All of us live multiple lives — our identities shift depending on where we are and who we're with. You're one kind of person to your close friends, a different person to strangers. Most of the time, this complexity feels natural. But our work personas? Those often feel like an ill-fitting mask. How much of our true "self" we want to, or feel we should, reveal at work is a constant, humiliating negotiation — one that’s less about emphasizing the qualities that are valuable to our work, and more about demonstrating a willingness to adopt beliefs that supposedly benefit the company and to hide any traits, or even thoughts, that may be deemed objectionable.
Most workplaces are rife with hierarchies and power dynamics that can leave you beholden to someone on a higher rung who may not care about your needs or interests, or even your basic humanity. Succession's "boar on the floor" scene isn't just an illuminating look at the character of Logan Roy, but an absurdly extreme moment of workplace humiliation. To be asked to kneel, to make animal sounds, to compete for a piece of food — this is what it can mean, what it can feel like, to be someone's subordinate.
Most of us can recognize that your boss making you play a sick game at dinner is a blaring example of a toxic, abusive workplace. But the humiliation of work doesn’t just occur in such dramatic, obviously denigrating moments. It can happen in the quietest, most mundane ways as well — a low hum of humiliation as you plaster on a smile that doesn't quite reach your eyes for your boss and clients; a twinge of chagrin as you effusively insist during a job interview that you'd love nothing more than to be a hard-working, loyal employee at this company, or reply to a work email in the most cheerful, self-effacing way possible. Just why do these fairly commonplace behaviors feel so disproportionately uncomfortable?
Emotional labor refers to how many jobs, especially service sector jobs, require you to tightly control your emotions. You remain pleasant even to rude customers, because your job dictates that you must. To a degree, the very idea of "professionalism" requires some emotional labor. When your boss gives you extremely upsetting news, it would be considered unprofessional to react emotionally — to react honestly.
The juxtaposition between our work selves and our true selves may be especially jarring now, with the rise of remote work: One second you're a consummate professional while on a work meeting over Zoom, but as soon as you're camera-off, you're laughing at a stupid, work-inappropriate joke with your roommate. It would be funny, if it wasn’t demoralizing. Instead, you feel dread when it's Sunday night and you have to get ready to put your work self on again. But what does the angst around this workplace fakeness say about how we think of our jobs and our identities?
Katarina*, 29, from North Carolina, is so used to adopting a work persona that she now finds it hard to turn it off. "My actual personality doesn't appear at work for the most part. Lately I've felt like I've lost part of my personality," she says. "I moved in the pandemic and now work from home, so I don't get to socialize as much and have been using my watered-down work personality when I meet new people as well. I don't get to see anyone on a regular basis who knows me well, other than my partner. I'm really tired of being this persona, who is essentially an incredible listener and a professional masker."
Katarina says her most humiliating job was personal training, which she held after graduating college. "My clientele were wealthier and I was fairly often treated as the help, or as someone not as respectable,” she says. “I think that's why I place a high value on my master's degree — and a job that at least sounds high-up and 'respectable.'"
Rosa*, a 24-year-old who lives in Australia, feels humiliated by the purposelessness of her duties. "Work is bland, tedious, and monotonous. It requires a fixation on details that have no meaning," she says. "Much of the work I do I know doesn't contribute to anything at all. It's admin for the sake of admin. So the persona I create reflects the fallacy of my labor. I imbue the work I do with a sense of purpose by feigning an interest and investment in the overarching goals and outcomes of the company for which I work."
She’s also feigned friendship with her boss. "We work side by side and she, as an individual, does not understand that some topics are not work appropriate,” Rosa says. “Or, to be more specific, that I do not wish to hear the intricacies of her marriage and life, and don't want to share with her the details of my relationship. This is not to sound cold-hearted, but rather to explain the implicit power imbalance in the relationship I have with my boss. At the end of the day, we can't be true friends because she controls my shifts, pay, and ultimately my livelihood."
Rosa feels a little bit humiliated "each and every time I smother an opinion, spend hours working on something mundane, or present a false, chirpy, and company-positive version of myself."
Many people spoke about feeling pressure to control their image to please supervisors and fit in with professional peers, or adhere to some never-quite-explicitly-stated social norm. "Around white colleagues, I try to make sure I use 'proper English,' and around coworkers I try to act like I'm not too snobby," says Terry*, 32, in Wisconsin. Both personas are different from how she behaves around loved ones and friends — goofy and awkward, she says.
"I feel most upset when applying for jobs matching the criteria, I feel, just to be told that they're looking for stronger candidates," Terry says. "Sometimes I don't go for jobs because I feel I already know I won't be considered, and in my field there aren't many POC, and the ones that get hired have the most hills to climb."
Nikita*, 28, in Minnesota, feels similarly. "Especially as a young black woman in a largely white older male workplace, I feel like I have to put on all the time," she says. "To be proper, not use too much slang, and tolerate microaggressions. The 'real' me is just a lot more free and open."
Like Terry, Nikita says job-searching is especially discomfiting. "I find the act of simply writing a cover letter humiliating because I understand the entire performance of a job hunt, for both the potential employer and me. It feels like we're both caught in this dance. We're both aware of the formalities, and inauthenticity of the entire process, but are forced to participate in it anyway."
The interview process brings up similar emotions. "I feel this especially when I have to answer questions about why I wanted to work at a company when I was fresh out of college looking for a job," Nikita says. "I mean, why else did I want to work somewhere after applying to hundreds of jobs? I needed money. But somehow it feels wrong to tell the truth. Instead I have to lie and pretend I care, somehow, about a company's values."
