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Melanie Blackman-Gushway, photographed in Ajax, Ont., says that authenticity is having the agency to pick and choose the parts of your identity you bring to the workplace.Della Rollins/The Globe and Mail

Job postings and corporate ‘About Us’ pages often include a statement about the company fostering an environment where employees can bring their ‘whole selves’ to work.

But how often do these claims reflect reality?

“I think it’s a scam,” laughs Melanie Blackman-Gushway, who has worked in postsecondary education in the Toronto area for 10 years. “That’s my dream. That’s my vision [for] any place that I work, but the reality is that’s not the case.”

Bringing your whole self to your job can be challenging at best and career limiting at worst, specifically for marginalized and racialized peoples.

Tanya Sinclair is the founder of Black Human Resources Professionals of Canada, a not-for-profit founded in 2020. She’s also the director of people and culture at technology firm Leap Tools.

“For us, bringing our full selves to work essentially means you are able to be yourself,” she says. “You don’t have to modify your speech pattern, you don’t have to minimize an accent, you don’t have to say to yourself, ‘Oh, this hairstyle will not please the predominant culture that’s in my workplace.’”

Ms. Sinclair says bringing your whole self to work is a great goal, “if you can,” but that “there is inherent risk that comes with bringing your full self to work for Black people.”

‘You just don’t disrupt the peace’

A 2021 Statistics Canada study stated that Black Canadians faced disproportionate financial hardships during COVID-19. Unemployment rates for Black Canadians were higher during the pandemic and on average, they weren’t paid as much as nonvisible minority Canadians.

In the face of precarious work situations, the idea of being vulnerable and sharing all parts of your identity can compound the difficulties of finding and keeping sustained, stable employment – even when employers encourage it.

“I was taught that there are certain things that you don’t say or certain things that you keep your mouth shut about,” says Julisha Roache, a recent graduate of the University of Lethbridge who is entering the work force.

“You just don’t disrupt the peace, because at that point, you’re disposable,” she says.

Ms. Sinclair believes that employers need to be aware that Black employees may navigate the workplace differently than other employees.

“Chances are your Black employees may not be bringing their full selves to work for many reasons that are linked to systemic barriers, that are linked to intersectionalities, but that are also linked to your own workplace culture,” she says. “I think [employers] have to own and acknowledge that if you have provided some training and you did a series of events for Black History Month, it’s not just checked and done.”

Professionalism versus authenticity

Ms. Blackman-Gushway notes that many employers may think the idea of bringing your whole self to work is about appearances – the freedom for Black employees to wear their hair in natural styles like braids, locs, or Afros without negative repercussions. In the United States, 18 states have passed the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle or texture. But the freedom to be yourself at work is about more than just hair, says Ms. Blackman-Gushway.

“When I think about a Black person bringing their whole self to work, yes, the way we style ourselves is one thing,” she says. “But language is a huge thing, and cultural references not being interpreted as violent or aggressive.”

Ms. Sinclair mentions tone policing, which means dismissing or misinterpreting what someone is saying because of how they are saying it.

“I think sometimes [tone policing of Black employees] is because of some deep, inherent bias and deeply inherent systemic racism and views on ‘knowing your place,’” she says. “We don’t have quite as much privilege to speak our minds without fear of negative impact at times. I’m not saying all the time, but I would say at times it can be risky, especially on topics of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Ms. Roache, who is in her early 20s, says she reads on Twitter what people in her community are discussing, like being Black at work. She says there’s “way more pushback” these days from young Black people who want employers to redefine what “professional” means.

“Professionalism is in your conduct, not necessarily what you’re wearing or what you look like,” she says. “I feel like now, as the generations go on, it’s less about looking the part and more about being good at your job.”

Leading with compassion

Ms. Blackman-Gushway says that authenticity is having the agency to pick and choose the parts of your identity you bring to the workplace. Employers can shoulder some responsibility by creating a more welcoming environment and leading with compassion.

She notes that non-Black senior leaders can show empathy for Black employees by doing some introspection about whether they themselves are being authentic at work.

“How are you authentically showing up and leading the way for others?” she says. “Sometimes, you [may] realize, ‘I cannot authentically show up because XYZ has happened to me.’ Then we start getting into steps of how we improve some of these things.”

Being the only Black employee, or one of a few, can make it difficult to be completely yourself at work, says Ms. Sinclair. Black employees want to feel like they belong in corporate Canada.

It can be valuable to talk to Black employees to better understand where they are coming from, she adds, but employers shouldn’t expect them to solve all the problems in the workplace.

“I don’t mind sharing my opinion on something but are you looking for me to speak for everybody and solve all of the problems that have been in place for 400 years?” Ms. Sinclair says.

“Make space for your Black employees, remove barriers, and put yourself on the line to bring somebody forward. That would be something that helps employees feel like they can bring their full selves to work.”

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