Which feelings (and shoes) are work-appropriate these days? What happens now with the transparency and informality that, for many professionals working from home, became more normal and acceptable? How do return-to-office mandates compromise the authenticity of employees who prefer to stay remote?
Tina Opie, an expert on authenticity, joins us to share impressions of how notions of professional behavior and dress have changed. She also gives advice for expressing yourself as expectations of professionalism shift.
Tina Opie is a DEI consultant, visiting scholar at Harvard Business School, and management professor at Babson College.
- “Lead with Authenticity,” by Women at Work
- “How Much of Your ‘Authentic Self’ Should You Really Bring to Work?” by Susan McPherson
- “Working from Home While Black,” by Laura Morgan Roberts and Courtney L. McCluney
- “How Organizations Are Failing Black Workers — and How to Do Better,” by Adia Harvey Wingfield
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EMILY CAULFIELD: You’re listening to Women at Work from Harvard Business Review. I’m Emily Caulfield.
AMY BERNSTEIN: I’m Amy Bernstein.
AMY GALLO: And I’m Amy Gallo. The pandemic turned people inside out. Working from home put much more of our personal lives on display. Stress and grief became too much to hold in. Getting our act together took too much energy. The world has changed a lot, and our notions of what’s professional and what’s not have changed along with it. What do these shifts mean for how we show up in our appearance and emotionally? Are we allowed or expected to show more of our real selves at work? And how can we navigate these shifting expectations in a way that benefits us, or at least doesn’t harm our careers.
EMILY CAULFIELD: We invited Tina Opie to discuss all of this with us. She’s an expert in strategic management and organizational behavior.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Tina’s been a regular guest on the show since season one. When she talked about the fundamentals and nuances of leading with authenticity.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Her academic research has centered on how workplaces accept or reject individual differences and she advises companies on how they can promote authenticity.
TINA OPIE: Authenticity is defined as when your external expression is aligned with your internal experience. People actually feel better about themselves when they are authentic. There are all kinds of implications for your wellbeing, work engagement, productivity.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Tina, we have just come through the most remarkable couple of years and, and I’m wondering how that has changed the way you think about authenticity and authenticity at work.
TINA OPIE: You know, people are calling this the Great Resignation, and what I’ve said is it’s more like the, I have looked around this workplace organization, I don’t feel respected and taken care of and I don’t know if I wanna put up with this anymore kind of, ignation. And so, people are recognizing that the cost of even something like commuting is higher than they may have anticipated. The cost of being in the office. So this is a great reckoning. It’s an opportunity for individuals to really assess what matters to you. What’s most important to you? Why are you working? Why are you commuting 30 minutes to work or sitting in traffic? Why are you dropping your children off at 6:30 so that you can make the 7:15 train and then having to come back, you know, sometimes exhausted and then have a second part of your day with your family where you feel depleted, low energy, et cetera, et cetera. Why are you doing that? Why do organizations typically want employees to be in the workplace physically? And I’m not suggesting that we change everything. What I’m suggesting is that we interrogate why we do what we do. That we ask ourselves, is it necessarily true that in order to have the most productive, well engaged employees, they need to be physically present in the workplace? For me, I know the answer is no. I feel as though I’ve developed this beautiful home office environment. You can see in the back, I have African art and Black art around me. I’m happy I look around, I see myself. I can filter what kind of input I get from other people and that has led me to be more fulfilled. I’m able to express my authentic self.
EMILY CAULFIELD: So, Tina, do you think that this greater awareness around racism and like with the whole Black Lives Matter movement and everything that’s transpired over the last year and a half, has this translated into Black employees being able to be more authentic in the workplace?
TINA OPIE: Well, I would love to say yes, you know, emphatically yes. Across the board, Black employees at all organizations at all times when we’re able to be authentic because of what’s just happened. I think we are doing ourselves a disservice if we think that awareness leads to behavior change. I think awareness is a necessary ingredient, but it is not always sufficient to facilitate behavior change and that for me is what I’m seeing on a large scale. Because when you look at the survey results, Black people do not wanna go back to work. Now, perhaps if they go back, they’ll have a more positive experience and that will change them, but history does not suggest that that will be the case.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Yeah. Your point just reminded me of this Slack survey that was conducted at the beginning of this year and 97% of Black knowledge workers wanted the future of their jobs to be either remote or hybrid. Why do you think that is? Why do you think Black employees don’t want to return to the office?
