Allowing Employees To Be Their Authentic Selves: A Business Imperative

Victor Alexander Terry

This is the first piece in a four-part series exploring how race and identity affect feelings of belonging at work. This series is based on research from The America's Promise Alliance's YES Project which demonstrates that young employees feel that their identities play an important role in how they enter into, navigate, and advance within the world of work. Victor Terry, Chief Diversity Officer at State Farm sets the stage by reflecting on his experiences as a high-performing African-American man entering the workplace and reiterating the need for employers to go beyond diversity to ensure their workplace is inclusive of young people of color.

Travel back in time with me for a moment to your nine-year-old self. What do you remember? Today, thinking back to age nine, a now 47-year-old likely remembers the launch of the world’s first cell phone. My mother—now 67 years old—remembers the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. For me, at age nine, I remember traveling and navigating between what felt like two different worlds.

In one world I had my family, extended family, my almost all-Black neighborhood, my church, and my friends. That world in Birmingham, Alabama was rich with civil rights history, and topics of race and class were almost always an undercurrent. The other world was initially less than attractive to me.

In this world, I began bussing to a primarily white suburban elementary school. I was concerned about being judged at my new school, and about being seen as someone who didn’t belong. To further complicate my circumstances, I qualified for the free lunch program. In the 1980s we had paper lunch cards, and mine was stamped with “FREE” in bold, red ink. There was no escaping the humiliation I felt passing my card to the cashier to be punched. This experience–going back and forth between two worlds–formed my habits and behaviors over time. I never felt like I could truly be myself until I returned to my “home” world of comfort, my safe haven.

As I entered into the workforce after college, this similar feeling of dividing myself into two worlds remained. However, I was fortunate enough to meet a few leaders who helped me navigate those experiences. They invested their time and resources to know me—the real me. They helped to show me that I did not have to create a different version of myself at work, separate from who I was at home, to be successful in the organization. They wanted to know my background and how I got to the company, and they understood that my perspectives were valuable for our business—recognizing that our current and prospective customers and employees came from a range of different backgrounds.

This feeling of being seen and understood allowed me to fully show up at work. When I was free to be me, I could try new things. I took advantage of new opportunities, and I didn’t have to consult different versions of myself to make those decisions.

It is critical for employers to understand: we will not know what employees can bring to the table if we do not allow them to be their authentic selves.

We will not know what opportunities, ideas, or innovation we may be missing out on by not allowing them to think and act from their own perspectives and experiences. Surely, I would not be in my position as VP of Public Affairs and our first official Chief Diversity Officer at State Farm if I did not show up for opportunities as my true and best self. Often when I reflect on my successes in the last 20 years, I attribute so much of my career today to those early experiences of leadership.

Many individuals entering the workforce today appear to be more comfortable than I was saying, “This is me, this is my world, and this is where your organization can fit in it.” LinkedIn recently shared that “globally, 77% of talent professionals say diversity will be very important to the future of recruiting.” This data point tells us that in order to keep recruiting top talent, we have to discuss and demonstrate our commitment to inclusion. Employers must embrace the new workforce and say, “This is who we are, these are our values, you and your world have a place here.”

To fully embrace the skillsets, knowledge, and experiences that employees bring to the table, we must not only encourage them to bring their authentic selves to work, but create a safe space for them to do so.

Being included, embraced, and honored for who we are allows us to give our best effort and bring our best ideas to the table. When we can be our true selves, we are not splitting time between two worlds or putting forth the mental and emotional energy to become someone else to do a job. When employers embrace the various components of our identities, it puts us in the frame of mind to relate to our diverse audiences and serve our stakeholders with empathy. When all of this happens, organizations are in the best position to meet their goals.

The remaining pieces in this series—written by Vishnu, Nadia, and Deshaun—will explore the varied workplace experiences of young employees of color from around the country. They will touch on workplace belonging based on skin color, cultural background, and perceived social status—some of the many aspects of our identities that we bring with us to work. I hope you will join me in acknowledging their recommendations, and using them as a point of reflection and a launching pad for action.