Corporate America keeps encouraging employees for authenticity in the workplace — but is anyone really prepared for it?
Comedian Norm Macdonald once noticed a troubling trend among new stand-ups: the rise of “confessional comedy.” He saw entertainers that were way more interested in sharing cringeworthy, raw, ragged, look-how-brave-I-am anecdotes than in telling jokes. In Norm’s eyes, they weren’t stand-up comedians so much as shameless performers with an agenda — people who were leveraging their painful pasts as a distraction from not being funny in the first place.
Here’s how he put it:
“I saw a one-woman show once and she goes, ‘Well, my mother had breast cancer and now I have breast cancer.’ And I’m like… well, that’s everybody. They think it’s so special when everyone gets cancer and dies. It’s the height of narcissism to think that just because you have cancer, you’re brave. How is that brave? It seems cowardly to me.”
But Norm hadn’t simply identified a stand-up comedy trend; he’d zeroed in on a symptom of a larger problem that’s quietly and irrevocably re-shaping the modern workplace. Post-COVID, employers have increasingly encouraged their people to bring their “true self” to the job. Forbes has gone out of its way to trumpet this trend; they’ve done a mind-boggingly hilarious job of profiling countless CEOs, but treating each one like they’re some unique trailblazer in the “Be Yourself” crusade. I mean, here’s one. And another one. Oh, and here. This one, too. It’s unreal.
“Authenticity” is no different than “transparency,” another HR buzzword. You’ve undoubtedly encountered it, since it’s folded into everything from onboarding materials, ads for training classes, and employee emails. It’s the backbone of many internal wellness campaigns, too, which feature taglines such “Let’s get real here,” “We’re not a workplace — we’re your second home” and “You do you” — all shades of the same woefully misguided idea.
Certainly, these are a far cry from “I don’t care what you do on your own time,” but they’re also a zillion light years beyond the “Stop crying and just do your job” drumbeat of, say, our parents’ generation. They mark a sea change that’s both suspiciously sudden and strangely sympathetic, challenging not only what we should bring to our jobs, but who we should bring.
That’s why Norm Macdonald’s skepticism toward confessional comedy echoes my own concerns about the new feelings-friendly posture many corporations are adopting. From the Thanksgiving dinner table to the endless high school reunion that is/was Facebook, we all expect impossible levels of transparency from the world. As a result, in terms of corporate life, an employee’s emotional well-being has a currency that it’s never had.
Earlier in my career, a mental-health day was accomplished by calling in sick and watching The Price is Right. In 2023, companies offer “Mental Health Day” as a sanctioned attendance option. Hell, even my kids’ attendance apps offer it now. And while I appreciate this on a surface level, I can’t help but feel like we’re drifting away from professional integrity and into murkier workplace waters. I sometimes wonder what my grandfather (an engineer and mathematician who spent his entire career with General Motors) would think if he had to tangle with the emotional minefield of the modern workplace.
Authenticity is something that virtually every employer claims to want, but is generally ill-equipped to receive. Whenever an employee is encouraged to bring their “true self” to work and they actually do, the word “brave” then gets thrown around like confetti. I know this for a fact because I’m one of those employees who went all-in with their “Here’s the real me!” poker chips. (I’ll come back to this.)
Like Norm, I argue that “being real” at work isn’t at all brave — especially when you consider that your colleagues are being asked to do the same thing at the same time. After all, true bravery is never the result of some corporate directive. Studies like this one suggest that openness in the workplace leads to a “richer, more authentic product,” while similar research indicates that it leads to low turnover rates and better bottom lines. But those seem like easy answers…
What’s truly driving this trend? Is it because when a company invites employees to share their “real self,” the invitation itself gives them the illusion that they have a pulse? Think about it for a second. Like, really think about it. Even if your employer’s motives are genuine and well-intentioned, your managers likely don’t know what they don’t know. If things go sideways, the “Be Yourself” rhetoric runs the real risk of railroading more and more people to EAP than enriching the employee experience.
This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you that I’m a recovering alcoholic. <Cue that easy applause> Before finding sobriety, I was as alcoholic as an alcoholic gets, too. My main skill in life used to be hiding wine bottles around the house in ridiculously obvious, first-place-you’d-look places. When I finally latched onto an alcohol-free life, I pretty much kept it to myself because, well, that’s the social contract.
