Activism and Professionalism in the Workplace

How and when you express yourself and your beliefs in the workplace is as personal as the beliefs themselves, writes Stephanie K. Eberle, and you should be intentional about it.

November 28, 2016

The personal is often professional. I learned this lesson the hard way during the mid-'90s. In my first professional job interview in a small rural Ohio town, I was asked if I had a family. That is an illegal question, I believe, and one that hinted more at my sexual orientation than the number of cousins I expect to see at Thanksgiving dinner each year.

My second interview was much more direct. “Do you know why the last person was let go from here?” my future boss asked. I did not know. “Because she told some fifth graders that she was a lesbian,” she said. I received a job offer from the latter organization anyway, and I took it out of necessity. Over the next few years, I avoided pronouns at the water cooler.

Colleague: “What are you doing this weekend, Stephanie?”

Me: “My partner and I are going to the movies. Then, since it is my partner’s birthday, we will go out to eat. I got my partner a nice shirt.”

Activism to me was, by necessity, subtle. Once, one of my clients said something that made me think he was gay. To prove myself an ally, I wore a rainbow watch the next time I saw him. He saw it. Blushed. Looked away. I tell myself I helped him. Change comes slowly. One person can make a difference.

Flash forward to November 2016. My preferred pronouns of “they/them/their” barely elicit a nod in Stanford, Calif.; I am really OK with that. I watched the election results with about 30 first-year students, and I attended a support rally with them afterward. I discussed the election results with colleagues the next day, and we shared the same sentiments. It is easier to share one’s own beliefs, and to fight for those of others, when you live in places espousing similar beliefs. Likewise, some industries and organizations lean more toward the personal than others. In general, however, some professional standards remain the same, regardless of where you hang your briefcase or place your work boots.

Per my story above, employers are not allowed to ask certain questions, for example. Business Insider has named 11 illegal questions, including those about family, age and religion. Should employers ask you something illegal or something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you do not have to answer the question. You may ask for specifics (e.g., “Are you meaning to ask if I have a two-body opportunity?”), or you can brush over the question (e.g., when asked about my family, I told them I am close to my sister; this did not please them, however). Or a final option may be to attempt to directly address their concern (e.g., “Yes, I have a daughter, and since my husband and I are equal partners and the job is close to my in-laws, I am confident in my ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance”). Naturally, you also have a right to say something postinterview about the discomfort, but I also warn clients to really think about whether or not they want to work someplace that puts them in that position in the first place.

In some cases, employers need not look far to learn about your distinct identities and beliefs. Your CV or résumé, for example, may feature identifiers that both highlight your leadership experience and your belief system. I absolutely place any and all activist activities on my CV, because I do not want to work in an environment that I believe is unaccepting. When you do not have a choice, or when you do not mind a less personal or less open environment, however, adjust identifiers where possible on your résumé or CV -- or leave the information off entirely.

Still, employers and future colleagues can learn so much about you before they even read your application. By now, the dangers of posting your bachelor-party photos and political memes on social media are well-known. Surprisingly, that does not dissuade everyone from posting these, nor does it cause people to be as vigilant about checking security settings as it should. According to a recent Career Builder publication, 60 percent of employers use some sort of social media platform to research potential candidates. The information that employers find can both help and hurt your chances, depending on what they find and what they personally hold valuable. Even LinkedIn photos can tell employers information about your race, gender, size and possibly ethnicity. Likewise, your tweets may say quite a lot about your political and religious beliefs, not to mention how you react to those who disagree with you.

For these reasons, you will want to think twice before friending a colleague on social media. Myriad storybook professional relationships end when a colleague finds out where you really were on Friday afternoon instead of attending the very important pamphlet vs. brochure meeting. Consider, too, whether or not you really want to know what your boss or lab mates think about current topics like abortion or Obamacare. Do you want them to know your views on these issues, either?

Before entering the work force, develop a policy about whom you will follow/let follow you. Will you let your boss follow you? How about acquaintances, customers or students? Will you follow them? Will you agree to mutual following after you have known each other for a certain amount of time, if there is a defined degree of separation or only when you know, without a doubt, there is nothing controversial between you? If you are an open book, that is your choice, but consider the consequences first. You probably do not want to defend your Facebook political cartoon before your next staff meeting.

Or maybe you do! How and when you express yourself and your beliefs is as personal as the beliefs themselves. I found discussing the election results with one of my colleagues deeply gratifying and think our relationship is even stronger than before. Broaching the topic took some vulnerability, however, which I would only have used with someone I trust already. Further, I do not see him every day, so if our ideologies clashed, the disagreement would not interfere with work.

I often wish I had stood up for myself in the beginning of my career. What if I had said something about the awkwardness of those interviews? By not doing so, I do feel I let myself down, that I sold out. Still, I gleaned a lot from the job I took, and I eventually shared my partner’s name and pronoun with my colleagues there. Our team became closer as a result.

I do believe some things are worth losing your job over and, for those things, absolutely tell your truth to whomever will listen. For everything else, be intentional about the most professional way to be you.

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Stephanie K. Eberle is assistant dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine Career Center, which serves Ph.D.s, postdocs and M.D.s in the medical and biosciences. They are a resident fellow, managing a dorm of 90 first-year students at Stanford University, and are also on adjunct faculty at the University of San Francisco. They are also a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


Stephanie K. Eberle

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