Wharton’s Stephanie Creary speaks with two experts about why some employees feel the need to ‘cover’ aspects of their identity and how organizations can better support diversity in the workplace. She’s joined by Kenji Yoshino — a professor at NYU School of Law and faculty director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging — and Joanne Stephane, executive director of Deloitte’s DEI Institute™.

This episode is part of the Leading Diversity at Work series. Read an article about this episode here.


What Is ‘Covering’ and How Does It Affect Diversity in the Workplace?

Stephanie Creary: Hello. My name is Stephanie Creary, and I’m an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. And I’m delighted to welcome you to today’s episode of the Knowledge at Wharton Leading Diversity at Work podcast series, which is focused on uncovering culture in the workplace.

Joining me today are two very special guests. First, we have Kenji Yoshino, who is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law and the faculty director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at NYU. He specializes in constitutional law, anti-discrimination law, and law in literature. In 2013, Professor Yoshino and Deloitte published a landmark study, “Uncovering Talent,” to surface the organizational challenges of covering. This research, and the topic of today’s podcast draw, on insights from Professor Yoshino’s 2006 book, which is called Covering: the Hidden Assault On Our Civil Rights. And we’ll talk a lot more about covering— what that means, what it looks like, who does it— in just a few moments, but I’d like to also introduce our second guest today.

Next, we have Joanne Stephane, who is executive director of Deloitte DEI Institute. For more than 25 years, Joanne has worked with C-suite executives to define, design, and operationalize their workforce experience with them. She helps clients transform their talent and HR organizations and their strategy through implementation and beyond to achieve sustainable results. Joanne also leads Deloitte’s US HR strategy and Solutions Talent Group, an HR transformation service offering, and is the chief DEI officer of Deloitte’s U.S. Human Capital Practice.

Welcome Kenji and Joanne, so delighted to have you with me today for a conversation on “Uncovering Culture.” This is the title of a new report that was just released that you both co-authored. And it’s in collaboration with the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at NYU School of Law, and Deloitte.

I actually just want to start us off by talking about this concept of covering. And I think a good way to enter into it is to turn to Kenji to tell us a little bit about the genesis of this research for him. I know of the work from the book Covering in 2006. But can you just give us a brief definition of what covering means? Who does it? And just a couple of insights that you had in 2006, that perhaps evolved to 2013?

Kenji Yoshino: Yes, absolutely. So first of all, Stephanie, I want to thank you so much for having us on today. You’re such a star in the field, and I have huge admiration for you, so it’s such an honor and privilege to be with you. To begin, actually, the law review article— and no one reads law review articles. But you know, I have to say that the law review article version of covering was published in 2002. So this idea has now been kicking around for a couple of decades.

You’re right that it sort of made its way to the mainstream with the 2006 book. In that book, I defined covering as a strategy through which individuals with known outsider identities modulate or edit their identities in order to blend into the mainstream. What would examples of this be? This is the Black individual who straightens her hair so that she will be seen as more professional. This is the gay man who says I’m not going to bring my same-sex partner to a work function, because that will increase the salience of my sexual orientation. This is the veteran who doesn’t challenge the anti-military joke in the elevator lest to be seen as overly militant or strident. This is a woman who doesn’t talk about her childcare responsibilities at work, lest she be seen as inauthentic or a less committed worker.

Really importantly— just so that your viewers know that we’ll catch them here— oftentimes, what people get puzzled about is what the difference between covering and passing is. I think we all know what passing is, where you’re literally hiding your identity. And it’s a question that we get so often that we have loaded it into the paper at the outset. And we say when you’re passing, people literally don’t know that you belong to a particular group. When you’re covering, people know that you belong to the group, either because you’re unable or unwilling to hide your membership in the group, but they nonetheless put pressures on you to downplay or edit or mute that identity so that they can be more comfortable around you.

To get to the last piece of the question, what are the differences between 2013 and the [study issued just this week? In 2013, I had this really magical collaboration with Deloitte, where they came to me— I should say you, Joanne, and your colleagues came to me— and said, you know, “You have crunched a lot of cases in your book, but you’re not an empiricist. We can help. We have a huge H-cap practice, we have data analytics teams. We’ll put our money where our mouth is. We’ll push this outright to our own clients. We’ll design the survey with you.”

