Wharton management professor Rachel Arnett suggests that as a minority employee, you should bring your whole self to work. She talks about her research, which finds that when workers engage in rich and meaningful conversations about their backgrounds, it helps make the workplace more inclusive.

In honor of Juneteenth, the Ripple Effect podcast is showcasing a special series of conversations on equity and opportunity, diving deep into the complex issues of racial inequality, bias, and representation within organizations. This special will be led by guest host Kenneth Shropshire, faculty director of Wharton’s Coalition for Equity and Opportunity.


What Does It Mean to Bring Your Whole Self to Work?

Kenneth Shropshire: Rachel, the research that you’ve done is on how to present yourself in the workplace, which is a very interesting question for an old-school guy like me. We used to just go to work. But now there’s this language that I really want to zero in on, and it’s conversations about bringing your genuine or whole self to work. What does that mean? And don’t trigger me with your answer!

Rachel Arnett: I think you’re certainly right that there are generational differences, but people are asking questions along these lines. The idea of bringing your whole self to work might be a bigger chunk that I’m breaking off in my research, because I’m not sure that even I’m there yet. But what I do try to tackle in my research is, if you have something valued about yourself —  some aspects of your race, your ethnicity, your nationality that you’d like to bring to work — understanding whether and how you can do that. The intuition is that it’s risky, it’s potentially professionally dangerous, and to bring aspects of your identity can feel stigmatized or stereotyped in some way.

My research is really trying to unpack, as we start to appreciate the value of different identities in the workplace, how can you bring those identities to the workplace effectively, if at all?

Shropshire: As I was looking at looking at your work, and as I’ve heard you talk about in the past, I was trying to think about the big benefits. Certainly, there’s the millennial, more youthful, “I want to be who I am” kind of presentation. But it’s also part of this whole struggle of how do we make the workplace and society better? You could almost say it’s an obligation to do this, and it can be more positive overall for everyone if you do so. And you talk about it in terms of this rich cultural identity expression. Tell us what that is?

Arnett: We’ll get into the question of why. Why should one do this? And who is it for? Who is it benefiting? I think that’s a really important question that often comes out of this research. But just to start with, what is the research even about? What I look at is what I call rich cultural identity expression. It’s this idea of bringing attention to your inner self as it relates to your race, ethnicity, or nationality.

That often means talking about thoughts, feelings, or maybe less-known experiences that relate to these important identities that people have in the workplace. Particularly for people who are in the minority, how can they do this in a way that feels meaningful to them and is synergistic with professional success? There’s lots of different ways that people can engage in rich cultural expression. Some people do it by talking about their background. Some people talk about important or valued traditions that they currently engage in. Some people talk about experiences that have been challenging or difficult, and how they’ve navigated that.

We can delve into many different ways to engage in rich cultural expression. But the main idea is that it is deeper than surface-level ways of making a quick reference to an identity, for example. And it’s helping people to connect with you on a deeper level.

Shropshire: It’s not a new issue. I was thinking about when I was 13 years old, right after Dr. King was killed, we were all growing Afros. And my gym coach said, “I don’t understand why you guys are doing that. I’m Italian, and I don’t bring spaghetti to work every day.” It sticks in my head that there was this pushback against being who you are or coming in a certain way.

What’s the impact of doing this, of taking these steps that you’re talking about it, that I could have told my junior high gym coach were the reasons why we need to come forward as we are?

Arnett: We can all have experiences like that that deeply impact us and unfortunately teach us early on in life that it’s not safe to talk about these topics or to be who you are at work. I think about, in college, being on an interview for a major consulting company and telling somebody, “I’m from the South Side of Chicago,” and them saying, “Oh. Isn’t that really dangerous?” They were making an assumption about where I’m from, and the parts that are good, and the parts that are bad. I immediately just kind of froze in the interview setting and thought I don’t even feel comfortable to elaborate about my background further in any way with this person, because I can already see the direction that this is going.

I think sometimes in those types of situations, maybe it is not safe. You don’t always have the opportunity to say, “Hey, you as my teacher, or you as my interviewer, I’m going to stand up and put a stake in the ground and do this.”

But I think there are opportunities to connect with people in a more meaningful way. Maybe not when you feel like you’re actively being stereotyped. But when you’re getting to know your colleagues and your co-workers, I think there are opportunities to discuss. For example, like now, I will often proactively tell people about growing up from the South Side of Chicago, navigating predominantly Black and predominantly white neighborhoods based on that experience, and how that’s really shaped me as a person as a scholar. I think that helps people to see not just where I’m from, but also understand why where I’m from still impacts my life, still impacts who I am, and still meaningful to me. I often think about Black women and hair, but you’re making me see that I need to talk even about Black men and hair more. Because to your point, there’s a lot of meaning associated with wearing your hair in its natural texture and not feeling like you have to assimilate by cutting or straightening your hair.

