The Black woman who straightens her hair to conform to the beauty standards of her majority white office. The gay man who doesn’t bring his husband to the holiday office party even though family is invited. The working mother who keeps quiet about her childcare responsibilities, so she doesn’t appear less committed to the job.
These are examples of “covering,” a strategy in which people modulate or edit their identities in order to blend into the mainstream, according to New York University School of Law professor Kenji Yoshino, who is also director of the school’s Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.
Yoshino literally wrote the book on covering. Published in 2006, his critically acclaimed work, Uncovering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, got the attention of Deloitte’s DEI Institute. They joined forces in 2013 to publish “Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion,” a data-driven study that singled out covering and the pressure to conform as a cited reason why workplace DEI efforts were not achieving maximum results.
A decade later, a new study recognizes that covering continues to exist in organizations. It also broadens the focus, from helping organizational leaders understand covering to helping them create a space where people don’t feel the need to minimize parts of who they are. The new report is titled “Uncovering Culture: A Call to Action for Leaders.”
“The biggest insight for me was really shifting the lens and saying it’s not up to individuals, the least empowered people in these exchanges, to transform the culture that they’re working in. It’s actually up to the organizations themselves,” Yoshino said. “We were insistent about keeping the lens steadily on the organization throughout this report.”
Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary invited Yoshino and Joanne Stephane, executive director of Deloitte’s DEI Institute, to talk about the report on the latest episode of her podcast, Leading Diversity at Work. (Listen to the podcast.)
“It’s not up to individuals, the least empowered people in these exchanges, to transform the culture that they’re working in.”— Kenji Yoshino
Even the Majority Can Feel Like They Need to Cover at Work
The study is based on representative data from a survey of more than 1,200 adult workers in five major industries in the U.S. and the results reveal just how prevalent and universal covering is. Many people belong to more than one group and are covering for multiple identities, such as being Asian and disabled.
“The quantitative and the qualitative insights we highlighted in the report really give us a deeper understanding of what covering looks like in the workplace,” Stephane said. “How it feels, how it manifests, if you will. And the effects on not only individuals, but really what the cost is to the organization.”
Stephane shared a surprising finding from the study: White men also cover. Despite their advantage as the often majority cohort, 54% of the white men surveyed said they cover along traditional lines of marginalization, as well as along historically advantaged social identities such as race or gender.
“What we learned and what we saw was that, as organizations work to address root causes of inequities, some white men might experience this decline in advantage as a disadvantage,” she said.
The report also found people who are “covering by proxy,” meaning that they cover on behalf of someone else. An example of this is having a transgender child, yet not advocating for the rights of transgender people at work out of fear of reputational damage.
“The message that we want to draw from the study is no cohort is immune from the covering demands, so don’t make assumptions,” Yoshino said.
What Can Leaders Do About Covering?
The report offers three solutions to reduce harmful covering in the workplace:
1. Diagnose and examine covering with your team.
Beyond merely identifying covering, organizational leaders need to understand whether the behavior is harmful or helpful. While the research focuses on the negative impact of covering, not all covering is detrimental to the business. To understand the difference, one must anchor on organizational values — does the organization’s demand for covering conflict with its stated values?
The experts offered the relatable example of the “rabidly obnoxious” co-worker whose behavior has to be reined in so the office can function. This might be an example where covering is more helpful than harmful. However, an organization that pressures workers to deny their core identities in order to assimilate is causing harm.
“We have to come to the conclusion that some forms of covering are beneficial to the smooth functioning of an organization. So how do we winnow out the good from the bad forms? Our answer is organizational values,” Yoshino said.
“The report really gives us a deeper understanding of what covering looks like in the workplace … And the effects on not only individuals, but really what the cost is to the organization.”— Joanne Stephane
2. Share your story and model authenticity to empower others.
Organizational leaders can humanize themselves by sharing pieces of their personal life. A simple comment such as, “I’m leaving to go to my daughter’s soccer game,” helps to set the tone for others to be themselves and open up about who they are and what is important to their identities. Essentially, leaders should model their own authenticity to empower others to uncover.
3. Engage in active allyship and leverage your advantage to challenge covering demands.
The experts described allyship as a “broad-spectrum antibiotic” in the workplace. They encouraged organizations to foster a culture of active allyship. This includes having people speak up even when the aggrieved person isn’t in the room. If someone makes a racist, biased, or derogatory comment, respectfully call them out on it, explain why it’s offensive, and ask them to restate their remarks. However, it’s also important for allies, where appropriate, to engage sources with generosity, helping them grow past their mistakes rather than condemning them.
Creary said the latest report’s focus on organizational values, rather than the individual, reflects an evolution in the way companies think about inclusion. Uncovering is an opportunity for organizations to help resolve the tension employees feel between being their authentic selves and being who the workplace wants them to be.
It mirrors the evolution in her own research agenda. “When I started off in organizational behavior scholarship, my research was focused on what can I as an individual do to navigate this workplace with my multiple identities, and convince my manager that these identities were meaningful to them?” she said. “Then at some point, I’m like, ‘Why is the onus completely on me to figure out how to navigate this place as somebody who doesn’t make all the decisions about how I should show up at work?’”