Can you truly bring your authentic fashion self to work?

At some point — about five years ago maybe — the phrase “bring your authentic self to work” became the working world’s hottest new fashion catchphrase.

Self-Assessment Quiz ─ TRUE or FALSE:

  1. I can come straight from the club to work as long as my work is on point.
  2. It doesn’t matter that I look different. I’m always respected for my ideas, and that’s what’s important.
  3. If Bozoma Saint John (Chief Brand Office, Uber) can show up and show out work style-wise, so can I.

At some point — about five years ago maybe — the phrase “bring your authentic self to work” became the working world’s hottest new catchphrase. Companies began encouraging associates to be (more) lax with their work styles and dress codes. But for women of color, the question has persisted: Does this really mean me, too?

I had one young woman who worked in the advertising industry seek me out as a mentor. She was having a hard time adapting to her agency’s culture. She wasn’t getting promoted like her white female counterparts were and couldn’t figure out why. I invited her to come meet with me in my office. She arrived promptly, and I listened to her for 20 minutes as she explained to me how her managers tended to not hear her in meetings when she made suggestions or recommendations. She talked about how her colleagues went to lunch with each other but never invited her; although she did mention that on the few occasions she’d been invited to go to happy hour, she’d politely demurred.

When I asked her if she’d had the day off, which I assumed she had, and she said no, that she’d come directly from her office, I almost choked on the glass of water I was drinking. Suddenly the problem was crystal clear to me. She was dressed casually, but no more so than how her white counterparts dressed, I’m sure. But with one HUGE exception: she wore a silk scarf tied around her head. Like I tie up my hair at night when I go to bed? Yep, that’s how she presented herself at her office.

*Sigh* My work here is sooo needed.

I asked her to explain the headwrap to me, and it was a simple explanation. She worked out in the mornings. It’s hard for her to get her hair together after sweating and make it to the office on time. As a black woman, I get that. But being that her managers and colleagues were not black, they wouldn’t get it. She looked different. Therefore, there was an unspoken hesitancy around her. It didn’t help that she had missed the few chances she’d had for her co-workers to get to know her better by declining to go out to happy hour. Here she was,  surrounded by former sorority girls, à la Elle Woods style in Legally Blonde, but she was presenting herself like Prince Akeem in Coming to America—he thought he was totally fitting in, but boy, he was so NOT fitting in.

This is a tough line to toe in corporate America. Our authentic ideas and perspectives make brands better, but if we are too different or “authentic,” our voices may not ever get the chance to be heard.

When I pointed out what I thought the intangible elephant in the room was, she balked and wailed, “But what am I supposed to do with my hair? It’s a mess after I work out!”

I get it! Honestly, I do. But this here game of work politics ain’t played fairly, ladies. Please know that. I stand behind my experienced perspective that until you have earned enough work cred based on your outstanding authentic performance, it is probably best to low-key the authentic fashion-style for the short term. A cute natural-looking wig was my recommendation.

Is your authentic fashion sense getting in the way of your ambition? Or has it helped you? Let me hear from you. And to answer the questions to the quiz above, until you are consistently hitting the balls out of the park in your work world, focus on becoming the rainmaker instead of the attention seeker. So FALSE would be the appropriate answer to the questions above if you haven’t made it to the VP-level yet.

Cheryl Grace is the sassy aunt, best friend, and mentor you’ve always needed in your life. The successful jet-setting, global corporate executive founded the aspirational lifestyle brand Powerful Penny LLC. Her products, workshops and speeches probe, inspire and empower to ensure those who really want to can get to their next level of best. Her blogs on careers, prosperity, relationships, family, looking and living fabulously, and living a five-star life can be found at www.powerfulpenny.com.