Helping people understand why that’s a point of pride, to be able to wear your hair natural. Things like that help to debunk certain stereotypes. It’s not that Black people don’t know what professional hair is considered to be in American society. But there’s value to being able to reshape those norms so that you’re not bending over backwards to try to blend in.

Creating Safe Spaces for Bringing Your Whole Self to Work

Shropshire: If we put this into practice, should the manager who knows you’re from the South Side of Chicago, or the manager who looks at a unique hairstyle that an African American might have, ask questions about those things? Is it OK to engage in these conversations?

Arnett: I’m so glad you asked that. Because when I was first presenting this research, I did have an audience member who said, “What I’m taking away is that I need to be asking or even maybe telling my colleagues of color to talk about their identities more, right?” And I would say that’s not necessarily what I’m recommending. I think it’s really important that people see rich cultural expression as something that they’re doing for their own benefit and on their own terms.

You can create spaces that kind of invite people to open up if they would like to, whether that is getting-to-know-you icebreakers or creating space at the beginning of a meeting to talk to people informally before you delve into the work that you’re doing. Even just having places where people have the opportunity to connect on a personal level is one part of that. But I also often say that leaders can recognize that rich cultural expression does actually make people feel quite vulnerable, and they can set a precedent by making themselves vulnerable and sharing aspects of themselves that maybe they wouldn’t typically feel comfortable sharing in the workplace. There’s a lot of research that shows that when one person engages in more kind in-depth disclosure, other people are likely to reciprocate.

The other part is, when people do kind of volunteer that information, be willing to show engagement. Like if you bring up the experience with your gym coach, saying, “Oh, wow. That sounds like that must have really impacted you. Is that something you want to talk about more?” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It’s sort of realizing that you’ve opened the door, and they can show interest, but also leave it up to you how much you want to elaborate and dig into that.

Shropshire: What about the manager who is not diverse asking that kind of question? What if you are the introvert or you don’t want to take on this business of educating the white employer? It’s not something you have to do. But it is something to contemplate in a way maybe you never thought about before. It can be a positive for the workplace if you do.

Arnett: You know, I say all the time that there are plenty of people for many different reasons who don’t feel comfortable with this idea of opening up about, let’s say their race, in the workplace. I’m very extroverted, and I still count myself in that camp. I often feel this tension. On the one hand, I feel like I’m not an exhibit. I’m not something that’s on display for the education of others. I’m a person. I feel like I should just be able to be however I want to be and not have to think about how to manage my identity for the sake of others or their benefit.

But I do think that with time, as I’ve started to believe my own research, I’ve started to realize there are certain things that I value about myself and my background or about my experience that I wouldn’t mind people knowing more about. But I want to know the best way to convey that information. Especially because I’m not used to always having to share that in the workplace. I often take leaps of faith, and more often than not, I find that people want to learn about me and my background but are also able to respect certain boundaries and not push further than I might be comfortable.

Final Takeaways on How to Bring Your Whole Self to Work

Shropshire: To close this out, to be a better workplace and to have a positive impact beyond the workplace, this idea of bringing your genuine self to work is a good thing. And workplaces should embrace it and find safe spaces or establish protocols for this to happen.

Arnett: I would say I agree with most of that. I’ll just add caveats and say I think rich cultural identity expression is one way to be your genuine yourself at work. And that can be consistent with both a desire for authenticity and a desire for professional success. I think that’s something that I want people to take away, that that’s an opportunity. And creating safe spaces that enable that, showing engagement when people do it, and really just taking a listening and learning approach and not a judgmental approach when people open up, I think those are the key takeaways.

Shropshire: And old school guys like me, we should think about how you don’t have to just please the employer and do exactly what you think the box is that allows you to be successful. Opening up can have a positive impact.

Arnett: You can take the leap, Ken. I believe in you.

Shropshire: At this point, it might be too late for me Any final guidance for us as we move forward. Anything else that corporate leaders should take away in terms of this topic?

Arnett: I would just say that the more you can show people that this is welcome, but also take away some of the barriers or potential for stigma that people might be afraid of, rich cultural identity expression is not as bad as you think. There are things that leaders can do. When people open up about problematic experiences they’ve had with discrimination, for example, actually show that you care. Showing that you believe people when they open up. Showing that you’re willing to support goes a long way to encouraging people to open up in these ways on future occasions.