Bringing Our Whole Selves to Work

By Karen Sadler

“On my way to becoming a lawyer, I learned that success isn’t necessarily about merit. It’s also about fitting in.” This is how Hadiya Roderique began her personal essay “Black on Bay Street”, published in The Globe and Mail1 last fall to wide acclaim. As she moved through law school to a career in private practice, Roderique came to realize that “companies say they want diverse candidates, but the numbers don’t bear the claims out.” The result is that talented professionals who don’t fit in with the traditional culture (white, male, straight, able-bodied, upper class) find themselves leaving pieces of their identities at the door in order to succeed in the Canadian workplace.

Well, it’s time that the Canadian workplace changed.

In an interview with Forbes2, Mike Robbins, author of “Bring Your Whole Self to Work”, explained this need for change perfectly: “When we don’t bring our whole selves to work, we suffer – lack of engagement, lack of productivity, and our well-being is diminished. We aren’t able to do our best, most innovative work, and we spend and waste too much time trying to look good, fit in, and do or say the ‘right’ thing. For teams and organizations, this lack of psychological safety makes it difficult for the group or company to thrive and perform at their highest level because people are holding back some of who they really are.” Not only is inclusion good for the individual, it’s essential for optimal team growth and success.

Who gets to bring their whole self to work and who doesn’t?

Do your colleagues have the freedom to bring their whole selves to work? Do you?

•   Do LGBTQ employees have the freedom to talk about their same-sex and/or transgender spouses or partners?  To  keep a photo of their partner on the desk?

•   Do Black employees have the freedom to wear their hair naturally and in styles that work for their hair?

•   Are office outings and team-building activities considerate and inclusive of all employees? For example, not everyone grew up playing golf. Not everyone drinks alcohol.

•   In your office, are there private spaces for people who need time alone to recharge or calm down? For coworkers who need to take a personal phone call? For nursing parents? For people who need to pray?

•   Does your office have a gender-neutral bathroom?

•   Is your office space accessible and if not, can accommodations easily be made?

•    Are employees penalized for needing to take care of non-work-related tasks during work hours? (This could include registering their children for extracurricular activities, checking in with older relatives or other family members they may be caring for, scheduling doctor’s appointments, and much more)

•    Are certain personality traits (extroversion, decisiveness, brashness) rewarded while others (introversion, consensus-seeking, cautious) are not?

•    Do your office discussions and initiatives around mental health still carry a stigma?

•    Does your leadership team reflect the demographics of your employees?

Your answers will give you a clearer idea of who feels welcome in your workplace and who might not. As Ritu Bhasin, a brown woman and author of “The Authenticity Principle” explains during an interview with The Toronto Star3, “By the time I ended up in the workplace I had already learned how to switch codes and navigate through white male culture. The more I conformed, the more I was rewarded, and I succeeded … that continued to the point where I was living a binary life. So I was one way at work and during evenings and weekends, living in a very different way. And ultimately I was profoundly unhappy.”

Both Bhasin and Robbins emphasize that it’s up to leaders to take active steps to encourage and welcome authenticity in their coworkers and employees. Because in the current climate, the ability to be your whole self at work is a privilege that only those who are in power or who belong to the “in-group” possess.

What does bringing your whole self to work look like?

According to Robbins, “bringing our whole selves to work means showing up authentically, leading with humility, and remembering that we’re all vulnerable, imperfect human beings doing the best we can. It’s also about having the courage to take risks, speak up, ask for help, connect with others in a genuine way, and allow ourselves to be truly seen.”2 This might be challenging to do, since you’ve likely been crafting and polishing your professional image for years. So how can you lead by example and make sure your colleagues and employees feel safe and welcome at work?

1)   Appreciation vs. recognition

Make sure to incorporate appreciation into your employee feedback sessions. Appreciation focuses on the positive and unique aspects of a person’s identity and talents, while recognition focuses on the good job an employee did. Expressing appreciation for who people are often gets sidelined at work, but it’s key to making people feel valued.

2)   Show vulnerability and tell your truth

Tell your truth, and it may resonate with others and encourage them to share openly too. As Robbins says, “I think we spend and waste so much time and energy trying to ‘have it all together’ that if we spent a little more time telling the truth, we could be free, we could heal, we could change, and we could connect with others in a more real and genuine way.”2

3)   Language matters

  • Are you using hurtful and exclusive language at work, maybe without even realizing it? Are ableist slurs like lame, psycho, nuts or crazy a part of your vocabulary? Are culturally appropriative or racist terms like spirit animal, pow-wow (referring to a work meeting), or circle the wagons part of your vocabulary?
  • What does “culture fit” mean at your organization? Is it really just a coded term for “white, male, straight, upper-class”?
  • Is your workplace fatphobic? (Fatphobia is everywhere. Do you joke about getting diabetes from eating a piece of cake? Do you talk about your diet in front of your colleagues? In front of colleagues who are larger than you or who may have eating disorders you don’t know about? These are acts of fatphobia.)

4)   Celebrate what matters to your employees

Ensure that your workplace celebrates and/or recognizes Pride, Black History Month, National Indigenous Peoples Day, International Women’s Day, Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and other important holidays and events that are important to your colleagues.

5)   Learn about microaggressions (and then stop committing them)

“Microaggressions are unconscious expressions of racism or sexism [or homophobia, ableism, etc.]. They come out in seemingly innocuous comments by people who might be well-intentioned.”4 Examples:

  • Asking a Black coworker about their natural hair / touching their hair
  • Asking a colleague of colour where they are really from
  • Interrupting women in meetings
  • Repeatedly mispronouncing a colleague’s name
  • Complimenting people’s bodies (just don’t do it – compliment their new glasses or their sense of humour or their office decor instead)

The examples above are just a small sample of the ways we diminish others on a daily basis without even realizing it. We encourage you to read more about microaggressions in the future. The internet is full of eye-opening articles on the topic.

The whole self is the best self

When people get to bring their whole selves to work, they are happier, healthier and more productive. Employees who feel happy and safe contribute more, create more, and are more likely to stay with the organization. But it’s up to leaders to introduce and foster an authentic, welcoming workplace. How will you do your part?


  1. Roderique, Hadiya. “Black on Bay Street”. The Globe and Mail. Accessed August 9, 2018.
  2. Inam, Henna. “Bring Your Whole Self to Work”. Forbes. Accessed August 9, 2018.
  3. Paradkar, Shree. “To our inner Hadiya resisting workplace conformity, carry on. Just don’t keep calm.” The Toronto Star. Accessed August 9, 2018.
  4. Premack, Rachel. “9 things people think are fine to say at work – but are actually racist, sexist, or offensive” Business Insider. Accessed August 13, 2018.


Karen is the Marketing & Communications Coordinator / Associate Editor for the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association (CCCA) and is passionate about diversity and inclusion. She is a member of the CSAE Trillium Young Professionals Committee and a new member of the CSAE Trillium FORUM Committee.