quick Takes

  • Set the tone for your team
  • Share parts of yourself other than your work self
  • Don’t be afraid to share failures
  • Consider policies or events that build a culture of openness

For years, working parents have discussed and debated bringing our “whole self” to work, or meshing our professional identity with our personal one. Should we try to hide our pregnancies until the third trimester? Should we talk about our children at work? Should we ask for accommodations when we need to go to a parent-teacher conference or soccer game?

A Deloitte study found that 61% of employees “cover” their identities in some way and downplay parts of themselves (such as their identity as a parent) due to fear that they’ll be discriminated against or seen as not taking their work seriously enough.1 And unfortunately, there are studies that support these concerns. One study from Cornell University shows that mothers (but not fathers) are often discriminated against in workplace evaluations.2 And of course, the perception that mothers are less devoted to their jobs than childless employees is so rampant, it has a name: the “motherhood penalty,” or the “maternal wall.”

Well, no matter how much we’ve tried to hide the “other side” of ourselves from our colleagues, Covid-19 has essentially given us no shelter. Aside from essential workers fighting the pandemic on the front lines, many of us are working at home—from weather forecasters and news anchors, to the cast of SNL, to the CEOs of the world’s largest companies. Did you ever think you’d get to see a corner of Stephen Colbert’s home office? I certainly didn’t.

This new normal of working from our homes has merged so much more than just our “parent” and “employee” identities, though, because all of us are far more nuanced than that. I’m not just “Work Carrie” and “Home Carrie.” I’m a CEO, a mentor, a wife, a mother, and a daughter, too (and most recently, a teacher, chef, and birthday party planner). We’ve been forced to reveal all of our layers, and as scary as that seemed for so long, it’s actually been, in my opinion, a major turning point.

Here are some tips for unveiling more of your identities at work, along with some ideas to encourage your team to do the same.

Lead by Example

When my company instituted a “work from home” mandate, I started filming a Facebook Live video every morning in my team’s Facebook group as a way to keep them up-to-date and establish some sort of routine. Through these daily videos, my team has truly seen every side of me: the frizzy hair, the pajamas, the kids running around in the kitchen, and everything in between. I do talk about work—I recognize accomplishments, give motivational speeches, and keep my team informed on the status of the company. But I don’t just talk about work. In fact, I talk much less about work than I do about other things, like what I’m baking, how I’ve been staying active, and how I feel about not being able to visit my mom who is homebound with Multiple Sclerosis.

Why do I do this? Because it’s my job as a leader to set the tone for our team. I can’t expect my employees to feel comfortable being more open and honest with one another if I’m not doing it myself. And, as it turns out, this is by far their favorite thing I’ve done (yes, I surveyed them!). From their feedback, it seems that showing them a side—or many sides—of me that they’ve never seen has allowed them to feel comfortable being open about their own home lives, identities, and challenges.

Share More Than Just the Good Things

In 2013, when my husband, Dave, decided to start his own company and I took over as CEO of Likeable Media, I struggled with impostor syndrome and finding my own identity as a leader. Dave was loud and extroverted, while I was used to handling everything that happened behind the scenes. It took me a while to carve out my niche as a leader and really become comfortable with my own way of doing things.

This wasn’t something I revealed to my team at the time, but I do think it was important to share the story with them years later, once I had it figured out (or mostly figured out, because do we ever really have it all figured out?). I’m not in the business of pretending everything is always sunshine and rainbows, because the reality is that sometimes things aren’t great. My team often tells me how much they appreciate my honesty and transparency, because it’s alleviated their fears of doing the same.

Of course, it’s not always going to be the right time to share something at work—and there may be identities or aspects of your life that you decide never to share. But there is power in vulnerability; often it’s when you share those types of struggles with others that a new level of understanding and trust develops.

Actively Encourage

Some individuals or teams may need more direct encouragement than just modeling the behavior you’d like them to adopt.

Last year, I made “balance” one of my company’s core values. When I announced this to my team, I stressed the fact that I want them to have lives outside of work. And I want them to feel comfortable sharing those lives with one another. I stated my belief that work should be a part of your life, not your whole life. What’s most important, though, is that this emphasis on balance is not just on the surface. Our policies back it up, too—things like unlimited paid time off, summer Fridays, generous parental leave policies, and a monthly “Balance Bucks” stipend to spend on classes, activities, or things that improve their home office setups.

You don’t need to alter the values that have been at the core of your company since day one, but you may need to make a more active effort to prove that openness is important to you. This could mean something grand such as hosting events like a quarterly team retreat where employees are encouraged to share something about their lives or interests outside of work. Or it could be something simple, like devoting 10 minutes of a weekly meeting to having a team member talk about a cause that’s important to them.

Creating a culture where everyone feels free to be themselves will help ease tensions and increase understanding. Maybe you were frustrated by a colleague who was leaving work early once a week, but then you learned their child was struggling emotionally and had to attend weekly therapy sessions. Maybe another colleague seemed unapproachable or short-tempered until you discovered they were dealing with a death in their family. Maybe you learned about what makes someone tick or what inspires them, which helped you get them to open up during a brainstorming session.

When your team feels comfortable bringing all their identities to work, you’ll see a boost in synergy, trust, and productivity. But most important, your team will develop empathy and deeper ties. And when you’re not worried about covering an aspect of who you are, it frees up more headspace to focus on work that matters to you—and your organization.

Adapted from “Parents, Bring Your Whole Self to Work,” on hbr.org, July 9, 2020 (product #H05Q53).

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