Companies frequently talk about having a mission — the higher purpose and values they're dedicated to. They strive to hire employees who not only have the requisite skills and expertise to perform a job, but will also be a good "culture fit." What happens, then, if you don't believe in the mission or the culture of your workplace? How long can you sustain being inauthentically part of an organization that you feel cynical about?
We can't downplay the importance of authenticity when it comes to job satisfaction. "If I have to pretend to be something I'm not to get the job, or pretend to be something I'm not to keep the job, that is a huge psychic toll," says Denise M. Rousseau, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University. If your workplace doesn't encourage you to be the version of yourself you're naturally inclined to be at work — a conscientious employee who nevertheless has a healthy work-life balance, for example — but instead forces you to continuously tamp down on those behaviors, that's obviously stressful. It "takes more calories," says Dr. Rousseau. "It takes more cognitive effort. It's tiring."
"We're seeing more and more attention to issues of identity," Dr. Rousseau says. "Can I be myself at work? I think that's what we're talking about: Is there room for the individual? And it's reflected in people having more power as labor, but also knowledge workers increasingly wanting not to have to pretend to be somebody else."
And that’s just what many corporations ask — or demand — their workers do. Dr. Rousseau calls it "normative control": the way companies control employees’ behavior even in the absence of formalized or written policies, by establishing and enforcing cultural “norms”. "They need to fit into the norms of the organization. And that, of course, is anything from dress code to being committed to the organization's values and priorities," she explains. A company’s emphasis on its culture can in fact be a euphemistic way to signal that it has hard rules on how you should behave and even what you should believe.
We tend to find emotional labor more draining when it doesn't feel justified by genuine purpose. A teacher might be self-motivated to regulate certain negative emotions at school because they want to be a good role model for their students. "But not all emotional labor serves a value people care about," Dr. Rousseau points out. If your work feels banal to you, and you don't believe in its importance — as was the case with Rosa — any emotional labor that comes part and parcel with the job feels more frustrating to act out.
"I remember in the ‘80s, every time you turned around there was a book about organizational culture, the path to performance," Dr. Rousseau says. "This emphasis on organizational culture said, if we just create the right norms, the right routines that people conform to in how they interact with each other, we'll be successful because we'll have this very consistent image and it'll reinforce a certain way of relating to the environment and the public — and we'll make money from that because we'll have a brand."
"Implicit in the concept of 'culture leads to performance' is the idea that the organization knows better than the [employee] how to do the specifics of the job, and that the person in and of himself doesn't add enough value in their normal pattern of behavior," Dr. Rousseau continues. "There's something missing, and the organization should provide the script."
But in fact, research shows that organizational culture has very little impact on workers’ performance, Dr. Rousseau says. "You can get a lot more bang for your buck as an organization, rather than pushing people to conform to a particular way of relating to each other, to basically make it a safe environment to play to your own strengths."
It can feel humiliating to be inauthentic at work, because authenticity is really a matter of dignity and being in control. Bad managers try to prescribe the exact conditions of how you do your job. During the pandemic, when more Americans are working remotely than ever before, there's been an increase in the use of "bossware," programs that enable managers to surveill what you're doing and even where you are under the guise of tracking productivity. It's not only an invasion of privacy, it's an invasion of dignity. It treats workers like they're stupid and infantile, as if they're fundamentally incapable of performing their job well unless they feel threatened.
Dr. Rousseau says that, instead of being so prescriptive about what kind of worker you should be, organizations should emphasize bringing your "best self" to work. Doing so doesn't ask you to be inauthentic; it asks the worker to reflect on what they need and want in order to do their work well. It gives them agency, and it gives the organization the opportunity to prove that it's actually listening, and not just implementing a one-size-fits-all policy that it assumes covers the best interests of its employees.
To recognize a worker's individual needs is to recognize that your employees are human, not automatons. If the kind of work you do and the way you have to do it is so rote and rigid that it doesn't require your perspective, or whatever unique aspect that you can bring to it, it's easy to feel alienated from the work. You feel interchangeable from any other worker. Maybe it doesn't even feel like you are doing this work — it's a pair of hands, a pair of eyes, a brain that has memorized a process.
The issue of control is especially pressing right now, in an era when the power dynamics between workers and corporations are shifting. The last few decades have been marked by a surge in part-time, precarious contract work that's meant people have less say in when they work and how much work they'll have. Wages haven't kept up with the cost of living, and the constant churn of mergers and acquisitions — and the layoffs that often accompany them — means that the feeling of job insecurity has become much more commonplace. The idea of the company man who works at one organization for his entire career feels laughably outdated.
"Maybe this is a great shakeout," says Dr. Rousseau. "Because employers had a lot of control for a long time — probably since the Reagan era of deregulation, where companies laid a lot of people off, made people feel vulnerable. So they were more willing to accept the conditions of employment offered, because they were so vulnerable."
This past September, over 4 million American workers quit their jobs, a trend that's been dubbed "the Great Resignation." But it's not just that people are quitting — they're organizing, driving a new wave of labor actions demanding better pay and working conditions. Since reaching a peak of in the late '50s, union membership in the U.S. has fallen dramatically. While a little over a third of public sector workers belong to a union, within the private sector, that number is currently about 6%.
Yet just this week, the first Starbucks location in the nation successfully voted to unionize. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, AL, will hold a second unionization vote after the National Labor Relations Board ordered that the first vote be redone due to suspicions that Amazon interfered with the vote. If Amazon, one of the largest corporations in the world, unionizes in the U.S., it could have ripple effects on the labor movement at large. It sends a message about the possible future of work in this nation. The time is overdue for workers to have more control, to feel less humiliated — to not feel like they're a boar on the floor.
*Names have been changed to protect identity