TINA OPIE: When Black people go to work, if you experience what some call a microaggression, which is really, it’s just racism and racial trauma, and people are taking credit for your ideas, people are talking over you. People tell you that you are not professional enough, or that you need to modulate your tone, or that you come across as angry when all you’re doing is advocating for yourself or for someone else. Why would I want to leave my warm, cozy house, where I can eat what I want ,when I want. I can work out if I want to. If I have a meeting, cool, I can be professional up top and cozy down bottom. I don’t have to commute. My children are in the next room. But I wanna emphasize, there are plenty of white people who don’t want to go back to work, right? There are plenty of women who don’t want to go back to work. So, Black people are often the canary in the coal mine, but there’s something going on in the coal mine for everyone.
AMY BERNSTEIN: I wonder, Tina, if the whole idea of what constitutes professional comportment has changed. Research takes time to catch up. You have a very discerning eye. Are you seeing anything new, anything shifting?
TINA OPIE: I am. What we experienced was a huge increase in informality in terms of the way that we presented ourselves, but also a blurring of the line sometimes between professional and personal. I do want to emphasize though, that that wasn’t the case for everyone. While many people were feeling that there was a blurring of lines between professional and personal, which I do think has happened. People were divulging and sharing more information. We have to recognize that it’s still curated. Like, I, I don’t want us to feel as though this is, this is just me. I mean, I designed my office with certain, a certain aesthetic in mind because I knew that it would be on camera. And so we may think that we’re getting this blurring of lines between professional and personal, but it’s curated personal. If that makes sense, for most people. Or they’ll put on the Zoom background, because they don’t want you seeing into their home for whatever reason.
AMY GALLO: We’re still making choices about what we show and present. Even if those choices are different and require a different level of exposure.
TINA OPIE: Yes. And, and I just want us to be sensitive that we still provide people with choice. You cannot force someone to show you themselves 100% of the time, all the time when you’re on camera. I think we have to be sensitive to that.
AMY GALLO: That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot, because I think specifically on the team I work with at HBR, I think we have shown up more emotional, I should say. There’s more discussion around how we feel what’s going on in our family life, that various crises that people are going through and I actually worry that it’s applying pressure to people who don’t feel comfortable sharing those things. And I’ve seen that translate to the office where we, we are talking more about mental health, all of these, these issues. It does sort of feel like being professional now also means being emotional. We’ve lauded leaders who have been emotional and cried and, and shared. And my sense, and this is again very anecdotal, but my sense is that we’re starting to correlate professionalism with emotional expression.
AMY BERNSTEIN: And emotional expression with authenticity.
AMY GALLO: That’s right. That’s an excellent point, Amy B, because right, is that emotional expression always authentic?
TINA OPIE: No. I mean, well, so you know-
AMY BERNSTEIN: Oh my God, I’m so happy you said that.
TINA OPIE: We have to be very careful when we come up with these isms, these truisms, the best leaders are going to be emotionally authentic. There are different prices paid for emotional expression. There are stereotypes that will come into play when someone demonstrates emotion. It might be that we’re, we’re expected to make ourselves vulnerable and maybe cry out of concern for someone else, but not for ourselves. If you go in there and you say, I’m really upset that I’m being underpaid and you cry, that’s not, I still don’t think that’s going to be perceived positively. It is a level of emotion where you’re expected to demonstrate that you care about other people, but don’t, and, and you may even be angry about what’s happening to other people, but don’t be angry about what’s happening to you or your identity group at your workplace. That is still not acceptable, I don’t think.
AMY GALLO: Well, it, actually, the distinction also could be made that you can be angry or sad about things happening outside work. But you can’t really be angry or sad about the work place issues that may be actually causing a lot of the emotion.