And so we collaborated on this. And it was wonderful. Because really, the world of many individuals who are listening to this podcast, the world of the Fortune 500, or the AMLA100, are not going to react to anything unless it’s backed by hard data. Right? And so I think that that was a signal advance that we made in 2013.

With this picture in 2023, we delved into a lot of nuances that we can talk about. We looked at intersectionality. We looked at the ways in which white men, dominant cohorts, tended to cover. We also leaned heavily into solutions— like what the heck do we do about this—and came up with three programmatic ways in which people could fight the covering demands within the organization. So I would say that this paper is, again, an exponential advance over the last one in the nuance and the practicality of its approach.

Creary: I love the marrying together the idea of this brilliant theory— and I actually did read the law review paper. I remember.

Yoshino: That doesn’t surprise me, Stephanie. You are the outlier in that regard.

Creary: I read the theoretical take on it. I also read the book, which has wonderful illustrative examples and a framework that I think is very accessible to people who are not academics. I certainly followed the 2013 work, and related pieces that you’ve published with Deloitte or Deloitte collaborators in Harvard Business Review. I have had my students read those as required reading. And so I was so delighted when the note came across my inbox that you all were releasing this new study in 2023. So of course, I’ve pored through that.

But before we get into the details of that, I just want to turn to you, Joanne. And help me to understand, for Deloitte— probably also for you personally— what was the goal behind this 2023 study? What were you attempting to study or understand that you didn’t quite get from the prior collaboration with Kenji?

Joanne Stephane: Thank you. Well, first I want to acknowledge that it’s great to get this group back together with you and Kenji, when we last connected at the CDEIO forum in June. So really, great to talk again. Last time I asked the questions. This time, you’re asking the questions. It’s great to be on the other side of that.

And so as Kenji said, our 2013 research introduced the concept of covering into in the corporate context and was for organizational leaders to understand what covering is. When we approach the 10-year anniversary of the release of “Uncovering Talent,” the original paper, we were curious about what extent to which workers still cover. Are they covering the same ways? What impact would this have on them? What impact does it have on the organizations that they work for? And especially in context of thinking of belonging as one of the outcomes that we aim for.

So we also recognize that our perspectives on identity and the ways those identities shape us are even more nuanced today. And so, previously, we looked at gender, race, age, sexual orientation, to name a few. We really wanted to explore with greater intentionality and ask our respondents specifically about the additional identities that they have and how that shapes the way they navigate the world. A few of those include caregiver status, education level, immigration status, mental health status, military status, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status. And so you can see how those more invisible identities would influence how you show up with other people and at work.

Creary: This is really interesting and really important. I think about the ways in which we often talk about social identity differences, particularly here in the US. The ones that we tend to talk about first, or mention, are things that we assume — even though our assumptions can be wrong — we assume to be the case based on what we see. And certainly you all can attest to this as much as I can in my own research. In the last ten years or so, we’ve seen a lot of push, often from our employees, our clients, our students, to talk more about the things that we couldn’t guess just from looking at someone.

And I think about mental health as one of these areas of difference that I would say the people who I speak to — whether we’re talking about students or workers — are increasingly interested in making sure that it’s aligned with how we talk about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. And certainly as we think about what are the implications of our culture and the way that we do things in our culture for people who are wrestling with but also navigating those varied types of identity differences? I can imagine that that was a quite a rich conversation you all had as you were trying to think about how to broaden some of the work. Yes?

Stephane:  Absolutely. It also gave us the opportunity to look at the impact of intersectionality. So the more — let’s say marginalized identities — you have, what might that covering look like? Or what would the incidence of covering be? And really focus also on what it would take, as Kenji said earlier, to reduce the demand for covering coming into the organization. So, we got to dive into quite a bit of that.

Studying How ‘Covering’ Works

Creary: Yeah. Okay. All right. Let’s dive a little bit more deeply into the report. And Joanne, coming back to you, I want you just to tell us a little bit about the study. How was it conducted? Just some of the logistics so people can understand how we move from this big, broad idea around covering, to — as Kenji put it, the empirics of it. What did that look like?

