Roundtable discussion: Identity crisis

Last week, Personnel Today revealed the results of Vodafone’s annual Working Nation survey. The overwhelming finding was that we are a nation of ‘workplace chameleons’, changing our personalities and identity to get on at work – and bosses positively expect it. But how damaging is this tension between work and personal life, and what are the effects of these changing identities on people’s performance, values and behaviours?

Personnel Today met with a group of HR professionals, academics and workplace psychologists to discuss the findings.

Q We all change our identities to some extent at work, but does that really make us workplace chameleons?

Chris Bones: We all wear different clothes, but I’m not sure I agree with the term ‘workplace chameleons’. People’s motivations for being in that group are all very different. For example, divorcees are cited as more likely to change themselves, but this may be because they have greater personal or financial commitments.

John Purcell: There’s a notion of ’emotional labour’ – so if you are a member of airline cabin crew, or in sales, you show behaviours that are deemed to be appropriate to success in that role – you smile, you’re polite. The question, then, is the extent to which you’re able, when off duty, to shake off these behaviours.

David Leech: The experiences I have where people you know in one circumstance turn out to be different in another are all in the workplace.

Andy Hill: We have a perception of how we’re supposed to behave at work, and there’s an expectation that we must be doing it for someone else. The paradox is that we’re doing it for ourselves. Outside work, our social interaction is our choice; at work, we don’t have a choice.

John Purcell: Somewhere like [department store] John Lewis is where work and personal values coincide. Staff recognise that what the company is trying to do with its customers is similar to what they want themselves. There’s a sharing of values and the two identities work well together.

Q What influences our workplace identity?

Alison Gill: We all come to a job with baggage, especially when we’ve worked for big companies. You leave one job because of the bureaucracy or whatever – the key is to be open and honest up front.

John Purcell: Professionals, such as accountants and lawyers, tend to emphasise job satisfaction. They want to know: ‘Does my employer help me achieve job satisfaction?’ So you can identify with your employer, but many people identify with their clients. Organisations that say your chief identity must be the corporate one tend to impose their culture from the top down.

Chris Bones: HR often gets in the way in the conversations we have with our employers. They say: ‘This is what he really meant by this…’. In the private sector, we invested everything we had in branding because of the war for talent, but we stopped investing in line management. This has serious consequences.

Q What can HR professionals do to ease the transition between our work selves and our personal selves?

David Leech: HR is the go-between, the creator of conversations. CMS has devised a toolkit around ‘things to talk to people about’, whether that’s office politics or pay. When I worked at [banking company] Investec, we put all our energy into culture rather than strategy, creating conditions in which we could be opportunistic.

Chris Bones: HR has spent the last 15 to 20 years taking layers out of organisations. We assume the organisation could do the same amount of work with fewer people. As HR, we should take the blame for taking time out of organisations to have conversations.

David Cartwright: Our company is very lean now. It’s impossible to maintain the interaction you had before. You’ve also got to remember that people have different identities outside the workplace – they’re a father, a husband, as well as an employee.

Andy Hill: We need to promote a notion of team effectiveness. You’ve got a team, and you need to work together. There’s an expectation of what success looks like, thanks to billionaires such as Alan Sugar and [mobile phone entrepreneur] John Cauldwell. People leave companies because they don’t get a certain percentage pay rise.

Q How do market forces impact our identities at work?

Andy Hill: At Vodafone, our strategy is changing all the time. We can’t succession plan what we have already, as things will be different in a year.

David Cartwright: We are a brand, but 60% to 70% of staff relate to our customers because that’s who they’re working for. They wear the clients’ uniform.

Q A minority of staff would be ruthless to succeed. How can you ensure ethical behaviour in your organisation? At what stage do you question individual behaviour?

David Leech: In a law firm, everyone talks to each other via an intermediary, and HR tends to make that worse. In our firm, it’s OK to have a rant. There’s a moment when you’re ‘on show’ and another when you’re part of the family.

Andy Hill: If people see that other staff are being promoted despite bad performance, because they’ve lied, then why shouldn’t they do the same? They ask themselves: ‘Do I make my behaviour negative because of the culture in which I work?’

Alison Gill: In some working cultures it’s OK to take bribes or sleep with prostitutes and put it on expenses.

Chris Bones: There’s a difference between how you’re trained to be part of a community and how I am as an individual. If you are a collective being, you adopt a persona associated with that collective.

John Purcell: At what stage do you do anything? Low performance.

Q In conclusion, is it acceptable to expect people to change their behaviour at work?

Chris Bones: Work and personal behaviour are different. At your happiest there will be a lot of convergence; at your lowest, there isn’t. Chameleons are probably the unhappiest individuals. It’s not OK to ask people to change their personal style, but there are ‘sign-ups’ we have to accept, such as dress codes and how we behave with clients. The more transparent the organisation, the fewer unhappy people you will get.

David Cartwright: Most people join an organisation because they feel an alignment with it; they leave because they feel a misalignment.

Alison Gill: I think everyone is a workplace chameleon. It just depends on the time and situation of your career. To change a system, you first have to work within it.

Workplace chameleons: the statistics

  • 59% of employees change their personality and identity to some extent at work.
  • 6% – the equivalent of 1.5m workers – change everything about themselves.
  • Women are more likely to change than men. 63% of women compared with 50% of men change their identities at work, but men are more likely to let other colleagues take the blame for their mistakes.
  • Bosses actually expect people to change: 67% of directors and employers expect some degree of behavioural shift at work.
  • One-fifth of employees change their appearance.
  • 60% of graduate trainees adopt false characteristics to get accepted.
  • 7% of workers would lie and 11% would be very ruthless in order to succeed.
  • You have to toe the line to get ahead – 56% of employers believe that the higher you climb, the more personal compromises you make to your character or values.

About the sample: This year, Vodafone’s Working Nation survey polled 2,000 employees, 215 senior employers and 310 entrepreneurs or self-employed workers.

Our panel

  • Chair: Chris Bones, principal, Henley Management College
  • David Leech, head of HR, law firm CMS Cameron McKenna
  • Ken Rowe, managing director, workplace psychology company YSC
  • Alison Gill, director and co-founder, consultancy company Getfeedback
  • David Cartwright, group HR development manager, logistics company Wincanton
  • Professor John Purcell, Bath University School of Management
  • Andy Hill, head of resourcing, mobile network company Vodafone UK

UK workers changing their personalities to get ahead

Working Nation report download or e-mail

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