TINA OPIE: That’s a great point, Amy G, and I think that connects to this idea of do I actually predict real change? No. I mean, in some instances, yes, but I think unless and until we allow employees to express their actual emotional state and, and, and, and what I’m, I don’t necessarily know the best avenue to do that because I do recognize that there are consequences that are heavier for some than for others. But I don’t think leaders, I mean, leaders are trying to force people to go back to work when they don’t want to. I mean, they’ve been clear about that. The employees that have been relatively clear, but some organizations are still trying to force employees to go back to work and they’re trying to sell them this notion that it’s good for them. So they’re not even listening to that. That’s not even emotion. That’s like a task: I just don’t wanna commute. And now we’re saying, we think that organizational leaders are going to listen to the people talk about how excluded they feel at work. I don’t think that organizational leaders are prepared for a certain kind of sharing. They want sharing that is curated. There’s very little variance.
EMILY CAULFIELD: And I would say for me personally, going back into the workplace, I am a little bit worried about being authentic because I feel like I’m in a more raw place than before. So right now, when everybody wants authenticity, I am shying away from it because if I were to have that external expression be equivalent to my internal expression, it would be a damn mess.
TINA OPIE: I think that is an amazing point, Emily. It feels like you’re saying the average emotional state that you’re in has become more negative, sort of.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Yes. This last year and a half. Yes.
TINA OPIE: So, the mean has shifted. Which means that if you’re authentic at work, it may have more negative implications. You’re more likely to-
EMILY CAULFIELD: The consequences.
TINA OPIE: Because you’re more likely to express negative emotion. And as a result, you may have more negative consequences, which connects to the earlier point in terms of while we may wish that empathy and emotional expression was readily accepted in organizations, it’s often probably a positive emotional expression, or if it’s sadness or anger, it’s about something that’s happening outside of the organization, not something specifically relevant to the workplace.
AMY GALLO: Well, and even going back to Tina’s definition of like, when your external expression is aligned with your internal expression, like, if you did that, is that OK? You know?
TINA OPIE: No. Yeah. But I’m just sorry that you’re experiencing that. I’m also experiencing that.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Yeah. And I, and I, I’m sure it’s not just me out there. So, Tina, what is a way that we can strategically, people who are feeling me or you show up to work and feel authentic, but not suffer bad consequences by telling our coworkers and our bosses about how we’re feeling?
TINA OPIE: Yeah. I don’t think you can. Remember that work is not your only life domain. So for me, when work has been very difficult, I’m very involved in my church. I’m very involved in my neighborhood. I’m committed to my family, my nuclear family, my extended family. I just got a Peloton. So, what I’m saying is, is there can be multiple, there are multiple domains in all of our lives and I have learned work is not therapy. It’s not a, the, so I am not going to look to people who I work with to work out internal, emotional issues. I view work as a place where I want to be able to be emotionally authentic, but that’s not the place to work out my emotions if that makes sense. I work out my emotions at home with my family, with a professional therapist. And then it may, it may be that when I go to work, someone asks, well, how’s everyone doing? And it’s the morning after some verdict has come out and I may break into tears. I feel authentic enough to say this is just too fresh. I’m clearly not doing great. And I would like to take a break. That could potentially have negative consequences because some people will say, I just don’t know if she has the backbone to get this done. That’s not an unrealistic outcome. I think we have to be very honest about that, especially for women, because that is stereotype-congruent behavior. However, I have trusted advisors at work and we may go off campus or go off site and we may cry together. So there are people at work that I can do that, but I don’t rely on the workplace to work through my emotions. That would be the biggest piece of advice that I would give. Once you are at work, I think trying to see if there are other people who are experiencing similar emotions as you, so that it can be a collective voice rather than an individual voice. So that instead of it being your voice only there is a collective that’s saying, listen, this is how we’re feeling and here is how we would like our organization to respond, to support us.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Tina, let me ask you a different sort of question. I spent 20 months in flip flops or slippers, jeans below the WebEx frame, the Zoom frame. I look like I’m ready for summer camp. So going back to the office as Amy, Emily, and I have had to, you know, we, we returned about a month ago and I have noticed, well, first of all, I’ve struggled to figure out what in the world I’m gonna wear. Even though I have three quarters of a closet that has sat untouched for 20 months. And I noticed some colleagues who used to be quite formally attired, in jeans. This goes back to professional comportment. Are you seeing a shift in these expectations, both employers of employees, but employees of themselves?
