The Biggest Barrier to True Inclusion: ‘Covering’

Despite a growing chorus of organizations claiming to have expansive diversity and inclusion efforts, a new report suggests that achieving the full ideal of inclusion remains elusive.

To many, the epitome of inclusion is to create an environment in which employees feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work. But according to a survey by the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, a majority of workers go great lengths to keep certain identity stigmas from looming large — a practice known as “covering.”

For instance, an African-American woman might straighten her hair to play down her race, or a gay male might refrain from bringing a partner or spouse to a work event, so as not to appear “too gay.” A woman, fearful that her colleagues might think she isn’t committed to her work, might avoid talking about being a mother.

Of 220 respondents surveyed by Deloitte across race, genders and orientations, 75 percent reported covering in some form or another; 94 percent of blacks, 91 percent of women of color, 91 percent of gay and lesbians, and 80 percent of women cover.

Even half of straight white males reported covering at work, according to the survey. A white male, for instance, might leave the office early to take a child to an after-school activity but claim to co-workers that he is visiting with a client, avoiding the stigma of not being committed to work.

“If you’re a talent management or diversity executive, you should be sitting up and paying attention,” said Kenji Yoshino, a constitutional law professor at NYU School of Law, who co-authored the report with Christie Smith, managing principal at the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion.

The consequences of covering can come in many forms, but the most common, according to the authors, is a sense of decreased engagement.

Sixty-one percent of survey respondents reported their organization’s leaders expect employees to cover — meaning they signal how employees should think, act and feel. And of those respondents, nearly half said this leadership expectation dampened their sense of opportunities available to them, in turn leading to a feeling of decreased commitment.

These feelings are increasingly important as the so-called war for talent continues to heat up, the authors said. A waning sense of opportunity and commitment as a result of covering could push top talent out the door and make it harder to recruit new talent into the organization.

Yoshino, who has done work exploring the concept of covering since 2006, said there are four axes along which individuals cover: appearance, affiliation, advocacy and association.

Appearance-based covering deals with how people alter their presentation — grooming, attire and mannerisms — to blend into the mainstream. Affiliation-based covering concerns how individuals avoid behaviors generally associated with their identity, often to circumvent negative stereotypes.

Advocacy-based covering is when individuals become conscious of how much they “stick up for” their group — a military veteran, for instance, refraining from speaking up about a joke about the military. Finally, association-based covering is when individuals avoid contact with other group members — a gay man not bringing his spouse to a work function.

Dealing with the issue of covering starts with culture — and, according to Smith and Yoshino, culture starts with leadership.

To create a culture where employees of all groups feel comfortable in their own skin at work, leaders need to set the example by modeling that behavior, said Rosanna Durruthy, chief diversity officer at insurance firm Cigna.

An employee used to covering a perceived social stigma might be less inclined to do so if they have a boss or company executive of the same group openly not covering the same stigma, Durruthy said.

For less noticeable forms of covering — the examples of the white male being committed to a child’s sporting event or a mother openly talking about her children — Durruthy said leaders need to be more forthcoming with their own experiences. They need to allow for space and time to discuss these things at work.

Durruthy said small talk is a great way for leaders and managers to engage in these conversations. “It may be talking about children or for an individual in a same-sex relationship; it may be time spent with a partner,” she said. If employees feel the conversational environment at work doesn’t regard what’s important to them, then they are more likely to withhold, or cover, these things.

On a larger, companywide level, Smith and Yoshino said storytelling is a tool leaders can use. By telling employees who they are and openly expressing their own authenticity, executives are creating an environment that encourages the practice on a micro level. Smith said the practice should also be incorporated into onboarding, mentoring and coaching programs.

Smith and Yoshino also said companies should include covering questions on engagement surveys — or create a separate covering survey altogether.

“Ask individuals around each of the four axes whether they cover, how they cover, whether it’s a harm to them,” Yoshino said. “Then ask where the demands of covering [are] coming from. So not only do we look at instance and impact, but we look at demands — is it coming from your leaders? Is it coming from your culture?”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@diversity-executive.com.