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Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
Senior Editor

Bill Steinman
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Richard L. Cassin
Editor at Large

Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
Contributing Editor

Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Shruti J. Shah
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
Contributing Editor

Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Is workplace ‘authenticity’ good for compliance?

Along with work-from-anywhere and quiet quitting, the pandemic gave us “bring your whole self to work.” But what does being real at work look like? And is workplace authenticity a good idea for compliance?

Defining what’s real at work is tough, mainly because people have different ideas about it. For some, it’s about how they dress for the job. For others, it’s how they talk to coworkers, and how open they are with critical feedback. For many, it simply means no game face for zoom sessions or conference room pizza parties.

All those might be strategies that help people cope with the stresses of work. But what happens when compliance officers themselves adopt a “bring your whole self to work” approach?

First off, compliance officers need credibility. It’s essential to their leadership and modeling. But like all leaders and role models, they can lose credibility when they’re too honest about themselves.

Herminia Ibarra, a London Business School professor, started writing about workplace authenticity long before the pandemic. In a 2016 article for HBR called “The Authenticity Paradox,” she described Cynthia, a general manager in a healthcare organization.

“I want to do this job,” Cynthia told colleagues and subordinates, “but it’s scary, and I need your help.”

Cynthia’s “candor backfired; she lost credibility with people who wanted and needed a confident leader to take charge,” Ibarra said.

“True-to-selfers,” as Ibarra calls them, can easily undermine themselves at work.

Jacob, a food company production manager, sometimes angrily exploded at subordinates. Minutes later, he’d make a joke, as though the outburst hadn’t happened.

Jacob saw his work behavior as authentic, Ibarra said. But his abrupt swings had a “destabilizing effect” on those around him and led to a loss of trust.

Cultural differences can turn authenticity into a problem. In Asia, I saw Western bosses who made a point of being “themselves” — informal, loud, and blunt. That contrasted with the local approach, which prized cooperation and avoiding confrontation or personal embarrassment. The clash of values caused local workers to withdraw emotionally and filter what they told their Western bosses.

Workers often perform how they’re expected to, for good or bad. It’s a self-fulling prophecy called the Pygmalion effect.

What happens when compliance officers hear about bad actors and authentically blurt out, “Not again!” or “How dumb can they be?” Their reaction reveals low expectations and sets the stage for ever poorer compliance.

Are there ways authenticity can strengthen compliance? Yes, there are.

Compliance officers need to be relatable. Authenticity (up to a point) might bring more relatability. I’ve talked before about compliance officers who acknowledge past mistakes and therefore make better leaders and trainers. They connect more than those who pretend to be infallible.

What about employees in general? What happens when they’re more authentic at work?

Perhaps they’re also more engaged, and that’s good for compliance. Engaged employees are better learners than detached and alienated colleagues.

And when workers are more authentic, they’re more apt to recognize unethical behavior and speak up about it. Part of being authentic means lowering barriers and seeing what’s around you. That can be good for compliance.

It’s a matter of balance, then. Too much authenticity can swerve into extreme self-centeredness and even cynicism. At work, cynicism kills any esprit de corp that comes from a shared mission and a willingness to cooperate. It’s poison to the compliance program.

But too little authenticity isn’t good either. People at work shouldn’t be robotic — distant, mechanical, disengaged. That type of leader inspires no one. And a “who cares” attitude separates workers from each other and undermines organizational success.

What does it all mean? There’s a sweet spot somewhere between full-on authenticity and autopilot.

Finding that sweet spot should be on every compliance officer’s to-do list.

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