Your friends might love you the way you are, but that doesn't mean your boss will, says SARAH LITVINOFF
Claire Ashton took the West Mercia Police Force to an employment tribunal last week complaining of discrimination. During the proceedings it emerged that Claire, who used to be Tony, had upset certain male colleagues by asking for a kiss.

Clearly, if Claire had been born Claire, she probably would have received a better response to her request. What she clearly hadn't bargained for was that changing sex would require a radical rethink of how she presented herself to work colleagues.

Yet for years we have been encouraged to "find" ourselves, "develop" ourselves - be ourselves authentically as individuals, but, as Claire Ashton found out, within the portals of the workplace being yourself can have distinct disadvantages. Except for the maverick few, anyone who wants to get on needs to develop exquisitely sensitive antennae to help them adjust the nuances of their self- presentation to fit into the culture of the organisation they work for.

Even within industries, a workplace's culture varies from company to company, or even from floor to floor, something I discovered when I worked as a freelance sub-editor on magazines. In one place, it was the done thing to spend the first half-hour of the morning nursing a cup of black coffee and exchanging hangover stories. But in another, people competed to be the earliest to work - squinting intently at the computer screen from the word go and barely acknowledging colleagues as they arrived. There was one place where, every teatime, an excuse was found for celebration, and a desk drawer housed the office bar. Then, in another place, if you popped out however briefly at lunchtime you lost your place on the promotion ladder to those who'd come prepared with sandwiches.

I quickly learned which magazine considered it stylish to be loud, uninhibited and coarse, and which valued well-bred endeavour, and also on which publication it appeared to be essential to exchange bitchy comments about whoever it was who had just left the room.

The sensitive issue is how much your personal life (particularly when it is difficult) should intrude on work. For many people, keeping them separate is not only professional, but also life-saving. I've recently interviewed a number of parents of disabled children, who all agreed that switching off from the problems at home and into the problems of work was a blessed relief. But we've all worked alongside the drama queen or king for whom colleagues are simply another audience for the details of the latest tragedy. Usually, their careers don't progress, and they are the only ones who are mystified.

Carolyn Matheson, of Fulcrum, a human resource consultancy focused on developing people to achieve their best within an organisation, believes this is the fault of those in charge, who don't draw the boundaries clearly enough. "The skill of a good manager is to recognise where personal issues are intruding and helping that person to move on from them, as well as making clear what is and isn't acceptable."

A similar tactic is needed for people with personality issues: they swear a lot, are rude, sarcastic or generally disruptive, because "that's how I am". Fulcrum sometimes has to deal with this on behalf of management. "Often no one has explained how their behaviour negatively impacts on other people or their own prospects," says Matheson. "They see it as a bit of a joke or a bit of fun. Sometimes they act inappropriately without realising, or upset others without being aware of it. They often just need to be taken through the consequences of their actions." Again, it's the unclear boundaries that can trip people up. "It's like the issue of smoking: people have been educated to understand where it is unacceptable. This can be done in other areas of personal behaviour."

Like Matheson, I myself have worked as a coach with clients on what they see as their "fitting in" problem. In fact, this may be nothing to do with personality or style, but with very real concerns about being treated badly. One client, who feared she was too brash, was, in fact, angry - and rightly so - about the way she was underused, undervalued and treated with little respect. Fearful of losing her job, she never said what was wrong, but occasionally her anger would bubble up into caustic but oblique comments - a brashness that grated but solved nothing. On this, Matheson says, "When your values are at odds with your employer's, you have to consider whether this is the right place for you to work."

There's always another option, the brave one: putting your energies into trying to change the culture, rather than honing your individuality, or silently going against the tide.


Get personal

Be vigilant about disclosing your opinions of your employer and what you give away about your personal life. Today's pal may be promoted tomorrow - knowing too much.

The office clown or "personality" is rarely considered for promotion.

When your personal life is falling apart, don't cry on everyone's shoulder. Let your boss know how bad things have got, so allowances can be made. But seek the minute-by-minute support you need outside work.

Results count. You can afford to be a character when your high standard of work speaks for itself.

Is "being you" more important than "getting on"? Make a clear choice - and then enjoy it.

Positive individuality

Don't blame or grizzle: use "I" statements to make your point.

When something bothers you at work, identify it clearly and analyse how it could be better.

If you want to do things your way, prove you can do it their way first.

"Protesting" by taking long lunches, coming in late, flouting rules or working to rule, label you as inefficient. Explain your discontent instead.

Act as a model. How do you want to be treated? What does showing respect mean? What demonstrates your values and integrity? Colleagues will support you and employers will notice if you walk your talk.