Stephane: Of course. First, we were incredibly grateful to get to work with Kenji again, and with his colleague, David Glasgow, to collaborate on this re-exploration of this topic. Deloitte’s DEI Institute, the organization that I lead with my colleagues, is committed to providing data-driven insights backed by sound research methodology. And really, we want to do that to speak to our business audience to help transform beliefs and behaviors.

So we engaged a third-party research vendors to survey 1269 full and part-time adult workers over 18 in five primary industries. And the sample was further weighted to be representative of all adult workers in the US, to allow us to draw the inferences regarding the population as a whole. So 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. 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.

Creary: Right, great. Kenji. Okay. So I pored through this report. There’s lots of good stuff in there. I will share what I thought was particularly interesting to me as I’ve followed your insights on covering for more than the last 10 years. But I want to hear from you, as the person who’s been thinking about this concept the longest. What insights did you gain? What were two to three key things that stood out to you as being, “Oh, that’s interesting and different,” and that made it feel like the 2023 report added something beyond what we’ve previously done?

Yoshino: Yeah. So the biggest shift, I think, would be one in gestalt between 2013 and the 2023 report. And I think that’s reflected in the title. The 2013 report is called “Uncovering Talent.” And the 2023 report that was just released is called “Uncovering Culture.” And that reflected the team’s view that without meaning to, focusing on uncovering talent really put the onus on the individual within these organizations, and focused on their covering performances.

And what we believe is that it’s less productive to focus on people’s recovering behaviors, and much more productive to think about it in terms of the covering demands that are placed by the organization on those individuals. So the biggest kind of insight and “aha” 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. So it’s a really important shift. I won’t say that we were totally careless or insouciant about that in the 2013 report, but we were insistent about keeping the lens steadily on the organization throughout this report.

Other things that come to mind are the intersectional points that Joanne mentioned. I always think about my fellow law professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work here, because she really drove the idea of intersectionality into diversity and inclusion discourse. And the idea there is that if you belong to more than one subordinated identity, then the whole of that subordination can be greater than the sum of its parts. She, true to her law background, first analyzed this in court decisions where she looked at class actions that Black women were bringing. And she discovered that judges are really bad at ascertaining that discrimination was happening because they would go access by access. So it would say, is there discrimination on the basis of race? No, because some Black men have made it. Is there discrimination on the basis of gender? No, because some white women have made it and have kids, right? Whereas the people who are being left out in the cold in that analysis are Black woman. And so the idea of intersectionality was born.

So it’s a very intuitive — today, obvious — idea, but it’s still been under-theorized in multiple domains. Here, what we really did was to drill down not just into access-by-access analysis, as the 2013 analysis did, but to rigorously look at intersectional effects. So to just give one startling data point from the study, if you look at Black LGBTQ+ individuals, 100 percent of our respondents who belong to that cohort reported covering ,which was greater than either the Black cohort or the LGBTQ+ cohort generally. And so I think that we have a really good sort of set of proof points about the power of intersectional analysis in this domain as well.

And finally, in terms of key insights, I would say that the solution set which Joanne also mentioned is really robust. You know, if you go back to the 2013 paper, there’s a kind of shrug emoji, frankly, at the end. And I’m not, again, going to apologize for that. We didn’t want to get ahead of our skis, you know. We didn’t have solutions that we felt confident about offering. Here, in the intervening decades, Deloitte as an organization, I in my own research, have tested solution after solution after solution. And we coalesced around these three solutions of diagnose, allyship, and share your story, that we’re very, very confident provide the tools for organizations to redress the covering demands that other people are placing on their employees.

The final thing that I’ll say — because I know I’m talking about Wharton, and my dear friend and your colleague, Stew Friedman, is one of the drivers of this — is that I also noticed that there are these generational differences in how much people perceive covering. So, a student’s point about this is that younger people are unionized as a generation around the idea of authenticity. And so we hope that this concept will resonate with this cohort. We do think that this is a moment where the idea of covering — its time really has come. Because I think the rising generation of individuals who are one click, or two below even you Stephanie, are really adamant about the fact that they want to bring more of their selves, more of their passions, more of their authenticity to the workplace.

