I was delivering a workplace sensitivity training program last week. The main point of the program is to develop self-awareness. We discussed what it means to be self-aware - to really know and understand why you think and feel the way you do. We also cover the compliance issues, such as harassment and discrimination. But the main point of the program (and the many hypothetical situations we discuss) is to help people stop and think about how their actions and inactions impact those around them. Toward the end of the program, a gentleman raised his hand and asked, "Why can't I just be myself at work?" Fair question. The honest answer is...I'm not telling you that you can't be yourself at work. My job is to help you understand that being yourself at work, depending on who that is, might get you in trouble - or even fired. Here's why:
Our behavior in the workplace is governed by many different things. For example, we have laws (state, federal, local) that tell us we can't discriminate against anyone or harass anyone at work. These laws alone restrict what otherwise would be our First Amendment free-speech rights when it comes to employment. That means that, if I'm a sexist or a racist, I very well might get in trouble if I'm myself at work.
We also have workplace policies and practices that set standards for our behavior. The policies reinforce legal obligations, but they are so much more than that. I might be 10 minutes late to everything in my life, which might not bother my family or might not do any damage if I'm late to a dentist appointment. But if I'm 10 minutes late to work every single day, there's a high likelihood that I will get in trouble for being tardy, and too many tardiness issues will probably get me fired. What if I love to curse? Some places might tolerate cursing, and others might not. Some people within an organization might tolerate cursing, and others might not. We spend most of our time at work with our co-workers. Some folks become our close friends. Some will never be anything more than co-workers.
The point is that you need to know your audience. What you can do and how you behave with your closest friend might be very different from what you can do and how you can behave with people at work who are not your close friends. Your self will have varying levels of tolerance within an organization, and it's your responsibility to be aware of those tolerance levels and adjust your behavior accordingly if you want to remain employed.
Now, please don't mistake this as a license to tell dirty jokes or engage in discriminatory or harassing behavior at work. It's important to remember that the people you think are our friends at work might not like you as much as you think. They might tolerate you, and they might be waiting for the moment to let your manager know if you said or did something that was offensive or violated the handbook or made someone uncomfortable. If you want to play it safe, remember these few points:
Become more self aware. If we understand why we think and feel the things we do, we are better equipped to use a filter at the appropriate times.
Our actions and inactions convey messages, intended and unintended.
Be aware of your surroundings at work. Chances are...you are not having a private conversation in the middle of the hallway. If you need privacy, go somewhere private.
You are 100% entitled to your opinions and beliefs.
Employers are 100% required to make sure no one is subjected to discrimination or harassment at work.
Workplace relationships are different from personal relationships and should be treated accordingly.
A little emotional intelligence goes a long way and is critical to leadership success.