May 6, 2022

San Diego Workforce Partnership EXPLAINS Need for Workplace Authenticity

Jen Hoffman, Service Navigation Coordinator, San Diego Workforce Partnership

All my hard work had finally paid off. After investing hours of my time after work scouring job websites in search of a role that aligned with my career goals, writing dozens of cover letters, each specific to each application, and using my hard-earned paid time off for phone interviews, I was offered an opportunity to interview for a job in person.

Now my energy shifted from the job search to focusing on how to bring my best self to the table. That includes choosing the right outfit to look professional. At this stage in my life, picking out what to wear for the interview comes with little effort. I own a single set of clothes specifically and only for interviews.

As I start to iron my attire, I practice answering interview questions in my head. “Why do you want to work for this organization?  What are your strengths and weaknesses? Why should we hire you?” I chuckle to myself thinking, “If I don’t wear this outfit, I can tell you exactly why you wouldn’t hire me.” 

Jen from San Diego Workforce Partnership

For me, who visually presents as an androgynous lesbian, and for so many other members of the LGBTQ+ community, being selected for in-person interviews is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. The stress of interviewing goes beyond properly answering questions, being the right fit for the company, or having the required skillset. For us, merely existing in the world immediately pulls us out of the closet. A closet that some of our fellow community members can safely hide in.

Needless to say, the kitten heels I own have not seen daylight in a few years. I pulled them out and used my Armor All leather wipes, typically reserved for my wingtip brogues and Jordans, to wipe off the dust and other remnants of hiding my truth from my last interview.

I arrived at the interview 15 minutes early, wearing my freshly pressed outfit and holding copies of my resume. As I walk through the door, I am flooded with anxiety. Not because I feel unprepared for the interview or concerned that I lack the skills and experience needed for the job; the anxiety stems from a fear that they will see through the protection I hoped my outfit offered and I wouldn’t get hired because they know I am a lesbian.

For queer and non-binary people, showing up authentically to work can inherently include two-fold exhaustion. First, the exhaustion that comes with combatting our society’s idea of professionalism. It happens every time we walk into a room wearing our hair and attire in a way that aligns with the most authentic version of ourselves.

Second, by standing in our truth, we knowingly risk physical and emotional safety. Even more worrisome is knowing where you live determines whether you are protected from discrimination by the law. Currently, there are only 21 states and the District of Columbia with laws that fully protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Constricting ideas of professionalism are not just impacting and limiting the LGBTQ+ community. Bias against hair, nails, tattoos, and religious attire are just a handful of ways we limit our potential workforce with perceptions of what intelligence, creativity, and hard work are supposed to look like. According to research by Dove, the skin and hair product company, Black women’s hair is 3.4 times more likely to be considered unprofessional. Furthermore, the ACLU shared that 69% of women who wore a hijab reported at least one incident of discrimination, compared to 29% who did not.

Taking steps toward a more diverse workforce is proven to elevate and enrich organizations. According to the Scientific American, spending time with people who are different from us makes us more creative, diligent and hard working—attributes we can all agree make a better worker. But ideas of professionalism can cause workplaces to have a single lens of perspective and can limit the input from People of Color, LGBTQ+, women, and more.

Looking back at my own experience, showing up to interviews and jobs with only fractions of my authentic self was a disservice to me and my potential employer. Having personally experienced the limitations of professionalism in my own life, I find myself wondering how many others have only partially shown up in the workplace. And in doing so, what inventions, leaders and brilliant ideas have never been able to serve humanity?

Growing up in the Midwest, I spent many late summer nights of my childhood playing flashlight tag. Using professionalism as a guideline for hiring the best candidate is a lot like playing flashlight tag in your talent pool–your vision is inevitably limited to only where the light shines and leaves large gaps of talent being overlooked. Broadening our ideas of professionalism is one small step we can take towards dismantling current norms and provide opportunity for opening doors that generations before us never had keys for.

The San Diego Workforce Partnership funds job training programs to empower job seekers to meet the current and future workforce needs of employers in San Diego County. Learn more about all the resources they have to offer at