Creary: Super, super interesting stuff. I want to come back, though, to a point that you were making earlier, and I don’t want it to get lost because I think it’s important. And part of this, I think, feels personal to me, because it also reflects the evolution in my own research agenda. And by that, I mean, when I started off being interested in organizational behavior scholarship, it was all about what can I as an individual do to navigate this workplace with my multiple identities, and convince my manager that this was meaningful to them?

And at some point — I cannot remember exactly what happened. But 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 the decisions herself?” I think the interesting tension that I have found, especially among more junior scholars, or younger people, is this wanting to have a sense of agency and create my experience in my organization, combined with the very real understanding that practices and policies are created by people who are not me. And I’m not the only one who plays into culture.

So I just wanted to just talk a little bit more about this. It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a tension between your own personal agency and how you navigate who you should be. But then there’s this organization that exists outside of you, when we’re talking about this topic of covering. What do you make of that?

Yoshino: Yeah. I think I can thread that needle. And I’ll begin with a story after the book was published where a colleague of mine said “Can we go to coffee so I could tell you what I hate about your book?” And I was like, “Great, that’s always the coffee that I want to have.” So we had that coffee. She said, “What I hated about your book is that it gives people more tools to psychoanalyze me in inappropriate ways. So if I act in kind of quote-unquote ‘masculine ways,’ you know, at the law school as a woman, then people are going to assume that I’m covering. Whereas I’m just being my authentic self. And you’re giving people another lens through which to look at me that I find affirmatively unhelpful and diminishing of my personhood and my authenticity.”

And I gave her the same answer that I began to give to you, Stephanie. Which is to say if we take the lens off of the individual and put it on the organization, I think that helps a lot. And that shift entails stopping questioning individuals’ covering behaviors and starting to look at the organization’s covering demand.

So with regard to this female colleague, I’m kind of like, “How you choose to comport yourself is your business. But if the institution is saying to you, ‘If you want to be accepted here, you better behave in more stereotypically masculine ways, and be as fearless and analytical and aggressive as the stereotypical man, if you want to be accepted in this workplace.’” And I would say that’s the kind of demand that I would want to challenge.

And I think, ultimately, it resolves the tension that you’re describing. Because if the culture is attentive to its covering demands and withdraws them, that actually expands the space in which you or I or she can bring their authentic selves to the workplace, because they’re no longer constrained with meeting that covering demand. So we’re actually able to engage in behaviors that are often authentic to us, whether or not they comport with stereotypes that people have about the groups that we belong to, because the organization’s have made a self-conscious effort to retire those demands.

Creary: Very helpful. Thank you so much for creating greater clarity around that. And I think what I walk away from this is feelings that it’s not an either/or, right? There’s an interplay, and there’s a dance between us and our organizations. And, you know, we have to ensure that there is some thought given to what the organization is doing to shape people’s willingness or unwillingness to show up in their authentic ways as much as we’re thinking about our individual choices around that. That’s what I’ve taken away from that. Joanne, you’ve you’ve been knee-deep in this data in this report? What are your favorite key aspects or insights that you would like to share with us as we dive in ourselves?

Stephane: Sure. I’ll pick up on Kenji’s first key insight around intersectionality. In addition to having all of our Black LGBT respondents say that they cover, 93 percent of Black workers with a disability cover. And when we looked at gender, a much higher proportion of Black women, at 80 percent, and Asian women at 86 percent cover than Black men, at 43 percent and Asian men at 55 percent. So just even within the race and ethnicity categories.

The other finding that was really intriguing to me and I found interesting was the finding around white men. Fifty-four percent of white men cover along traditional lines of marginalization. So, you know, either mental or physical disability, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, as we would expect. But they also reported, and we found in some of the qualitative feedback, that they cover along historically advantaged identities. They do cover for race and gender and religious affiliation, based on the idea that these identities are now disfavored. Right?

