In the first three parts of this blog series we explored the competitive advantages gained by organizations that are diverse, looked at ways to identify and eliminate bias in recruiting, and shared some tips for embedding diversity in candidate sourcing efforts. Here we will take on the issue of covering in the workplace, and how you can create an environment that allows people to feel free to be themselves.
What is covering?
Covering involves downplaying or hiding aspects of your identity for fear that, if others know about those aspects, it might hurt your reputation in the company. Those who cover fear that they’ll lose promotional opportunities, that others won’t want to collaborate with them, and/or that they’ll lose credibility.
You may think immediately of the LBGTQ community, with their long history of being “in the closet,” but covering is an issue for people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations. For example, some women with children do not put pictures of those children on their desk, for fear that they won’t be taken seriously as professionals. A practicing Muslim may retreat to his car to pray, rather than face discrimination. A white male may not share that he went on a mission over the weekend for church, so the people don’t consider him a “fanatic.”
In fact, according to a 2013 study by Deloitte, 61% of American workers practice some sort of covering:
- 83% of LGBTQ individuals
- 79% of Blacks
- 67% of women of color
- 66% of women
- 63% of Hispanics
- 45% of straight white men
People also cover aspects of themselves such as ability, veteran status, appearance, political views, and others.
What problems does it present?
A big issue is mental health and well-being. Most of us are more reserved at work than with our friends and family, but when your professional self is significantly different from your personal self, it can cause anxiety and depression, and negatively impact your sense of self and of self-worth.
Another result is that it takes a good deal of psychological energy to maintain the cover, which takes that energy away from other productive pursuits. That is, covering can diminish creativity and productivity. When those who cover believe that their opportunities are limited, their employee engagement and commitment to the company suffers. Ironically, some employees work to cover the very identities that corporate diversity initiatives are trying to engage and include.
According to the Deloitte study, 53% of respondents believe that their company’s leaders consciously or unconsciously expect people to cover in order to conform. Almost as many — 48% — indicated that the company had a cultural expectation that employees should cover.
Freeing employees to be themselves
What can leaders do to help employees feel safe about being themselves?
- Engage the conversation. As important as diversity is, many employees assume that company diversity initiatives apply to someone else. However, because almost everyone has covered in some situation in their lives, more people can identify with it. It’s a way to approach differences that helps encourage everyone to participate.
- Lead by example. When company leaders share their own experiences, they empower others to do the same. If you happen to be in the small minority of people who have never covered (if such a group even exists), then relate a story about a family member. Model the courage to get personal.
- Walk the walk. Your company should have diversity & inclusion policies, but even more importantly, leaders need to ensure that they are acting on those policies. The policies should outline actions and programs, and also make clear how people will be held accountable for results. The real work, however, is done on a personal level, between managers and their direct reports. Managers should build a personal connection with each team member to help them feel understood and welcomed.
We all want to fit in, and we all have boundaries about how much personal information we want to share. The key to dealing with covering is to recognize when it is hurting your employees and/or your organization. How much a person reveals is always a choice, but is the choice truly an individual one, or is it driven by implicit or explicit values that limit people’s choices? Your culture should make people feel safe to express as much of themselves as they want.
Stay tuned for part 5 of the series, where we will discuss employment branding to promote diversity in attracting and engaging candidates.