‘I have lived most of my life hiding who I really was’

‘I have lived most of my life hiding who I really was’

29 June 2021 By Jerome Doraisamy

Sunil Puranikmath has “endured trauma and incredible mental anguish” trying to fit into workplaces, as he believed this is what was needed to succeed. Now an award-winning legal counsel, he says that being one’s authentic self is what is most important.

Last Thursday, Telstra legal business partner Sunil Puranikmath (pictured) was crowned the Sports and Entertainment Lawyer of the Year, and also won the coveted Excellence Award, at the 2021 Corporate Counsel Awards.

Taking home not one, but two, gongs at the annual event is cause for celebration. One interaction at that event, however, sticks in his mind.

“Someone at the event made the comment to me, ‘WTF are you wearing’, and laughed as if it was a joke, but the comment was made and it stuck,” he recalled.

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“I was wearing a black and gold leopard print blazer, a statement piece that I felt comfortable in, represented me, and that I enjoyed wearing because I have had the privilege of working in an environment that encourages every single person to turn up as they are.

“I have built up a confidence and resilience to pay no mind to comments like that – something that took years to build.”

Shunning parts of one’s self

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly following his award wins, Mr Puranikmath said that, as both a person of colour and member of the LGBTQI+ community, he has spent too much time sheltering his true self.

“I have lived most of my life hiding who I really was and trying to shun the parts of me that make me who I am. Most members of the LGBT+ community retreat back in the closet to some extent when they enter a new role or workplace in fear of the reception they will receive,” he explained.

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“There is a fear that people will judge you, make assumptions about you, or treat you differently because of who you really are which makes us ‘turn off’ that big part of our life and create a ‘work version’ of ourselves. This process of going back in the closet and ‘coming out’ when comfortable is triggering and traumatic each and every time. I envied those people who could walk into a room without fear of being labelled or judged.”

Examples he pointed to included when people feel unwilling or unable to eat meals from their homelands in the office or when they abstain from wearing cultural garments, in fear of how colleagues may respond. There is a great sadness in such a mindset, Mr Puranikmath mused.

“It is worth noting that retreating into the closet is a mask available to me. Some people do not have the privilege of a mask to hide their race, gender identity (trans) or culture which makes the stigma attached to them inescapable. Consider what they put themselves through when starting a role where they do not know how welcoming and safe the culture is,” he outlined.

This is a comment that may ring true with many, if not all, Australians of colour – including the writer of this story. As a dark-skinned, first-generation Australian, I am fortunate to have never experienced what one might deem to be serious and overt racism, however, casual racism has been a sporadic feature of my own journey.

Masks are not, as Mr Puranikmath detailed, available in such circumstances, and – in a predominantly white country such as Australia – such differences, and associated stigmas, can and do afflict many persons of colour.

Looking back, he noted that he has “endured trauma and incredible mental anguish by trying to fit in”, as he believed that was what was required by the workplace if he was to thrive in such an environment.

“I wasn’t being me – which meant I was unhappy, unmotivated, outcast and made to feel like I was never going to succeed in this industry. I was ready to quit. This story is not unique by any means,” he said.

“People of colour and members of the LGBT+ communities face an uphill battle from day 1, often having to work harder to prove that being their authentic self is enough which is why wearing a mask seems like an easy path initially – but is unsustainable.”

Instead, he espoused, authenticity is essential – not just as a pathway to success, but also to happiness and better scope for exploration of one’s passions.

“My goal is to help those in my community to understand that authenticity is a pathway available to them. As an industry, it’s on us to build workplaces full of authentic people to break down the fears and restraints people put on themselves. Being authentic has benefits that go far beyond yourself and the impacts you will subconsciously make will be long-lasting,” he said.

Why authenticity is key

When asked what authenticity means to him, Mr Puranikmath said – in a professional context – it means being able to turn up exactly as one is.

“It means feeling safe, welcome and free of prejudice to live your life exactly as you are. It means you are not wearing a mask,” he deduced.

“People who have a ‘work version’ of themselves are perhaps not bringing their true and whole self to work. Those who leave part of themselves behind when they walk through the office door are perhaps not benefitting from being authentic at work. It’s not easy to be authentic.

“It takes vulnerability and openness and a positive company culture to welcome someone to turn up in a comfortable way – and when you are comfortable, you produce results and work you are proud of because you enjoy being part of that environment.”

There are people in every industry, Mr Puranikmath pointed out, who “turn off certain aspects of who they really are”, so that they may fit in.