So, of course, historically, we can imagine why. And based on what’s been happening in our working lifetimes, why they might think, “Oh, you know, perhaps I should downplay these aspects of myself.” The fact is white men continue to hold many advantages. And I feel like I’m saying something obvious, but let’s just put some data behind that. The senior leadership ranks of corporate America are disproportionately white and male, relative to that group’s population. Share of the population. In 2023, 74 percent of the CEOs at Fortune 50 companies are white men, despite that group comprising just 30 percent of the US population. But this is an improvement. Right? This is progress. In 1980, all of the CEOs of the Fortune 50 were white men.

So what we learned and what we saw was that as organizations work to address root causes of inequities, as organizations work to address root causes of inequities, some white men might experience this decline in advantage as a disadvantage. Really, it’s bringing things more in line with the actual portion of the population.

Creary: Fascinating. Interesting. I remember reading that section that was helping us to I think get a little bit more clarity around why white men might cover and what they’re covering and the fact that they’re covering the dimensions of their identities that we often see as an advantage in the workplace. I thought that was super interesting.

Another thing that I thought was super interesting in this report was this concept of covering by proxy. In the report, it’s defined as covering on behalf of someone else. And so here’s a quote that struck me. I want to read it, because I think it helps to provide some context. And then Kenji, I’m going to turn it to you to help us unpack this.

The quote that spoke to me was the following, from one of the people who you collected qualitative data on. This is someone who says, “This is tough to admit, but I do this on multiple fronts. I have one child that is multiracial. And outside of work, I’m very vocal and supportive of the issues faced by being a minority, but I tend to only listen and not vocally support the same view at work. This is also true for my transgender child. Again, away from work, I’m very supportive. But I fear that sharing my family struggles with this will isolate me and damage my potential for growth at work.”

Now, as a human being, that really struck me. It made me feel quite sad. But I just wanted you to say a little bit more about this covering by proxy, and certainly, Kenji, why this is problematic. Can you share a little bit more about this topic with us?

Yoshino: Yeah. I think that both of these ideas — Joanne’s really wonderful point about how the dominant groups are covering their identities, but also this notion of covering by proxy — kind of go together in my mind. Because I think that we can view it as a place of attack, or we can view it as a place of solidarity. And obviously, we want to view it as the latter.

And so what I mean by that is that you could look at the white men who reported covering, and you can say, “Oh, this is just false equivalence. You’re comparing your paper cut to my flesh wound, and so I’m just gonna discount this.” And we want to put this in context and say, “Yes, of course everything that Joanne said was right.” Right? White men are still vastly disproportionately overrepresented, say, in the Fortune 50 CEO ranks.

But at the same time, the message that we want to draw from the study is no cohort is immune from the covering demands, so don’t make assumptions. To go back to what you were saying earlier, Stephanie, you can’t just eyeball somebody and say, “Oh, all lights have turned green for you all the way down the highway of life,” right? Nobody is that privileged. We all, just as human beings, have vulnerability. And once we see that no cohort, even cis, het, straight men, are covering various aspects of our lives, this really becomes a universal project. It isn’t “us versus them.” And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s SFFA decision, I have to say, as a lawyer, we’re all looking for those universal solutions. The things that don’t pit one racial group against another racial group, or one gender against another gender, or what have you.

And I think covering really is that idea of, once we see that everyone is covering something, and therefore every cohort has an interest in the name of bringing more of their passion and their authenticity to their work, right? And this Uncovering Culture project, then— the appeal can really be universal, because it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats.

I feel really similarly about the covering by proxy notion. Which is, you could look at somebody who’s saying, “Oh, I don’t cover myself, but I don’t talk about my child, who is trans, or who was multiracial.” And you could say, “Well, that’s not a direct harm that you suffer. So I’m not really gonna listen to that. That’s not a particularly salient aspect of this analysis.”

Or we could approach it in a more openhearted way. And to say that is a form of covering. And if we acknowledge that what we’re really acknowledging is that people are allies, right? People are connected to marginalized communities that they don’t belong to themselves, and oftentimes have to make really hard decisions about how much to disclose or how not to disclose. And there’s some suffering involved in being that kind of ally.

So again, if we take the more openhearted, generous approach, this project stops being “us versus them.” It stops being, “You’re a terrible person, because you’re straight, and you’re forcing me to be straight acting as a gay man,” right? It’s not really about that. It’s, how can we make this culture better for everyone who inhabits it? Including individuals in dominant groups, and including people who are covering by proxy, even if they’re not directly covering themselves.