The point: it was an unspoken fact that you didn’t bring your personal life to work — especially if you’re, let’s say, an addict in recovery. Home life was home life, work was work, and that was that. For a decade, I worked for JPMorgan Chase which, if you know nothing about finance in all the same ways that I know nothing about sports, is one of the world’s largest banks. (It’s probably The World’s Largest Bank™, but I’m too lazy to Google that.) Anyway, for the better part of my time there, even after my alcoholism, home life was a horror show.
Divorce. Dementia diagnosis for my father (who then died shortly after). Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Depression. All of life’s greatest hits...
Imagine your life as if it’s a TV show. Now, let’s say that this TV show has been written, season after high-quality season, by someone like the guy who created The West Wing. Now, what if at the start of Season 7, Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin is replaced by none other than 1980s comedian Gallagher. Overnight, you’ve gone from West Wing to watermelons. But can you tell your managers or colleagues this? No, you had to pretend that nothing had changed. That’s the sort of workforce that I entered into back in the 90s — and for better or for worse, it’s all but unrecognizable from today’s.
Many of us feel like we deserve Oscar nominations for the day-to-day performances we give to the people around us. There isn’t an incentive to be real; there’s no upshot there. At JPMC, I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive, caring firm — full of thoughtful managers and a seemingly infinite amount of mental health resources. Emotions encouraged; tears accepted. (By the way, no, this isn’t a paid advertisement for JPMorgan.) I mention this because “night and day” doesn’t begin to describe how different JPMC is now from when I started.
During my first week on the job, around the time when the housing market collapsed, JPMC’s charmingly brash CEO Jamie Dimon was scheduled to visit our office in Columbus, Ohio. (Sadly, it wasn’t in honor of my first week there.) Dimon reads as a perpetually prepared, sharply-dressed, well-bodyguarded, silver-haired billionaire who enjoys peppering profanity throughout his speeches like some Southwestern celebrity chef who just can’t be stopped with the jalapenos.
All I know is the hourlong “town hall” was a massive deal for everyone around me. Walls were scrubbed clean by people on scaffolds while the outside was blasted with high-pressure water. Colorful plants suddenly lined the walkways, thanks to ninja-like gardeners I never saw. Floors were polished with precision. Emails circulated nonstop about how to correctly wear neckties and jackets, not to mention proper skirt lengths. (Just believe me when I tell you this email was necessary for too many people — and I’m looking at you, Call Center Lady Who Loves Pajama Pants.)
This event was standing room only and I was near the back, watching Dimon do his thing, all the while thinking just how happy I was to have a job. When the questions shifted from “Why is our cafeteria food so bad?” to “Can our cafeteria food get better?” to “Have you had our cafeteria food here?”, I was happy to finally hear a real question:
“What advice would you give someone just entering the workforce?”
Dimon thought about this for a couple of beats, and I’ll never-ever forget his response:
“In the real world, no one cares how you feel.”
If cornered, I doubt anyone at the bank (Dimon included) would admit that he ever said this. After all, that doesn’t exactly square with 2023 Corporate America, does it? But when it comes down to it, he was right. No one really, actually, genuinely 100% cares how you feel at work. Not even you do. And if you’re appalled by the suggestion that you don’t deeply care about your co-workers’ feelings, then you’re probably one of those Daniel Day-Lewis-types who stays in character between takes, forgetting they’re in a movie.
Now, I’m not saying you don’t care about your colleagues’ feelings; I’m saying that it comes with limits and conditions. Consider that there is only so much energy available on the planet, which is why two hurricanes can’t occur at the same time. The same thing is true about emotions at work. There is only so much emotional capital you’re able to spend on people — especially the people you know from work. So, if you care about everyone, you’re not really caring about anyone.
A very loud and very public investment in the emotional well-being of employees amounts to what I call “empathy theater.” Employers seem to behave in these heightened, hyper-aware, super-empathetic ways that are inherently untrustworthy. They’re like the corporate version of Anne Hathaway: the acting is all fine and good, but I’m acutely aware that someone is acting their ass off on screen.
Like most anyone, I’ve had some real dialtones when it comes to managers. People with the emotional range of air rifles; deer-in-headlights leaders who didn’t sign up to deal with someone’s “truth.” Thinking back on them now, there’s almost something endearing about them. So, when the push for authenticity is itself clearly inauthentic, there are costs and consequences. Too many to count, in fact.
I’m someone who shared their true self at work, don’t forget.
Over time, I became open and honest about my alcoholic past. Having written extensively about it for years, I was eventually invited to speak about my recovery at work. I said yes. My thinking has always been, “My story isn’t unique, but maybe it’ll be unique to someone out there who needs to hear it.” But if I’m being completely honest, I wish I’d kept my goddamn mouth shut. If I’d kept my story to myself, perhaps I could’ve focused more on the sobriety part.
