By Sigurd Neubauer
“Romance is still permissible at the office, but it must be disclosed,” explains best-selling author Aliza Licht with a laugh, pointing out that she’s never been asked that question before. She advises those dating co-workers to simply disclose it to human resources. “Dating at the office is not frowned upon as historically we spend more time at work than at home. It is not a bad thing,” she adds.
Responding to whether collaboration between men and women at the workplace is over post #Metoo, Licht believes that “a clear understanding of what is appropriate and what is not has emerged,” but qualifies that “both sexes need to be responsible.” Licht also argues that while #Metoo was difficult to watch, it created something good. #Metoo has drawn more awareness to professional boundaries she says, but warns against “bringing one’s whole self” to work as it can easily make “things awkward, scary or cringy. It is important that everyone is comfortable.”
Diversity, meanwhile, has become a focal point in American life. “Diversity at the office is not just about people from different ethnicities, but it is also intellectual diversity,” explains Licht, a leading expert on personal branding. “It has been proven that when people from different backgrounds come together in the pursuit of a common goal, it generates better business results,” she says, but points out that over the past year there has been some fatigue with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). While many companies across the United States have publicly committed themselves to corporate diversity, DEI as a concept has also become polarizing.
According to a Wall Street Journal article in July, tension has “been building in workplaces across the country over efforts to hire, retain and advance diverse workers. Companies are striving to demonstrate their commitment to minority employees’ success without being seen as limiting opportunities for others.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Licht, we discuss America’s ever changing workplace culture, including ‘Cancel Culture,’ the ‘Culture Wars,’ and when and how to take a stand on a contentious social issue.
Licht is a go-to expert for those seeking to learn more about professional and personal branding. In 2009, for instance, she created and was the voice of the anonymous social media phenomenon DKNY PR GIRL. The Twitter account had over 1.5M fans worldwide and generated over 230M media impressions. She has over the past two-decades transformed herself – and her brand, of course, – into one of America’s preeminent branding experts.
We have previously reviewed Licht’s must-read book on how to excel at the office. The premise of her second book, On Brand: Shape Your Narrative. Share Your Vision. Shift Their Perception is as straightforward as it is an easy and enjoyable read. It is all about: what do you want to be known for?
Knowing your worth: Understanding the market and what other people who do what you are making is paramount for success: Licht
‘Don’t bring your whole self to work’
Oversharing on social media platforms, including on LinkedIn, has become a popular and increasingly visible trend among a growing number of American professionals. At the workplace, some even believe that one should bring their whole authentic self to the office. Licht, both in her book and in our interview, disagrees with the phenomenon. “During the pandemic, especially on LinkedIn, ‘everyone’ shared ‘every’ aspect of their lives,” she says. To draw home her point, Licht is referring to a woman who changed her profile picture to one in which she stepped out of the shower because that was her reality. “During a finite period, it was considered okay to peel back the professional layers; to peel back the businessperson to show ‘the real person’ behind the scenes,” the best-selling author explains.
The workplace culture, she prefaces, has changed since the pandemic. But while oversharing – whether it is at the office or on social media – may have become a trend, Licht cautious that before doing so, one should pause to assess what his or her professional goals are: “If it to be promoted, for example, then everything one does at the office or online should be geared towards supporting that goal,” she says. But “one should keep in mind: If I am sharing this, is this helping or hurting me,” she says, then quips: “It is all about having a mental filter.”
‘Generation Z’ wants to know the company values: Licht
‘Culture Wars’ at the office
On how to respond to any given social issue engulfing a divided America, Licht points out that how one does so depends on whether it is the CEO; the company; or the personal brand any person has aspired to cultivate for him/herself.
For instance, “If there is a company that is trying to curry favor with ‘Generation Z,’ which is anyone born between 1981 and 1996, they want to know where the company stands.”
Generation Z, that is, “wants to know what the company values are, which is why it is important for a company to put its values out there,” she adds.
When commenting on current events, Licht recommends that it comes down to what one’s core values as a person are, and what is authentically important to oneself. But one also needs to understand whether one’s personal values are aligned with that of the company.
“Employees must know that they still represent the company where they work, and if he/she owns the company, he/she still represents the company.” What this means in practice, Licht says, is that any statement made becomes a reflection of just that.
CEOs, for example, “need to think about the company’s ‘bottom line,’ which is to say that a statement that he/she makes could move stocks up or down. The question is: is aligning with whatever position or cause aligned with right or good for the brand?,” she says, then pauses, and explains: “If one speaks out, there is an assumption on the executive level that one is knowledgeable about the topic. One also needs to have consistency.”
By that, the branding expert means that if one speaks out on every cause for years and something new happens, and one decides to keep quiet, this will draw attention. One must think of the bigger picture, she says, including about the optics of what it takes to speak out.
If one decides to speak out, one must expect to take the heat. As a guiding principle, Licht says, once one has entered the fray, she recommends that everything that one puts out can be defended should it end up on the front pages of either The New York Times of The Wall Street Journal. “I always ask myself before posting anything, will I be able to stand by what I said,” she explains. Licht recommends this as a gut check everyone should do before posting or commenting publicly on any given topic.
When it comes to the CEO of an organization, before speaking out, his/her comments should first be evaluated by the public relations and legal teams as it is very hard to separate a CEO from the company that he/she represents. But it can get complicated as sometimes the company speaks out, but the CEO does not or vice versa.
But when they do decide to speak out, Licht recommends her clients to be authentically clear where they stand. “In certain situations, one cannot run in the middle. Once you go out there, issue the statement and then turn off comments,” a reference she’s making to social media postings.
“A statement is a one-way communication. It is: I am broadcasting my view. You can like it or share it, but I am not looking for commentary. That’s a great way of letting people know where you stand and to avoid the hotbed of comments that may come from people who disagree with your position.”
Licht has taken a clear position on the Israel-Hamas war.
She’s a granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors: “I was in Las Vegas when the Hamas massacre erupted on October 7 and felt compelled to speak out. My grandparents didn’t survive the Holocaust for me not to speak out,” Licht recalls.
Vulnerability versus strength
Responding to what showing vulnerability means, which has in itself become a recent trend in American professional life, the best-selling author explains that this concept can be traced back to the desire for being more authentic and more human. “By being more human, it is easier for people to connect with you.” This tactic, she points out, must be assessed whether sharing a particular flaw, which is what a vulnerability is, is going to be detrimental for one’s career. For Licht, who is an accomplished public speaker, she often tells her audiences that while growing up she had a stutter and dreaded speaking in front of her class. The point of sharing that story, she prefaces, is to underscore that personal struggles can be overcome if not outright conquered, which the author has done. But showing vulnerability could also be weaponized, she says, pointing out that sometimes it is used to build an online fanbase with the goal of curry favor so that “people feel bad for you and then they like you.”
On whether there’s been any fallout from the weaponization of showing vulnerability, Licht points out that “some people confuse ‘likes’ on social media postings with positivity. But one always has to consider: “What does your boss, investor, or any stakeholder responsible for your progression think about it? That’s the audience that one should think about versus the general audience,” Licht adds. “It’s not a ‘likes game,’ but rather everything one does needs to help you get to where you want to get to.”
As a granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, I was in Las Vegas when the Hamas massacre erupted and felt compelled to speak out