Creating a Culture Where Employees Can Be Their Authentic Selves

by Holly Barocio /

Research recently conducted by Kenji Yoshino, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law, along with Deloitte, is shining light on something attorneys from underrepresented groups already know very well: many people often “cover” aspects of their identity—age, citizenship, disability, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation—in order to conform to mainstream corporate culture. Yoshino calls this a “second-generation form of bias in the workplace,” because people feel they have to bend themselves to fit the mold in order to be respected by their colleagues and superiors.


Yoshino and other inclusion experts draw a distinction between diversity and inclusion. Whereas diversity may focus on increasing numbers, inclusion focuses on the experience and level of comfort expressing one’s true authentic self in an environment. At a time when law firms are investing in diversity efforts, like recruiting and hiring best practices that include more diverse candidates, all one needs to do is look at the retention statistics Yoshino points out to conclude the disconnect has not been successfully addressed. Another recent example is the Starbucks debacle earlier this year. Yet another case study on how an organization can have a written policy and formal training, but unless people know how to interpret and apply the policy, they’re only words on a page.


So what can your firm do to make authentic cultural change?


  • Start small. Make diversity and inclusion part of daily conversation. Encourage people to talk about what makes them different and celebrate it. For example, I am a Korean woman who plays ice hockey three nights a week. The latter detail isn’t readily apparent, and I make it a point to talk about my love of hockey as a way to connect with others.
  • Make connections. Every firm has some form of diversity training, and as I mentioned above, training only gets you so far. Host other events that celebrate inclusion. Consider hosting a potluck where folks bring a dish that represents their heritage, family traditions, etc. People have bonded over food for centuries, and more social events like a potluck could complement more formal training.
  • Listen and learn. Create multiple channels and provide resources for folks to share their experiences and feedback. Many firms wait until it’s too late to solicit meaningful feedback about their environments (e.g.,in exit interviews when a person has already decided to leave). Promote and demonstrate how feedback is being heard and addressed.