Why Does Self-expression Belong in the Workplace?

Written by
Abha Ahad

Agrima Sharma is a 22-year-old business school graduate from Dehradun who loves experimenting with her hair colour. She chooses to express her gender and femininity by dying her hair in bright carefully curated colours. While she successfully managed to be true to her self-expression throughout her 10-month program at INSEAD, Paris, the placement season was not kind to her. “I wanted to dye my hair purple, but was told to wait till after the placement season,” she says. She also reveals that some of her peers suggested that she keep her coloured hair tied up in the back during interviews. Others advised her to opt for subtle or darker colours, 

The term “self-expression” is commonly understood as the ways in which we physically express our inner selves and communicate our individuality to the outside world. Self-expression is a basic human right, but in our workplaces, it still remains a privilege. According to a survey conducted by Be Yourself At Work, only 16% of the global workforce feels like their authentic selves while at work. This suggests that, for the sake of employment, 84% of working professionals have to hide parts of themselves. For a major part of their adult lives, they are forced to fit into moulds of people they simply do not identify with. 

Can you really be yourself at work, though?

The primary reason behind this overwhelming statistic is a bitter fact – most of the common ways in which our self-expression manifests in our physical appearance and personal style are considered inappropriate in professional settings. But one’s personal style is more than just fashion. For Ruchi Ruuh, a 42-year-old relationship counselor and therapist based in Delhi, it is her 15 visible tattoos that make her feel confident in her skin. “My tattoos are my decoration and adornments. Most of my tattoos are delicate, feminine yet bold,” she says. “They are an extension of my personality and my gender expression.” Others like Syed Mohammad Yadullah Abidi, a 24-year-old tech journalist based in Delhi, see their tattoos as an extension of themselves and their thoughts. “My inks are a reminder that I have control over my life and that I fight for it every day,” he says. 

From tattoos and body piercings to experimenting with hair, makeup, and clothing, how people choose to express themselves may vary drastically. Still, we are all united by a common thread – the strong urge to be fiercely authentic to oneself. Unfortunately, our workplaces make it difficult for us to be truly ourselves. “If I am doing my job properly, why does this matter? Agrima asks. “But because I wanted a job, I waited [to dye my hair purple].” According to her, in the corporate sector and MNCs dress codes are more strict when it comes to client-facing roles like consulting and marketing, and less rigid for more internal roles like tech or HR. Another 22-year-old management consultant (who wishes to stay anonymous) based in Mumbai also confirms, “Initially during our training, the HR told us that we should not have anything too ‘flashy’.” 

This makes us think. Can an individual ever be too 'flashy'? What even is being too flashy? In most contexts including the rhetoric of the workplace, being 'flashy' often means being different. As a society, we are conditioned to fear our differences and promote uniformity, especially in terms of how we present ourselves. But people are unique. It is our inherent differences that bring nuance and perspective to the workplace. So when people are encouraged to bring their out-of-the-box ideas and varied life experiences to the conference table, why can't their self-expression also have a seat at the table? 

Our conditioning must change.

This lack of a safe space  is also one of the major reasons behind employees leaving the 9 to 5 set-up to become freelancers and entrepreneurs. This alternate form of employment definitely has its merits. It has managed to de-glorify the icon of the corporate employee and can be a great way of prioritising one’s life goals without compromising on one’s career. But when it comes to affording the privilege of being authentic to oneself, self-employment is still not the answer. Sadly, the false ideals of professionalism can extend to one’s client base too. Ruchi Ruuh narrates her experience with one of the couples she was working with. While the couple was well-travelled and well-read, the husband was uncomfortable with her tattoos. “He thought that I wouldn’t be able to understand their traditional values and conservativeness because I was a tattooed woman,” she says. 

Visible tattoos and piercings are often perceived as a sign of rebellion and adoption of Western values, which it is not. They have been an integral part of our heritage and culture for centuries. “My grandmother was from Rajasthan and had beautiful tattoos on her neck, arms, and feet. A few of my tattoos are a dedication to her,” Ruchi adds. Even if they were not, it is high time we stop associating certain physical traits with certain behavioural traits. Discrimination based on appearance should not have any place in any aspect of our lives, especially our workplaces.  

Acknowledging self expression is a form of inclusion.

So, apart from the modern workplaces' evolution towards being more inclusive of employees’ individual needs (courtesy to the future of work movement), why should employers care about their employees’ self-expression? 

For starters, the amount of self-censorship people have to put themselves through to maintain their status of employment takes a huge toll on their mental health. This suppression can make people feel ashamed of themselves. When people are desperately waiting for the workday to end so that they can go back to being who they are, their productivity at work is hampered. 

Secondly, experimenting with our self-expression helps us understand our needs and wants, define our dreams and aspirations, and eventually nail down our personal manifesto. The statistics from Be Yourself At Work, state that only 24% of the workforce knows who they truly are. A person who has had the privilege of figuring out themselves is more likely to work at a firm and position that aligns with their personal values. When you curate a safe space for your employees, you in turn attract folks whose goals and values align with your core values. But you don’t have to take my word for it. The data from the above-mentioned survey also states that there was an 85% spike in employee productivity when they were allowed to be their true selves at work.

For some human resource managers like Sruthy Joshi (name changed), this is a priority. "Creating a workplace environment that is diverse and tolerant of each other's differences is important to an organisation's growth,” she says. “Self-expression is an important aspect of that diversity.” 

As explained before, the key to creating a safe space for self-expression in the workplace is to dismantle the traditional notions of professionalism. The key to such a workplace is accountability. As Bo Young Lee, Uber’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer said at the 2019 HR Uncubed Conference, “Diversity & Inclusion needs to be something every employee at the company has a stake in.” With consistent mutual respect and tolerance for each other, a modern workplace that is truly and happily diverse is not a far reality. 


Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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