You see, when your identity is completely connected to what you share at a 3:00 p.m. “Employee Wellness Roundtable,” you’re never going to outrun it. My decision to be open and honest in the workplace follows me wherever I go to this day. It shadows my LinkedIn profile to the point where I wonder just how many recruiters have thought, “Nice resume, but too bad this guy might be a time bomb” and moved on.
So, here’s where it becomes tricky. There really is an overwhelming sense of relief and pride that comes with being yourself in the workplace — especially for a former addict like me who hasn’t exactly been good at being myself. And after sharing my “true self,” I was quickly told to keep telling my story, to continue being this person. But what I discovered was that I wasn’t sure if I sharing was the real me, or if I’d created some fictionalized Curb Your Enthusiasm version of that person.
If you want to live out loud at work, be aware that once you show people who and what you are, that’s who and what you are for the rest of your time there. At best, it’s an endless treadmill of making sure you’re living up to someone’s expectations; at worst, it’s like being on on display in a glass jar. Gradually, I became less of an employee than a specimen who appeared in seminars about substance abuse for the company’s EAP program; I gave big speeches for small groups; I sat for internal interviews like this one. I became a go-to cautionary tale, a redemption story, and a recovery poster child conveniently all rolled into one. And with an audience of 250,000 employees potentially hearing what you have to say, it was both daunting and exhausting to be my “real self” at work all the time. I doubt it’s any different in a workplace with 25 employees.
We all have That One Friend who only does charitable, noteworthy things so long as it’s conspicuously captured on, say, Instagram. It’s not a good look. For me, being open about recovery at work wasn’t an opportunity to humblebrag about a bold, new direction in life — it was me answering the call of my employer. They asked for it; I gave it. And while it hadn’t been traumatizing or anything, I’d never felt more exposed. I’d fallen for the lie that the company itself cared. Companies tend to care about how they look to everyone else.
Ironically, many of the places where I’ve written for have shut down or gone offline in recent months. The lessons of my alcoholic past, much like the details of a dream seconds after you wake up, are quickly evaporating. Part of me feels like it’s dying, too. But why did I tell anyone I was sober outside of AA? Why did I buy the lie?
Personally, I think it has to do with the fact that even the most cynical, cold-hearted people among us are good people. In my early twenties, back when I was teaching English 101 to students barely younger than me, my final essay prompt was wide open. They could literally write about anything. I mean, come on: what greater gift to a student is that? You want to write about the fashion sense of senior citizens? Fantastic. The history of dishwashing? Sign me up. The secret life of being a Juggalo? Bring it on.
So long as their essay followed the rules that I’d taught them, I figured it didn’t matter. After six semesters, though? It mattered. I couldn’t take it anymore. Without fail, I’d receive at least one or two exhaustively emotional responses from students who wrote about something traumatic, depressing, or downright devastating that they’d endured. But those papers were the products of my dangerously lazy writing prompt in the exact same ways employers keep blindly inviting your “full self” into the workplace.
My students were submitting torrential-downpour confessionals. They were these 12-point, double-spaced grenades thrown over the wall, with uncomfortably detailed narratives that were (probably up until then) known only to close family, friends, and/or law enforcement officials. My immediate response? I awarded those papers a solid A, not to mention adjectives like “brave” or “courageous” in my comments. (Sound familiar?)
Over time, though, things changed because they had to change. I wasn’t colder or more callous; I simply had to ignore what they were saying to focus on how they were saying it. I evaluated all of the things the papers were missing: structure, flow, spelling, style, syntax, reasoning, punctuation. Those papers missed the mark, just like I’d missed the mark handing out A’s.
As an instructor, the question became: “Am I giving a C+ to a student’s paper, or am I giving a C+ to that student’s experience?” It’s as thorny as much as it’s preventable. What I’m saying is there’s no joy in me giving a C+ grade to a student’s raw piece of writing. Even when I sharpened my end-of-year writing prompt, I thought I’d be better able to filter those confessionals about repression, rape or racism. As it turns out, whenever I invited even the smallest part of someone’s authenticity into the room — as a college instructor in the classroom, or as a manager in corporate finance — the damage always emerged in another way.
