More than half of attendees to the panel voted that employees should not have to adapt themselves to fit into a company’s culture 

“Bring your whole self to work” – this is a mantra that refers to embracing your full, authentic self in the work environment and has fast become a norm in society today.

But when it comes to diversity and inclusion, how much does an employee’s job progression depend on this – and should they adapt to the workplace culture to climb the ladder?

Attendees to a DiveIn Festival debate on this subject held in September met under Chatham House rules to discuss this topic.

They voted on the whether employees should adapt to their workplace culture, with 54% saying that employees should adapt to fit into company culture – 46% voted against this.

However, by the end of the panel discussion, this vote had been completely flipped on its head – with 66% saying that employees should not adapt themselves to fit in, while only 34% voted they should.

Citing a quote from writer Oscar Wilde – “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken” – one panellist spoke about their experience being a working-class South Asian who entered the square mile straight out of college without any university education.

The panellist said: “I did not feel comfortable, I did not feel a sense of belonging, I did not feel like I wanted to fit in. It just wasn’t me at all, it impacted my mental health, my wellbeing, provided distractions – and ultimately it impacted my ability to get on with my work.

“I still did it and thrived as that is the work ethic I have, but it wasn’t good for me.”

However, the panellist said they believed that organisations had come a long way since then: “From culture fit to one of culture add.”

A few years later, this panellist started working at another firm where their “difference was [their] selling point”.

They explained: “[My difference] was going to help the bottom line, impacting others around me to be themselves and enrich the culture that the organisation was trying to build”.

They cited the importance of leveraging being a visible Muslim, explaining that being valued at work makes employees feel empowered, dissuades them from quiet quitting, improves performance and makes for better collaboration.

“What makes teams high performing is having that psychological safety – there’s no point in having diversity in your organisation or a cultural set of norms if individuals are not psychologically safe to build that sense of belonging to come as themselves – to be able to take those risks, innovate and be creative,” said the panellist.

”It is our differences, it’s our frames of reference that provides that creativity.” 

Inclusive cultures

On the flipside, another panellist said that being involved in the hiring process to assess whether candidates had the right values was key.

For this reason, they argued it was fair that employees should adhere to company culture.

However, when opening up a new office in a different part of the UK, they noted that the workplace culture from their headquarters did not work and the firm had to adapt.

They said: “Cultures are not fixed – they are things that can move and change. I am all for strong cultures and organisations – strong and inclusive organisations – and I do believe that people should fit in with those cultures.”

However, another panellist contended that employees should always be supported to be themselves.

They explained: “There is a war on talent, success – life is hard. I sit here as an employee of a business whereby I live my truth on a daily basis, but also as an employer of people who wouldn’t feel right from a conscious perspective [if I was not] not allowing an environment where people could be themselves.”

Encouraging all attendees to “be yourself” in the workplace, the panellist added that workplaces could not afford to have “dilution to thought leadership”, otherwise success would be hampered.

“The argument that if ‘the culture doesn’t fit in, leave’ is a binary argument because there is no culture that does not include great people,” they added.

Being brilliantly different

Meanwhile, another panelist pointed out that having your place at the table and being heard at work is important.

“Norms and ways of working are very different in terms of being your authentic self to thrive at work and organisations welcoming individuals,” they explained.

A cultural norm is a standard that is lived by, such as a shared expectation or rules that guide behaviour.

One panellist pointed out that, when teams are small, an employee that was “brilliant but did not fit into” the team’s culture could become problematic. They gave the example of that employee being consistently late.

“We protect that culture – it’s the most valuable thing we have as a business,” they added.

“Culture polices itself I think – if you work in a place that does not police the culture and it grates against you, you will probably leave as the two things do not match.

“It’s so powerful it spits out people that do not fit in with it. So, I think it’s very hard to fit yourself into a culture that does not fit you.” 

An attendee to the panel discussion questioned whether being consistently late was an element of workplace culture that could not be worked around and cited the example of a neurodiverse employee – an autistic employee might be late all the time and still be excellent worker, they said, so a workplace that didn’t take this into account would not be inclusive for this sort of employee.

One panellist responded to say that interviewing potential recruits needed to be a two-way process – recruiters should find out whether an employee fits into the workplace culture, but the employee should also decide whether they fit in with the culture and can complete the requirements of the role effectively.