Who you are when you go to work?

Jul 17 2006 by Nic Paton Print This Article

A fundamental conflict of values between individuals and their employers is leading to a majority of British workers feeling they need to change their personalities and behaviour to fit in at work.

Vodafone's Working Nation report, based on a survey of more than 2,500 workers, employers and entrepreneurs, found that six out of 10 British workers exhibit chameleon tendencies whereby their personality and identity changes when they walk into the office.

Moreover, there also appears to be a hardcore of employees (some six per cent of the sample) who felt compelled to change their identity completely to fit in at work.

According to the research, the reason for this tension is a major incompatibility between the values of the individual and those of their employer.

"Identity-stressed" workers are three times more likely to work for companies whose values they felt uncomfortable with and twice as likely to lie to succeed and let colleagues take the blame for their mistakes. They are also twice as likely to be very dissatisfied at work.

But this conflict of values is not confined only to the identity stressed. Nearly two thirds say they simply don't believe in what their company stands for and more than half say they have changed something about themselves to adapt to their working environment.

Nearly two thirds say they simply don't believe in what their company stands for

For one in five, this has meant making significant changes to their appearance. Some one in seven have modified their accent, while more than one in 20 have concealed their religious identity and one in 50 hidden their hiding sexual orientation.

But a number of other damaging behaviours are emerging in the workplace as a consequence of this tension, while many feel that this "Jekyll & Hyde" behaviour is having a damaging impact on their careers and social lives.

Nearly one in three workers feel that they are less true to themselves and less open at work, with a similar percentage feeling dissatisfied and almost one in five actively looking to change jobs.

One in 10 said they are less honest in the workplace than outside it, and almost one in five have interviewed candidates who have assumed a false identity to help improve their employability and cultural fit.

And these ill effects have spilled over into the home. The identity-stressed are three times more likely to be very dissatisfied with their life outside work and more worried about the impact of work on their confidence, sleep quality, social life and self-esteem.

So who or what is responsible for this phenomenon? With two-thirds of senior employers expecting some level of "identity change" from their workforce and one in 10 expecting employees to change their personalities to fit in with the organisation, the report points the finger squarely at Britain's bosses.

This pressure from the top was borne out by the views of many of those surveyed, with one in five citing explicit management encouragement to change their identities.

Yet the pressure clearly works both ways, with more than four out of 10 employees saying they adopted false values and characteristics to gain acceptance at work and a third doing it to get promoted or safeguard against losing their job.

The success of a company could have an impact, too. A third of small businesses in their first year of business found that market forces had pushed them to adopt a more mainstream corporate image.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, said: "The bad news coming from the Vodafone research is that workers feel under huge pressure to alter their behaviour at work and to act in certain, predefined ways.

"The good news is that while employers expect some level of conformity they also say they celebrate and encourage individuality and want greater openness and honesty in the workplace," he added.