How Can Leaders Improve Inclusion and Diversity in the Workplace?

Creary: I think you make a very important point. And I forget who coined the term, but I often use it when I’m in an informal context — it’s the term “the oppression Olympics.” So let me know if you remember who coined this term. We often use this term to talk about marginalized groups. And sometimes it’s like, “My marginalized group is suffering more than your marginalized group.” But I started thinking about that term slightly differently, Kenji, based on what you just said — if we can recognize that an unfortunate aspect of the human experience is that a lot of people feel that they are suffering. In fact, I’m sure if you walk down the street and you ask somebody, is something challenging for them, I would venture to say that most people feel like there are some challenges that they are facing. And while we can speak about, perhaps on one level, how someone might have more advantage that we have, I’m not sure we would encounter too many people who would say, “My life is great, and it’s fine all the time. And I’m never suffering.”

And so when I think about what you’re saying, or think about the current context right now, I know so many Chief Diversity Equity Inclusion officers are struggling in their jobs right now as they’re trying to drum up support for the continued work on this space. One of the things that I hear you saying, Kenji, which is also the benefit of this covering research is that sometimes it becomes really important to help us also understand the ways in which we all are challenged in our workplaces. And to address those. And covering and uncovering, these are universal challenges and issues and opportunities that exist in our organization that can create negative impacts for all of us and for all of our organizations. And it is inherently a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging issue that affects lots of different people, no matter their intersectional, or lack thereof, experience.

So I think I’m going to take that away with me as I’m listening to people talk about the value of DEI right now, and all the legislation, and what that means. Sometimes there are issues like covering and uncovering, which we’re not addressing, that are to everyone’s benefit that we talk about more broadly. So with the last few minutes that we have, I just want to get—

Yoshino: Sorry, can I jump in on that? I think it’s an important point that you’re raising.

Creary: If you want to take us to solutions, too, Kenji, that will be great, because that’s where we’re going next.

Yoshino: Great. Absolutely. I will try to be very succinct about this. But this is one of the things that I just —  not to embarrass you, Joanne— but really learned a lot from Joanne, like the importance of keeping both sides of that tension steadily visible, and not forcing ourselves to choose in between the two of them. So on the one hand I want to say, “I don’t want to participate in the oppression Olympics.” But on the other hand, I also don’t want to treat all forms of human pain as being completely equal, and to fall into the trap of false equivalence, right?

So I don’t want to say the fact that you had to cover the fact that you’re a humanities major, when you went into the tech company, is the same thing as a Black person having to modulate their identity with regard to anti-Black prejudice, right? Those are not the same thing. So, how do we keep both notions steadily visible? That everyone covers, but also, that this tax is being exacted more heavily on some cohorts than it is on others. And framed in that way, I actually don’t think that there is a tension. I think that we can say both things. So saying, “Yes, everyone covers. This is a universal phenomenon.” But also, “Please, just in the name of our common humanity, please don’t engage in false equivalences.” Right?

And from a strategic perspective, I also think that people are much more able to hear — I think a lot of the [UNINTEL]  on the part of dominant groups— and, you know, as a man, I can speak to this, is the notion of, if you don’t recognize — if you treat me like everything has been great in my life, and like I have no forms of vulnerability whatsoever, I’m gonna bristle at that. But if you can acknowledge this universal way that we all as human beings have vulnerabilities, that’s going to open a conversation rather than close it down, and I’m much more likely to be able to hear that I may be engaging in false equivalences by treating the various kind of slings and arrows that I’ve suffered in my life is equal to somebody else’s experience.

So I think we need to keep both truths steadily visible. Everyone every cohort covers, and this tax is assessed of everyone, but it is not assessed evenly across cohorts. We have data-backed ways of saying people of color, women, LGBTQ+ individuals have much higher rates of covering in the general population. So this is something that was so such a productive conversation between our team and Deloitte’s team. And I think we landed in a really good place. I just wanted to communicate that.

Now we’ll get into solutions, which I also think, as I mentioned earlier, is really one of the kind of marquee contributions of this study. So as I said, the 2013 study, again —  and I make no apologies for this, that’s where we were at the time — was very thin on solutions. Here, we have three solutions that we are offering as a way of moving covering culture into a culture of where individuals can uncover.

