Studies show that when employees can't be themselves, performance suffers.

Studies show that when employees can't be themselves, performance suffers. JDawnInk/Getty Images

Embracing authenticity: A call to action for federal employees for Pride Month and Juneteenth

COMMENTARY | “Being authentic isn’t just ‘speaking your truth,’ it also means paying attention to the comfort level of others and respecting our own boundaries,” writes one long-time federal employee.

Last year, with some trepidation, I asked a hundred senior government officials to connect to their breath and reflect on what brought them to public service. Mindfulness is an important part of my life, but as I departed from the usual interagency meeting script, I wondered if my colleagues would accept this side of me.

Federal employees often struggle with how—or if—to bring their authentic selves to work. This commentary explores why authenticity is so vital in the federal workplace, why it can be scarce, and practical ways to bring more of ourselves to work in a way that deepens connection to others.

June: A Tribute to Courage and Resilience

June is a big month to both celebrate and rededicate ourselves to authenticity. Pride Month honors the courage to be oneself and the LGBTQ+ community’s ongoing fight against bigotry, rooted in the Stonewall riots of 1969. Juneteenth, also celebrated this month, marks the end of slavery and the ongoing struggle for equality by African Americans. 

In the federal workplace, we have the opportunity to go beyond pride flags, town halls, and the Juneteenth Federal holiday. These reminders of the shared struggles and progress of many disadvantaged groups help us realize that everyone, including allies of all kinds, can learn from Pride: our authentic selves are worth sharing.

As a straight white cisgendered man, I've faced minimal judgment based on appearance or identity. Challenges I’ve faced, like bringing my spiritual side to work, aren’t comparable to the prejudice others face. Over the course of my life and my 15 years in government, I've come to believe authenticity should be available to everyone.

The Value of Authenticity

Feeling welcome as our full selves enhances both our wellbeing and the quality of our work.

Studies show that when employees can't be themselves, performance suffers. Deloitte found that “covering,” as experts have termed this experience, drains employees, with 60% reporting that a covering culture affects their wellbeing. BetterUp found that an authentic culture boosts employee engagement by 140% and reduces turnover by 54%. In Brené Brown’s widely shared TED talk about vulnerability, she emphasizes that having the courage to be seen empowers others, creating a ripple effect of authenticity.

In government, authenticity fuels the persistence and creativity that our work requires. Connecting with our colleagues as humans brings joy to the everyday, particularly useful during budget season and facing the daunting problems of public service. Our diverse public needs a workforce that not just reflects them demographically, but is able to actually bring their diverse perspective into the day-to-day. For example, when I worked at the State Department, a supervisor empowered me to use my community-building background to develop creative programs to address long-term drivers of terrorism.

Despite this opportunity, bringing one’s full self to work is all too rare in the federal workplace. According to the 2023 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, 20% of feds reported they can’t be successful in their organization by being themself. 

Challenges to Authenticity in Federal Work

My experience is that covering is even more pervasive, with employees of all backgrounds routinely downplaying their identities -- and we must be curious and compassionate in exploring why that happens. 

Rigid hierarchies and cultural norms often pressure individuals to hide parts of themselves. For instance, displays of emotion, especially by women, are often seen as liabilities instead of signs of commitment or compassion. Marginalized groups face additional pressures to conform to avoid bias. During a workshop I organized last month, an African American woman in government shared how she did not feel authenticity was even an option for her. A very real fear of judgment or rejection further discourages showing ourselves, despite evidence that authenticity can make us more, not less accepted by others.

Finally, we often stick to bureaucratic scripts, myself included, fearing that oversharing might create discomfort and hinder our work. Nuance is key: being authentic isn’t about “speaking your truth” or overwhelming unsuspecting colleagues with heavy emotional content. It’s about connecting with your reasons for sharing, being mindful of others’ comfort, and respecting your own boundaries. For example, my initial attempts to bring mindfulness to work were off-putting because I didn’t consider how others might receive it. Now, I offer mindfulness practices in optional formats and explain their purpose, as I did with the story at the start of this commentary.

Practical steps

Government needs my individuality, and yours too. Here are some ways to explore more authenticity in your work life, and invite in others to do the same:

  • Start Small: Share simple personal stories to build comfort in bringing yourself to work. It may be awkward at first but try the stem: “Do you mind if I tell you about…”
  • Be Selective: Don’t start at a town hall; choose safe, small settings.
  • Invite People In: Open-ended questions like "what brings you joy" or "what is a small victory you’ve had lately" can invite others to share. 
  • Circle Back: When colleagues share themselves, follow up to help them feel seen.

An Authentic Federal Workplace

As we celebrate June, let’s draw inspiration from the LGBTQ+ community's commitment to be seen, including those not able to be out safely, and African Americans' ongoing struggle for equal treatment. In our families, communities, and in the federal workforce, our identities, experiences, and passions are gifts to those around us. By sharing more of ourselves, and inviting in more of others, we strengthen our belonging, relationships, and our ability to serve the public. 

Alex Snider is strategy lead with the federal government. Previously he was a diplomat at the State Department, served as a Fellow in the Senate, and worked at the World Bank. He is a certified mindful facilitator from UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center, a co-lead of the federal government-wide Mental Health and Wellbeing Community of Practice, a Mindful GSA Ambassador, and co-founder of Mindful FED. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

This op-ed is written in Snider's personal capacity and the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of his agency or the United States.