How Much “Personality” is Allowed in the Workplace?

Given how much time I spend on this blog suggesting that new technical communicators do their best to blend in with their workplaces, I am a rather outspoken individualist at times. If anything, I keep preaching about conformity because there have been times when I needed the reminder as well. I’ll be “keeping it real” today and sharing some of my less-than-perfect moments to stop you from learning the hard way. Call this a meditation on the limits of self-expression in the workplace.

Ways I’ve Gotten Negative Attention

Things I’ve worn

The Walt Disney Company has some of the strictest staff appearance guidelines in the country, with some of them dating back to the 1950s. The Department of Defense spends a lot of time and effort getting its recruits to all look, insisting on grooming and orderliness that probably go back to ancient Roman times.  NASA, too, has a certain “look” it prefers people to exhibit. None of those environments are conducive to a lot of self-expression. My favorite example is the time I showed up at a NASA Flight Readiness Review (FRR) in a golf shirt and khakis while everyone else was in suits. Of course I also caught grief at a DoD contractor’s office by showing up in shorts one day. And at Disney (you saw this coming, right?) I showed up in a t-shirt instead of a polo/golf shirt on “casual Friday.”

Are any of these errors worthy of termination? Not really. However, I was told to hide in the back of the room at the FRR; made fun of by every single coworker and manager I encountered the day I wore shorts (up to and including the CEO); and strongly suggested that I stick to the appearance guidelines at Disney.

Why do workplaces enforce things like dress codes? Mostly because they are trying to project a particular image that customers–internal and external–can count on. If you can’t manage to meet the appearance standards, your ability to manage your work well will also be called into question. I am not kidding.

Things I’ve said

Here are some great ways to get negative attention (i.e. reprimands) from your peers, managers, or customers (as in, if you say them, you’ll get a lecture or even a writeup):

  • Make a critical, sarcastic, or cynical comment about a company policy in a public forum (e.g., meeting, internet).
  • Complain about the quality or competence of another peer/organization.
  • Make inappropriate comments or jokes in a public setting.
  • Complaining that you hate your job.
  • Question the rightness of a manager’s request/directive.
  • Say something in a coarse or non-company way. The example my Disney friends will never let me forget is the time I told a guest to go “pop a squat” (sit down) in the lobby until her room was ready. That one got me a writeup. <blush>

Things I’ve done

Beyond the nonconformist things I’ve said on the job, the things I’ve done have caused me the most grief. These include:

  • Going over the boss’s head.
  • Making the boss look bad in front of his/her peers.
  • Going against procedures (example: sending out a sensitive email without management or editorial review).
  • Posting comments on the internet critical about your organization.
  • Making a decision that was above my pay grade (example: sharing internal organizational information with a third party).
  • Volunteering to do or accepting a request for work from someone who is not a direct customer.
  • Volunteering to do or accepting a request for work that is outside the scope of my duties. This one is a big deal at NASA because the odds are good that another company already is paid to do the task I so helpfully volunteered to do and I could get my company into trouble for doing work outside its scope. Oops.

Operating Within the Limits

Companies have rules and regulations for particular reasons, most of them relating to protecting their proprietary information or image. Do you have “free speech” within those restrictions? It depends on who you ask. Some would say no. I had a manager who (in my twenty-something view) wouldn’t respect my “right” to hate my job. In reality, he probably didn’t care one way or the other as long as I didn’t say it out loud. If you’re complaining, you’re affecting the morale of the people around you, which in turn can affect productivity.

If you’re having serious issues within your workplace, you might want to make a formal complaint through existing organizational processes (vs. an off-hand gripe in the break room). If the problem is more serious, you might need to escalate the issue up the chain of command. Or, if you hate the place so much, maybe you’d be better off quitting before your bad attitude gets you fired. (And, for the record, I have never had that happen. I learned to zip my mouth shut before it got to that point.)

Still, I managed to express my individuality in subtle ways. In the dress code mine field, I would wear neckties (per requirements) but they’d be space themed or wildly patterned (I preferred Jerry Garcia ties just to tweak management). I’ve also been known to wear goofy socks in a corporate environment. Or I’d wear a shirt with a collar, but my sleeves would be rolled up so I wouldn’t be too uncomfortable.

It might not surprise many of my previous managers in corporate America that I am now a freelancer and favor Star Wars or Tommy Bahama shirts when I work from home. It might surprise them to hear that I finally learned how to curb my occasionally sharp and opinionated tongue. It’s been noted more than once that I have a problem with authority (I do, however, have a strong customer service focus, but that’s a topic for another day).

The Bottom Line

If you are adamant about being your own person, expressing what you want, and wearing what you want at any given moment, you’d do well to restrain some of your fashion or word choices. When in doubt, ask if something is acceptable.

If all that conformity seems like too much work, perhaps you’re better off trying freelancing. Even so, random complaints, sarcastic language, and insulting comments are not a good choice. Customers and clients can make the choice not to procure your services if they think you’re obnoxious, rude, or unpleasant. Likewise, you might feel like wearing wild, crazy clothing or profane t-shirts; however, customers will judge you based on your appearance. No, it’s not fair; but yes, it’s the way the world works.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to How Much “Personality” is Allowed in the Workplace?

  1. Robin Lynn Scott says:

    Your self honesty opens others to be more honest to themselves. Well done.

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