The first one is diagnose. And this isn’t just identifying the phenomenon, although that’s really important. Before we had the term “unconscious bias” and hammered it into our public vocabulary, we couldn’t do anything about it. So, too, with covering. But I just wanted to say that it’s not just diagnosing, but the fact that you’re covering along four axes of appearance, affiliation, advocacy, or association — and the definitions are all in the paper. I won’t detain us here with that.

But it’s also saying if you do cover, does it hurt? Because some people are like what we imagined Margaret Thatcher to be. That’s our kind of go to example. She was forced into voice coaching to scrub her working-class accent and to lower the timbre of her voice so that she exuded more gravitas. But she never complained about it. So we can imagine a lot of people who say, “Oh, yeah. I was asked to cover, but no harm, no foul, it was just what I needed to do to get to the next level in my career, and I didn’t experience as a privation. To the contrary, I experienced it as constructive feedback.”

So if you’re covering and it’s not harmful, then, you know, you’re one of the lucky ones. No further action required, right? Even if you’re covering and it hurts, we still want you to ask the question of, is the covering demand backed by an organizational value? Oftentimes, our asks are all forms of covering. That, like, if I show up at Wharton, or I show up as at Deloitte, and I’m rabidly obnoxious, and you say “Knock it off,” and I say, “This is my authentic self, deal with that.” Right? That’s not going to get very far.

And so 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. If you come back with a neutral organizational value, the fact that you don’t want people to be obnoxious in the workplace is a kind of silly example, but you get where I’m going. Then you’re fine.

But oftentimes, what we find in our research is that people are being asked to cover in ways that would horrify the organization at a higher level of generality. So gay people are being told, “Be straight acting,” or, you know, “Don’t work on gay rights issues, if you want to be a member of this organization,” and the organization thinks of itself as pro-LGBTQ+, and it’s horrified when it’s confronted by the mismatch between the ideals it purports to live under and the ideals that it’s actually living up to.

So diagnose is that first bucket. The second bucket is to be an active ally. And this sort of draws on the general research that we noticed. This is Heckman and Johnson. This is kind of your neck of the woods, Stephanie, organizational psych, right? But this is — the allies are much more effective at intervening with regard to all issues of bias than affected parties themselves. So you’re much less likely to take a hit in terms of your reputation. You’re much more likely to be listened to if you come in as an ally rather than if you are the person directly targeted or affected. So it’s a broad-spectrum antibiotic. It works for a lot of DEI issues, but it also works for covering. So, you know, if a Latinx individual walks in late for a meeting and someone says, “Oh, I see you’re on Latino time,” then I’m going to be much more effective, as someone who doesn’t belong to that community, stepping in and saying —in a smart, hopefully effective, sensitive way — saying, “I don’t think that that was a helpful comment.” I don’t need to drag the affected person into it.

But I can say I, as someone who is invested in inclusive culture, was troubled by that comment. Could you please explain or rephrase? And I’ll be much more effective and intervening from the side as an ally than I will be as the affected person. So if we all do that for each other, we’re going to get much further, right, in combating covering demands, than if everyone who is forced to deal with the covering demands are directed at them.

And the final solution, which I have to admit is my favorite, is “share your story.” We open with stories of our own covering experiences, and what we covered as co-authors of the study. So my executive director, David Glasgow, Joanne’s colleagues Heather and Sameen [?], all write their stories. Because we thought, “We have to pony up here, and model what we’re trying to ask people.” And it’s not a huge lift. These are stories that are not “too much information” stories, but they nonetheless color outside the bounds of a traditional resume.

And so we say it’s really important when you’re introducing yourself to an internal or external audience, particularly if you’re a leader, to say something that shows your humanity beyond your traditional work credentials. And just as importantly, these kind of infinite but infinitesimal moments. It’s like, you can share in ways that are not set pieces. But offhand grace notes or comments that say, “I’m leaving work to go to my daughter’s soccer game,” rather than not giving a reason or lying about it and saying I’m leaving work to go to a client meeting or to go to my own doctor’s appointment or something that is seen to be more acceptable in a traditional workplace — it’s by pushing against those kind of daily norms that we can actually create the space, by sharing our stories, for other people to share their stories with us.

