“I’m too much.”
“That’s not appropriate here.”
“My coworkers can’t handle it.”
“No one would value me if they knew the truth.”
“I should just tough it out and suck it up.”
“Who am I to ask for special treatment?”
Those are some of the many fear-based lines our minds can feed us when we consider what might happen if we brought more of our authentic selves into the workplace. Yet there’s good evidence that workplaces where employees feel welcome to be authentic can be higher-performing, with more engagement and innovation and less turnover. The idea that it’s desirable — or even possible — to separate our “office self” from our “real self” is going the way of the fax machine.
That said, making the leap to showing up in a fuller way at work can still be scary. Not all workplaces are progressive enough to see workers’ wholeness for the gift that it is, and even ones that do come around to that point of view might not start there. And of course “showing up fully” shouldn’t be a blanket excuse for bad behavior. Yet, especially in conscious companies committed to a growth mindset and win-for-all solutions, finding the courage to show up as yourself and ask for what you need can be a trigger for positive development for the whole company. Here are 4 stories of brave people for whom that really worked.
1. Carter Stepanovsky, Senior Consultant at Kapost
Stepanovsky worked in the outdoor and sporting goods industry for 15 years, but when they realized they needed to publicly transition away from a feminine gender identity, they decided they needed to move to a more innovative and open-minded industry. In spring 2015, Stepanovsky landed at Kapost, a tech startup in Boulder, CO, as a customer success manager. Soon thereafter, they reached out the head of People Ops to start crafting a transition strategy.
“I wasn’t ready until the winter of 2015–2016 to publicly transition,” Stepanovsky says. This included coming out as genderfluid to peers and colleagues, company leadership, and customers; Stepanovsky did so with the help and support of Kapost’s CEO and People Ops department. “I pushed hard for what I needed,” Stepanovsky says, “which was full and accurate representation of my story.” For example, leadership did not initially understand why it was so important to include Stepanovsky’s pronouns (they/them/theirs) when communicating their name change to customers, but through a series of conversation and shared resources, company leadership finally agreed to include that in corporate communication to Stepanovsky’s customer portfolio.
When the company moved offices in summer 2017, Stepanovsky was able to successfully advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms. They’ve since had opportunities to present publicly about “How to Support (Not Just Accept) Gender Fluidity In the Workplace”
Stepanovsky’s advice to those considering a similar step:
- “Trust yourself and don’t give up. It’s okay to ask for what you need and lean on your community. You might have to educate them along the way — and that’s okay.”
- “Invest in yourself. Pursuing my truth requires that I spend emotional labor every single day, and can it be exhausting. When / where possible, I fully support my friends and colleagues when they want to advocate for me. I also try to set aside time for rejuvenation so I can get up the next morning and do it all over again.”
- “There are a lot of resources available online through various organizations. I leveraged Boulder Pride heavily in the beginning. Message boards and pages (e.g. Facebook, Reddit, etc.) that can provide support and information if you don’t have direct access in your community.”
2. Scott Shute, VP of Global Customer Operations at LinkedIn
Scott Shute discovered meditation when he was 13 years old, and has been teaching mindfulness practices since he was 20. But after more than two decades in Silicon Valley, he had still never “come out” as a meditator in his professional world. All that changed in 2015, when he asked his colleague in charge of health and wellness programs at LinkedIn whether the company had any kind of meditation offering. The response: Maybe you should start something. Shute did nothing for a few months, afraid of what people might think, then brought the idea up to the VP of HR — who immediately suggested he proceed and report back. So he began teaching a meditation class at the company. One person showed up to the first session.
But now, three later, he’s added “Head of Mindfulness Programs” to his job title, and, along with a team of fellow volunteers, is growing a program that includes online mindfulness resources, a 30-day challenge, a mindfulness speakers series, weekend mini-retreats, and weekly classes that have touched thousands of the company’s 11,000 employees at 10 different locations around the globe. “I had to get out of my own way,” he says. “That’s been the only thing slowing me down.”
Of course, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s public mentions of mindfulness helped. “That creates an umbrella where it’s okay,” Shute says. Yet he still feels hesitant sometimes to push his project forward. “I’m still working on getting to the place where I feel completely comfortable inserting a three-minute mindful moment into any situation.” Long-term, he’s working to help bring a culture of mindfulness to the company at large. “It’s about providing something at every step of the journey and meeting people where they are. It starts with me and others leading by example and creating a safe space for everyone to explore.”
3. Andrew Ormerod, Operations Director at GrantTree
Ormerod has Type II bipolar disorder, and has been open about his mental health from the start of his time with the company in 2014. Mostly his illness has no effect on his life, but occasionally he needs a few days off to look after himself because he’s anxious or depressed. He’s also a media volunteer for the British mental health charity, Mind, so he’s appeared on national radio, television, and newspapers talking about his experience of suicidal thinking, therapy, and stress at work.
“People have told me I make it safe for them to be open about their mental health, to recognize that it’s human and normal and OK to have bad days or bad periods and to be honest about that,” he reports. Current and former colleagues have also told him that example has helped them be more open. “It’s led to some people exploring therapy or other ways of dealing with emotional difficulty,” he says, “rather than just drinking the problem away — the usual British response. It’s led others to be able to have more open, supportive conversations with their friends who are going through tough times. And it’s shown my company that the ability to be vulnerable and be open is a key part of success.” Ormerod even has a semicolon tattoo that celebrates his conscious choice to choose openness about his challenges (rather than a full stop/period).
4. Jessica Lifford, CEO of Prodigy Uniform Company
Lifford started her food service and hospitality uniform company 10 years ago. In 2010, she made a transition in her diet towards veganism, because she realized that consuming any animal products contributed to the exploitation and suffering of animals. “I knew I also needed to align other areas of my life to reflect my values,” she says. After going vegan, she made the choice to remove all the leather, wool, and silk-based products from her website and to emphasize vegan options for her customers.
“Initially, this move was scary,” she says. Some of her customers were used to ordering the animal-based products, and she was suddenly discontinuing them. “It didn’t necessarily seem to make financial sense at the time, but it was the right choice for my heart.”
Within a year, though, her choice to bring her values into her company started to pay off. Previously, her business was mostly B2B, but after the switch, she found she was able to attract more individuals as customers. She was able to suggest alternatives for most of the products she discontinued, and the choice to create an all-vegan uniform company has paid off financially for her because cruelty-free options are more popular than ever.
Jessica’s advice for other business owners who want to reveal their values through their business is to consider that changes may actually be embraced. “If you care about a cause, the chances are, others will care too, and enthusiastically support your efforts.”