TINA OPIE: So, I have not seen empirical research on this. So, this is anecdotal. This is based on clients and my personal experience in my friendship circle and my network. Yes. None of us want to go back to formal suits. I mean, first of all, I was in a sorority meeting, and somebody was joking about how, listen holidays are coming up. You may have to wear some special outfit suits, just note to, advice to you based on personal experience, try those suckers on before the event, because you know, pandemic, quarantine weight is no joke and I’m not talking about, I’m there’s I have, don’t have a bias. I’m a larger woman. I don’t have bias against larger people. What I’m talking about is you may be larger than you were at the beginning of the pandemic and so it’s important to, to try those things out. And I do think, I know I’ve been like, well, if it doesn’t fit, I’m not replacing it. I’m just, you know, I’m going to get more cozy, stretchy kinds of pants that are forgiving. I love a tunic. I will wear a jacket and a, a bold piece of jewelry usually and that is how I get quote dressed up. I have a basic canvas on the bottom, usually a black skirt or a black top and then some kind of jacket. But the skirt and the top are now made from cotton. They’re not gonna be made from some constricting material ’cause I need to breathe. I will say people think that I’m more formally dressed than I actually am and that is just my MO. Other people may have on jeans. I may have on jeans, but I’m gonna have on some pearls and a blazer and that is just because it’s habit, it’s style. I was raised by two people who are just really amazing, polished, professional people, but I’m also offsetting the negative stereotypes about Black people in the workplace that were not competent against, you know, Black women that were not competent. And so I make sure that I’m always, I don’t, I would not go on a sweatshirt. That’s just not happening.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Me sitting here in a sweatshirt.
TINA OPIE: Oh, sorry.
EMILY CAULFIELD: No, no, because I, I feel like dress has been always something that like, I haven’t felt uncomfortable challenging in the right workplaces. If I see somebody else wearing jeans, I’m like great. Now I have the OK to wear jeans and I will be wearing jeans or whenever I can or be, or wear comfortable clothing just because I’m so over feeling uncomfortable in my clothes, which I did for a long time. But I do realize that my appearance, which is generally more casual, could make me appear less competent to people because I choose hiking boots in jeans, and a beanie.
TINA OPIE: See, I think you just have to refine your own style because I am, I mean, I wear big jewelry.
EMILY CAULFIELD: No, that necklace is amazing.
TINA OPIE: And it has become part of my brand where it’s, it’s distinctive jewelry, people, short hair, like the gray hair, a bold lip, usually. And I’ve, I’ve refined that. And so there may be some people who think that it is unprofessional, ’cause I have on a leather and suede jacket, as opposed to, you know, a particular style of blazer. You just have to find what’s comfortable for you, Emily. I mean, and-
EMILY CAULFIELD: and for your workplace, I guess.
TINA OPIE: Yeah. I was gonna say and recognize what the boundaries are in your workplace and you have to decide. What I like to tell people is you can violate whatever boundary you want to, but please know them first. Don’t unintentionally violate the boundaries. I mean, I don’t know if people in the audience remember when women were required to wear well, not required to wear. It was informal, expected to wear panty hose. I was so happy when that norm fell by the wayside.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. That’s how I feel about heels right now.
TINA OPIE: Yeah. I’m not doing it.
AMY GALLO: I was packing for a, the first work trip I took in a long time, and I was putting in my usual things and heels had always been part of that. And I was like, oh, I should try these on ’cause I haven’t had the in 18 months and I put ’em on. I was like, oh no, there is no way. They’re just so uncomfortable. What I’m having trouble figuring out is my concept of what’s required of me changed or is just my tolerance level so much lower around the discomfort I’m willing to experience?