The chair of our English department, for example, strongly suggested that I “maybe go easy” the next time around with the students who wrote sensitive replies to my new, narrower prompt. After some complaints from these undergrads’ parents that their freshmen kids might need counseling because of the C or C+ they deserved, I was asked to dial future grades to “maybe a B-.” My chair’s exact suggestion was: “Just keep these kids above sea level, okay? They’re pouring their hearts out here.”
And so, I again pulled my punches. I was false and inauthentic all while grading genuine, real stories riddled with typos. Truth is a lot like water in that way: the more you try to contain it, the more that it does untold and unseen damage. Rain always finds your house’s weaknesses. A brand-new roof is fantastic to have, but if someone didn’t power-nail just one shingle correctly, your dining room ceiling suddenly has a soft spot. No matter how it comes in, no matter who tries to guide it — authenticity affects anyone and everyone it comes into contact with. Department chairs and 23-year-old English instructors included.
Thinking about sharing your truth online, at work, with extended family, or even that shady dude behind you right now (don’t turn around!), here are a few things to consider before you do:
· Check your motives. Ask yourself who you’re doing it for. If you’re doing it for the adrenaline rush of coming clean and/or loudly telling everyone that you are who you are, think about the average amount of time you’re excited by someone endorsing your social media post with a like or a swipe. Three seconds? Five? After the dopamine wears off, you’re left in a vacuum.
· Journals exist for a reason. For me, once I let the genie out of the bottle, it was over. No one at my job said anything after I was “out,” but there was always an unspoken distance in the room. I knew that they knew that I knew that they knew. That sort of thing. For a long time, my AA sponsor was often concerned that I was putting too much of myself out into the universe with my articles. “You don’t have to write everything as if it’s going to be published,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good to keep it to yourself.”
· It follows you. In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend admonishes him for writing about her online, arguing that the internet is written with a pen, not a pencil. It lasts. The same is true with everyone you tell, no matter where you decide to tell it. It’s the little piece of corn that gets stuck in your teeth for as long as you’re at your job.
· Do you need approval all the time? You’ll always get approval when you put yourself out there. Think about the last time someone told you a family member or a pet died. Nine times out of ten, you didn’t greet that with silence, did you? You gave them the “I’m so sorry” reflex, right? Well, the same is true when you bring authenticity to the workplace. People don’t know how to react so they react the way everyone else around them does. But when that approval wears off, you have to live in the sort of galactic emptiness that fills a star when it goes supernova.
· Welcome to the next level of insecurity. If you believe that bringing your “true self” to work will give you the boost of confidence you’ve been missing all this time — it won’t. Trust me. Whatever confidence you had in yourself becomes a liability. You’ll find yourself questioning everyone and everything. Opening up at work can you reduce you to little more than a quirk, trait, or weakness in co-workers’ minds, instead of being seen as an evolving, changing, or dynamic human.
· What does the “real you” actually add at work? A friend of mine who works in HR answered my question this way: “Nothing. Well, maybe more cussing. Yeah, probably that. More F-bombs. Other than that, it can only complicate things. There is no place for the real you.” (I can attest to the F-bomb part, by the way. Where I live just got named the most profane city in the world. I mean, holy shit!)
I wonder just how many millions of dollars have been spent by companies hurriedly trying to build support structures once authenticity is in the door. Where many employees see brand-new counseling programs and support services, I’m sure others see difficult discussions and dollar signs spreading like bacteria across their budgets and org charts.
Bringing your “full self” requires you to live your life twice. What I mean is that living your life is one thing, but fulfilling the expectations in the eyes of your employer is an additional work requirement that probably isn’t in your job description. Turns out: it’s actual work being yourself. Even if you have nothing to hide, when a police car rides your tail on the highway, odds are that you’re putting your hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. You’re doing your best impression of a good driver. Now, try doing that all the time. Imagine having a police car behind you at every turn, signal and light. It’s exhausting and unsustainable.
There can be something truly beautiful about seeing someone share their lives in a space that generally suffocates any mention of it. But when it’s encouraged with a capital “E” by a corporation, when it’s an everyday occurrence to learn something about your co-workers, it’s what you don’t share in the workplace than can be far more powerful than what you do. Whenever a company encourages you to share your insecurities, faults, struggles, and secrets to serve their interests, not your own, it creates an unprecedented threat to your identity.
Asking for the “real you,” however, hides a much harsher truth in plain sight: there is no such thing as a “work you” — and everyone knows it.
Paul Fuhr is the author of the well-received alcoholism memoir Bottleneck. His writing has appeared in The Literary Review, McSweeney’s, The Sobriety Collective, InRecovery, AfterParty and The Fix, among others.