Several years ago, I met someone who told me that she changed her voice at work when speaking to clients. Although she was a proud HBCU alumnus, she found she was taken more seriously when she “sounded white” on the phone. She used her mental energy to modify her speaking style while also solving the client’s problem.
She’s not alone in the workplace or society in general. Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, argues that society imposes assimilation. Workplace policies may prohibit certain hairstyles or religious objects. Gay couples may be admonished for public displays of affection while heterosexual couples are overlooked for the same behavior. In a Deloitte survey of 3,129 people, 61% reported hiding or downplaying an aspect of their individuality at work to adhere to social norms. This behavior was usually reported among historically underrepresented groups, such as African-Americans (79%), Latinos (63%), LGB (83%), and women (66%). (Yoshino & Smith, pg. 5)
To do otherwise might bring negative attention. So, they “cover” to avoid feeling stigmatized by others because of a personal aspect.
Introduced by sociologist Erving Goffman, covering is the concept of consciously changing the impression one is making to hide an outsider identity. An individual may have a visible or invisible stigma. For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was careful to conceal his use of a wheelchair from the public eye. Both examples show someone trying to pass as a different person.
Professor Yoshino claims that covering appears across four dimensions:
Individuals feel social pressure to conform or risk professional advancement, despite a firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Over 60% of respondents in the Deloitte study stated that covering was somewhat to extremely detrimental to their sense of self. The very cultures lauded by diversity efforts are the ones feeling most marginalized. Most respondents stated that their leaders expect them to cover. (Yoshino & Smith, pg. 11-12)
Some might argue that covering is a necessary component of assimilating to organizational culture. The service industry is a prime example. Flight attendants, movie theater employees, and fast food workers all have specific guidelines on appearance. They thus “surrender some degree of individual expression in the name of common expression”. (Yoshino & Smith, pg. 14)
How, then, can firms identify and promote desired demands for covering and weed out undesired ones? Yoshino and Smith suggest aligning expectations to the organization’s values. For example, a company could declare that political expression is not a shared value and may encourage covering in that area for improved group cohesion.
The vast majority of companies claim that inclusion is a core value, but some employees may feel the organization isn’t living up to this ideal. It is the onus of leadership to reflect on the organization’s principles, review norms against these values, and make corrections as necessary. For instance, if inclusion is a core principle, senior leadership should reflect on its level of diversity, identify instances of covering, and conduct root cause analysis to correct the source of the unfounded expectation to cover.
Yoshino, K., & Smith, C., PhD. (2013). Uncovering talent: A new model of inclusion. Retrieved March 7, 2018, from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/about-deloitte/us-inclusion-uncovering-talent-paper.pdf
Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Retrieved March 7, 2018, from https://archive.org/details/erving-goffman-stigma-notes-on-the-management-of-spoiled-identity
Greg Reger is a Senior Associate who connects the dots between data, processes, and people to enhance public services. He has dedicated his career to make government work better.