TINA OPIE: I think it’s both. I really don’t wear high heels anymore. I mean, I may wear a platform shoe occasionally, but for the most part I don’t. And when I put my old heels on, it feels like I’m like have my ligaments and tendons expanded because this is super-
AMY GALLO: That’s exactly it.
TINA OPIE: Uncomfortable. Yeah. And there are loads of adorable flats. And then when you go into work, I think more, more people have that mindset around them. And so it’s like, there’s this mutually reinforcing cycle. They’re not as comfortable the workplace because everyone’s not even going back to work. People who do go back to work may have a disproportionate influence on the cultural norms that are being established now, and then they don’t wanna wear the shoes. So you see what I’m saying? It becomes this mutually reinforcing cycle, but that’s how cultures can change.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Well, and it’s funny ’cause to your point earlier, no one ever said, this is what you have to do. It was what other people were doing. It was what happened when you didn’t conform to that, how people reacted.
EMILY CAULFIELD: But I feel like people are talking more about wanting to be casual and talking more about not wanting to wear makeup and talking more about like, I’m gonna wear jeans every day. And because there’s that verbal, that really outward expression of I’m going to be more comfortable because I’ve been so comfortable at home, it makes it easier to make those decisions every day and not stress out about them as much. So Tina, in the previous episode on authenticity, you basically lamented that we live in a world where impressions matter. Where appearance is highly connected to impressions. And so, you’ve dedicated your research and your teaching to help get closer to a world where that’s not necessarily the case and I’m wondering if you think that society is moving in that direction or if we’re getting closer to that.
TINA OPIE: I hope so. I’m optimistic that there will be more people like you all at organizations who are asking these kinds of questions and who are taking it beyond this podcast but going back to the workplace and examining the norms and guidelines that you have. As we’re seeing a rise in sort of people not wanting to go back to work, there’s also, I think a rise in entrepreneurship, which is interesting to me. I think there’s a relationship there. I am hopeful that organizational leaders will use this as an opportunity to explore what their employees are asking for so that we can create more inclusive organizations where appearance’ norms don’t have the negative consequences that they may have right now. And I think employees in some instances are fed up and not necessarily going to comply in the same way that they have in the past.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Especially now that employees have the power.
TINA OPIE: Absolutely. Some of us may feel threatened by this, but I, this is a great opportunity for organizations. Organizations that will end up with competitive advantages will be those organizations who say, OK, authenticity is important to employees. We’ve talked about why wellbeing, productivity, work engagement. So let’s start looking at how our organization supports authentic expression in the workplace. How are we hiring people? Oh, we asked a question about this person being, you know, having an accent. Is that necessary? Do we need to go that way? We talked about this person and we said they need to be more pulled together and polished. Let’s unpack that. What do we mean by that? Then they may actually look at the leadership prototype at the organization. So are all of the leaders tall with charismatic, extroverted personalities? Does that have any influence on how more introverted people maybe responding? Is everybody sort of performing in this prototypical way so that they can have a higher likelihood of being promoted? Really asking those questions, though. And rather than being threatened by them, look at it as an opportunity to get a leg up. And to do honestly, what I think is the right thing by the employees where you are really trying to create cultures where employees have better wellbeing, they have stronger engagement, they’re more productive. That actually benefits the organization. It benefits the organization and the people who work there.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Tina, it is always so good to see you and hear you. Thanks again for joining us.
TINA OPIE: Thank you for having me.
EMILY CAULFIELD: That’s our show. I’m Emily Caulfield.
AMY GALLO: I’m Amy Gallo.
AMY BERNSTEIN: and I’m Amy Bernstein. Our editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Rob Eckhardt, Erica Truxler, Tina Tobey Mack and Elainy Mata. Robin Moore composed this theme music.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Email us at email@example.com and subscribe to our newsletter by going to hbr.org/newsletters.
AMY BERNSTEIN: Thanks for listening.