Creary: Thank you so much for those really practical tips, Kenji. Joanne, I want to close out with you — managers and non-managers. I often like to refer to, I know Deloitte does as well, non-managers as individual contributors. But can you give us a couple of tips for managers and individual contributors, as we’re thinking about the implications of what you all found in this study?

Stephane: Sure. So with regard to leaders and managers, as Kenji mentioned, our recommendation is that they create the environment or foster psychological safety where they have influence in order to enable uncovering. And a very effective way to do that is to start with your own uncovering. Or at minimum, to help others understand that it is acceptable for them to uncover, and that their identity is accepted and appreciated, and everything that comes with that.

And so workers believe that their leaders create psychological safety. Our respondents said that was about 50 percent. And they also believe that leaders actually want their authenticity. That’s at about 61 percent. I’ll say I think we can do better than that. Certainly. And, you know, when we are able to be active allies, regardless of our role, I think that that makes a significant difference.

So when I think about my experience — I’ll give an example. I was up for partner at the firm and navigating my way through that. That’s a difficult and a very big milestone. And I had a coach working with me. And he said to me that his leader, his manager, was holding him accountable for my success — or basically holding us accountable for our joint success. That was a turning point for me in our relationship, and also how I showed up, because of a couple of things. One, it signaled to me that who I was and the way I showed up was not only acceptable but valued. But also, when I sort of prodded him on it, I said, “Well, yes, she wants you to help me and all that.” He’s like, “No, no. She’s holding me accountable. So maybe you think you’re out in the middle of the lake in the rowboat, by yourself rowing? And I’m on the shore waving at you and wishing you good luck. No, we’re both in the boat. And we’re rowing together, we’re in it together.”

And my reaction was to say, “Oh, alright. Well then, I can tell you what’s really going on.” You know. Because before, I wasn’t sure. And I wasn’t sure that I was safe. But because this colleague was able to signal that it was safe to be myself and I was being accepted and valued, then I was able to uncover. For other individuals an active allyship, as Kenji mentioned — you know, standing up or showing up for others, particularly those that don’t share that particular identity — makes the most difference.

I know that you’ve seen in your work where people who, let’s say, show up or stand up for those who share an identity — we both lose credibility. But when we show up for those who are of a different identity, that makes a real difference. And so I had someone remind me the other day —  we were talking about what active allyship looks like. And he said, “You don’t have to be white to be an ally.” Which sounds obvious, of course. But what that means is that we can all be active allies to each other, regardless of our role, regardless of our level. If we show up for each other. If we make the space and we signal in obvious and subtle ways that this is acceptable, and this is valued, then that gives all of us the courage to show up and demonstrate who we really are and counteract the negative impacts of covering within the organization.

Creary: Absolutely. Great, great stuff Joanne and Kenji. This report is wonderful. I hope everyone reads it. “Uncovering Culture.” It is available everywhere, but where can people access it besides everywhere, if they want to get a copy of that? We can certainly link to it in the article that we publish. But is there a good Googleable term that we should send people to?

Stephane: Certainly Google “Uncovering Culture.” A few other things might show up. I’m not gonna lie. But the easiest way to get to it is www.deloitte.com/us/uncovering.

Creary: Excellent.

Stephane: You’ll have access to everything we have there.

Creary: Excellent. All right. It’s a good read. It’s not too academic. It has the right balance of empirics. And I think people who are in organizations, and certainly researchers like myself, who are always looking for ways to frame practical issues in academic ways, will find this beneficial as well. So I want to thank you, Kenji, and Joanne, for joining us today. Thank you for sharing your insights and your expertise with us. I truly appreciate you for being here. I know the guests, the listeners, the audience always loves the chance to hear from experts like yourself on these topics that are very real and salient to them in their daily work lives. So thank you to the audience for joining us and for listening to this episode of the Knowledge at Wharton Leading Diversity at Work podcast series. Goodbye for now.

Yoshino: Thank you so much, Stephanie.

Stephane: Thanks for having us.