Has HR got ‘authenticity’ all wrong?

Billy Adamsen, associate professor and head of talent lab at Zealand Academy of Technology & Business, Denmark, says HR has got 'authenticity' wrong. Staff 'can't' be their authentic self at work...

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Jan 8, 2024

If there was one word that seemed to come up A LOT in 2023, it was this one: authenticity.

The notion that employees should be free to be their “authentic selves” at work [which really means that it’s HR’s role to create the conditions for this to be so], has almost become a rallying cry.

Authenticity is lauded as being the key – some say vital – ingredient that boosts productivity and engagement, and it’s seen as the being the savior a whole host of other workplace ills.

In fact last month, authentic was officially named the Merriam Webster ‘Word of the Year’ – the crown it gives each year to the word enjoying the biggest look-up rates and the greatest percentage rise in lookups.

Authentic came in ahead of other popular words in 2023 – like ‘dystopian’, ‘deepfake’ and ‘deadnaming’ (the latter referring to when someone deliberately uses the name that a transgender individual was given at birth, but which they no longer use).

It’s not surprising authenticity has gained so much traction. “We see a kind of crisis of authenticity,” says Merriam Webster’s editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski. “What we realize is that when we question authenticity, we value it even more.”

In HR circles it’s been embraced as one of those warm, fuzzy concepts that is simultaneously able to make sense of, but also able to defy really serious academic rigor.

It’s a sort of ‘thing’ – a feeling – that seems nice to chase, but without really being able to define what it is. But that’s OK, because there are now entire books devoted to the subject of authenticity – from ‘The Authenticity Principle’ by Ritu Basin (CEO and founder of BHasin Consulting Inc, a global diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consulting firm – to ‘The Art of Authenticity’ – how to be an authentic leader and ‘your best self’ – by Karissa Thacker,

But is this really OK?

According to Billy Adamsen, associate professor and head of talent lab at Zealand Academy of Technology & Business, Denmark, HR professionals should not be so accepting of this term.

In fact, he’s pretty much of the opinion that employees cannot be their authentic self at work – and nor should HR professionals encourage them to even think that they can.

He pretty much turns authenticity on its head by arguing that what we need is a specific ‘work identity’ and a specific ‘outside work’ identity, and to try an suggest your outside one will suit the workplace is just wrong.

This sounds intriguing.

TLNT couldn’t resist talking to him:

Q: So, you think we need to have a ‘work identity’ that is different from our usual authentic self. Can you start by explaining what you mean by this?

A: “In a alternative career, I used to recruit people. But what struck me was that I seemed to be just so bad at it – and this was despite me looking at all the things that, in theory, should have made the people I hired really great. Subjectively I picked people who I thought would be good, but they never seemed to work out. I started asking myself whether it was me that was getting things so wrong. But then it dawned on me. What I started to observe amongst all the people being hired was an almost total absence of a ‘work identity’. When I interviewed people who would be described to me as ‘talent’ [even though this is a hard word to define], no-one actually talked about work. They were all very ‘I’ orientated. They were not talking about the skills they could bring, but were instead talking about themselves. When I decided to ask people ‘What about your work identity?’ I just didn’t seem to get a response. I decided to write a paper about this absence of a work identity, and soon found that the more I dug into it, the more I became convinced that the stronger ones ‘work identity’ is, the stronger our wellness and happiness with our performance goals. The fact is, very few of us in organizations are defining what a good work identity is, and how it needs to differ from other identities.”

Q: Are you suggesting employees actually need to come to a decision about what their ‘work identity should be?

A: “Essentially, yes. I remember my parents telling me about the sort of career that I should consider getting into. I knew what skills I had, and I sort of inherited a work identity. But when I look at young people today, I don’t see them with a work identity. They don’t have one, or seem to inherit one. The problem is, that when people have no work identity, they enter the labor-force with the only identity they do have – which is their personal identity – and they presume this will make them happy. But I see the opposite. You cannot be your authentic self at work, because work isn’t a private sphere. It has different norms of behavior, and sets expectations of people where the requirement is that they adapt to them.”

Q: Compared to the majority of the literature out there, this feels quite controversial – how does it go down with people?

A: “From an academic level, I think people do actually ‘get it’. Interestingly, when I talk to employees themselves, the majority of them seem to ‘get it’ too. They reflect that the reason they moved jobs, or didn’t fit it, or felt unhappy was because they were ‘too much myself at work’. I think what’s key in all of this, is that we all need to distinguish between what our ‘work identity’ and our ‘private identity’ is. A work identity does exactly what it needs: makes you work-oriented; and it sets parameters. On the one hand companies do seem to know what I’m taking about, but on the other they still seem to recruit against personality traits. The issue they all overlook is this absence of a work identity – which they need to find. To succeed in work, people need a work identity. People can’t be themselves at work.

Q: “Why can’t people’s private identities also be their work ones?

“It just doesn’t work like this. People have to work out whether they match a certain type of work identity that a company needs. The problem is, that HR doesn’t test for this when they recruit people. Personally traits are different from our behavior and what we are good at. I think the real reason many people switch jobs is because they are searching for the work identity that suits their behavior. I’ve actually developed a tool that looks at whether someone’s work identity or their personal one is dominating, which I hope to launch soon.”

Q: Will all this come as a shock to people?

A: “Possibly! But I maintain that in order for us to be more than our work – which is what young people want now – they (ironically perhaps), do need to set boundaries – which is what having a work identity is all about. This is when it’s clear that when you’re at work, you’re working, and when you’re not, you’re not. One can’t switch to one’s private identity without having a work identity in the first place.”

Q: What are the benefits of having a ‘work identity?’

A: “When someone has a work identity it actually protects them from stress, because that’s when they’re able to say they’ve done their working hours that day, and now it’s time for them to be them outside of work. The real tragedy of work right now is that managers tend to assign more to good people, which means the more their home and work identities get broken down. When people have a solid work identity they know that to continue being good at their jobs, they need to take their other identity on. Most people need at least six hours per day where they are not in their work identity.

Q: So is all this talk about ‘authenticity at work’ just a load of rubbish?

A: “I think that when companies talk about authenticity they really have to clarify exactly what they mean. Ones work identity can still be authentic if that person is in their work identity, but really, we all just need to think about having a work, and non–work identity. If actors were themselves, they’d be rubbish actors, because they’re not stepping into a different character. In the workplace it’s similar: people have to step into their work identity, while they are at work.”

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