The other day, someone twitted that baby lawyers shouldn’t suffer abuse at work, and if they are abused, should find a healthier place to work. This was an utterly banal expression, but for one thing. What’s “abuse” mean? Was it the obvious, physical violence, racial epithets, throwing items and personal insults, or was it criticizing poor work without sandwiching it between compliments? Was anything short of a tummy rub abusive? Was it like rape, whatever the “survivor” says it is?
Some reactions were somewhat informative, including yelling and screaming as “abuse,” but others reacted with unsurprising outrage, that only an abuser would not know what “abuse” means, proving yet again that no amount of education can fix stupid. But I digress.
Another old guy responded in an aside that this aligns with the problem of men mentoring or going on business trips with young women, never sure what degree of chaste familiarity will be perceived as improper and give rise to a heinous accusation that exists only in her psyche. They don’t want to treat women differently, but they also don’t want to be accused of sexual improprieties.
The meaning imputed to these beloved vagaries like “abuse” and “harassment” raise a question. Why are these young people so easily victimized by anything that happens at work? I’m not talking about physical harm, or even personal insults, but being criticized, reprimanded, and even yelled at? It’s unpleasant, sure, but if you aren’t fired or demoted, so what? It’s a job. Want to be appreciated more? Work harder. Your boss is a jerk? Find another job. Maybe you’ll find out you’re right or maybe your boss wasn’t a jerk, and you suck at the job even if you’re too narcissistic to realize it. Either way, it’s still a job.
But then I learned the reason why, because people aren’t just going to work to do a job, whether it’s the best they can or just mailing it in (and yet calling it abuse when their boss tells them they suck at the job). No, they’re bringing their whole self to work.
You may be unaware of the prevailing “whole self” fashion. Perhaps you managed to skip that H.R. module or you work at a small outfit, one unencumbered by systems, strategies and sweeping philosophies.
So what exactly does it even mean? According to TED talker and corporate consultant Mike Robbins, author of a book called — that’s right — “Bring Your Whole Self to Work,” it means being able “to fully show up” and “allow ourselves to be truly seen” in the workplace. Per Robbins, it’s “essential” to create a work environment “where people feel safe enough to bring all of who they are to work.”
Well, that certainly clears thing up, right?
In this new workplace, you don’t have to keep your head down and do your job. Instead, you “bring your whole self to work” — personality flaws, vulnerabilities, idiosyncratic mantras and all.
What was illuminating here is how this has not only created a bizarre reality, where people are encouraged, emboldened, to demand that their work environment be “safe” for their non -work related peccadillos, but how the narcissism precludes their realizing that if this is the case, it’s a two-way street. Not only do they get to be their “whole selves,” but so do their co-workers and their supervisors.
If it happens that your “whole self” happens to get a thrill out of crush videos, do you get to regale your shared desker about your kink and they must put on their interested glasses and not tell you to shut up because you’re a sick fuck? If your supervisor’s “whole self” includes a quirk of barking displeasure in a stentorian voice, isn’t she as permitted as you are to demand that she include a land acknowledgement before every job direction?
In other words, for the world outside the H.R. department, the phrase “bringing your whole self to work” is almost guaranteed to induce a vomit emoji. Rarely has a phrase of corporate jargon raised so much ire and rolled as many eyeballs with everyone I’ve talked to about the subject.
And yet. In recent years, the “whole self” movement has gained momentum in part because it dovetails with fortified corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (D.E.I.) programs. Both purport to make employees feel comfortable expressing aspects of their identity in the workplace, even when irrelevant to the work at hand.
Let’s assume most of us are “live and let live” types, not having the slightest care what sexual adventures a co-worker enjoys. After all, it’s “irrelevant to the work at hand” and, frankly, none of our business. But what if the co-worker brings it to work as part of his “whole self,” and insists on telling you with graphic detail about his sex life, whatever that might be. Can your “whole self” tell his “whole self” to shut up and that you don’t want to hear about exploits with gerbils?
And, indeed, what if you don’t want to bring your “whole self” to work, but prefer to keep your private life private? Does that make you the office asshole who refuses to share?
The problem is for many people, it’s no more comfortable dragging the whole kit and caboodle into the workplace than it is showing up every day on a relentless basis. Nor is it necessarily productive. Not everyone wants their romantic life, their politics, their values or their identity viewed by their colleagues as pertinent to their performance. For some people, a private life is actually best when it’s private.
What if the mantra wasn’t bring your whole self to work, and instead was bring your work self to work and leave the rest of it for someone who gives a shit?
So here’s an alternative: Let’s everyone bring only — or at least primarily — the worky parts. You remember those fragments: the part that angsted over every résumé punctuation mark and put a suit on for the first interview, the part whose mom urged her to put her best face forward in the workplace? It’s that old-fashioned thing we used to call “being professional.”
Not only does this approach have the benefit of maintaining a level of workplace professionalism, the sort that enables people to be as friendly as they want to be while doing the job for which they get paid, but if you do your job well and your boss still screams nasty, insulting and improper things at you, you will know that you’re being abused and that it’s the boss and not you.