“It is the responsibility of everyone in a workplace to reflect on the privilege that may exist to them and foster an environment that welcomes those that are different to feel comfortable being who they are. This safety and comfort comes in many forms – your outfit, your voice, the food you chose to bring to work, your mannerisms, your hairstyle, your religious rituals and more,” he said.

“When a workplace builds a culture of authenticity, where everyone is their true self, it naturally fosters an environment where people are open to diversity, open to inclusiveness and without realising it, for those in our industry who fear the legal industry will make assumptions based on their truth, culture, look etc., those people seek your team out, and will want to work for you, because they know they will be happy as part of your team.”

Being your authentic self at work, he reasoned, allows one to enjoy what they’re doing every day and find genuine satisfaction in their career. 

“The idea of being a lawyer every day is exhausting on its own, we wear many hats throughout the day – try putting yourself in the shoes of people who fear the assumptions, stereotypes and prejudice they may receive, who do all this whilst not being their authentic self but have created a different version of themselves to fit in – it is exhausting,” he said.

The role of legal teams

In the post-pandemic new normal, law departments and their leaders will have to work especially hard to ensure that all workers feel comfortable bringing their full selves to the workplace, Mr Puranikmath argued.

“Scattered workforces are the new normal and leaders need to reorient themselves to it. Leaders will need to do far more open to the realities of each individual’s personal circumstances and expect and nurture a more authentic side of themselves as they work from home more often,” he said.

“Be prepared to see kids running around, the sounds of a pet, artwork on walls, home attire and more. All of this paints a more realistic picture of who your staff are. The way leaders respond to this will set the tone for how your team turns up and how comfortable they are to present themselves as they are.”

Further to this, Mr Puranikmath continued, leaders of these teams will have to understand and appreciate that the routines of all of their staff have been up-ended, perhaps irrevocably, and thus being open about their own circumstances and accommodating for others’ is necessary if teams are to flourish through such turbulent times. 

“A leader that shows that they too live a normal life with disruptions and have the need for flexible hours so as to earn the trust and benefit that comes with such authenticity,” he said.

“Leaders should revisit what the expected norms are taking into account the variety of constraints that the team may have, and create a new shared purpose.”

Individual responsibility

Further to the duties that team leaders have, there also exists a responsibility upon the shoulders of each legal professional to take charge of their own lives, Mr Puranikmath added.

“Each person has the opportunity to take ownership of their team’s culture and facilitate encouraging environments – culture is everyone’s responsibility,” he said.

“Taking the first step may seem daunting. Bringing a sense of interpersonal skill and vulnerability to your work life will not come naturally to most, but each of us, at all levels, should take it upon ourselves to build a more authentic culture.”

The benefit is “wider than yourself”, he insisted.

“The benefit will flow to the teammates who lack the confidence to be their authentic self, to the colleagues who have a sense of fear and hesitation to be themselves, and those with less privilege than others,” he said.

Final thoughts

Workplaces that foster safe and welcoming environments from top-down will encourage people to turn up as they are, Mr Puranikmath surmised, noting that “when you are not working hard to wear a mask, you build a happier team that succeeds”.

“Legal teams still have a way to go to demonstrate that the industry doesn’t have a perception culture – a perception that you need to fit a certain mould in order to succeed. The legal industry is still very much hierarchical. There is still an expectation that the partners and GCs set the ‘tone’ of what is expected behaviour and attitudes at work,” he said.

“My GC turns up exactly as he is, sharing interpersonal stories, demonstrating workplace flexibility, and encouraging a safe and open environment – it doesn’t go unnoticed, and the respect it garners is unmeasurable. Leaders do need to step up a certain amount and take responsibility for culture otherwise we will continue to perpetuate a climate of inauthenticity.”

A person who feels comfortable enough to be their authentic self at work, Mr Puranikmath concluded, will not have the pressure of being someone else.

“Their interests, skills and values will align to that of the team they are in – they will truly want to be there. They will have confidence in their opinions, ability to voice a perspective and speak without restraint – which is what every business needs to grow and build from diverse thoughts,” he said.

“Being yourself, demonstrating a sense of vulnerability builds huge levels of trust and respect – traits which make it so smooth for clients and colleagues to build relationships of substance with you, and trust your advice.

“When you’re comfortable sharing your true self with others, they are more likely to open up and do the same with you – creating true connections with those around you. In turn, this inspires loyalty and engagement as people are drawn to your self-confidence and passion. When you’re being your whole self at work, you’ll boast a level of gravitas that will inspire your team to follow your lead. If you’re in a leadership position or are aiming to be – authenticity is key.”

‘I have lived most of my life hiding who I really was’
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