When Workers 'Cover,' Employers May Be Missing Out on Their Best Attributes

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By Caryn Freeman    

July 15 --Employees don't always feel like they can express their true selves at work, which can lead to lower productivity and higher turnover, according to workplace diversity and inclusion professionals interviewed by Bloomberg BNA.

Laura Stack, author of the book “Execution is the Strategy” and CEO of ProductivityPro, told Bloomberg BNA July 11 that when employees feel they have to “cover” aspects of themselves, they are often less inclined to share their opinion, which can lead to a lack of trust and can impede productivity.

“Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion,” a recent survey from the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, highlights how employees often cover aspects of themselves they feel might hinder opportunities for acceptance and advancement in their organization. It gives examples, such as a woman avoiding talking about being a mother because she does not want her colleagues to think she is less committed to her work; a black woman straightening her hair to de-emphasize her race; a veteran refraining from challenging a joke about the military, lest she be seen as overly strident; or a gay person refraining from bringing his same-sex partner to a work function so as not to be seen as “too gay.”

“All of these adjustments in behavior that we make impact productivity because they take away from our energy and our ability to bring our best selves to work,” Stack said. “The risk of this is now we've lost that authentic person in the workplace.”

From Fitting in to Acceptance

Stack said that as the workplace becomes more diverse, employers will need to identify the processes involved in covering, raise consciousness about it and allow people to bring their best selves to work.

“First of all, employers have to name it,” she said. “You have to communicate with people that this is something that we have discovered is an issue, it's something that we feel will benefit the organization as a whole if we draw it out and we want to talk about it and provide education.”

Stack said if organizations can shift the need of employees to fit in to an effort by employees to be accepted for who they are, they will see a boost in productivity. But currently, she said, “clearly that's not happening.”

“What if [employers] could raise productivity by 10 percent just by allowing people to be more authentically themselves in the workplace,” Stack said. “We'd have a better diversity of opinions, we'd have people bringing their real thoughts and experiences to the table and we wouldn't have people spending time purposely acting in ways that are not normal for them.”

Tyronne Stoudemire, principal of diversity and inclusion at consulting firm Mercer's Chicago office, told Bloomberg BNA July 11 that employers hurt themselves when they “don't understand what people value the most or are telling them to throw away what they value the most when they come to work.”

Half of Employees Hide Aspects of Themselves

The Deloitte survey found that many employees feel they have to manage aspects of their identity in a way that the dominant group would not have to, and that covering negatively impacts an employee's sense of self and diminishes his or her commitment to the employer.

Just over half (53 percent) of surveyed employees stated that their supervisors expect them to cover, and half (50 percent) said this expectation has “somewhat” to “extremely” affected their sense of commitment to the organization. The online, anonymous survey featured 3,129 respondents representing a variety of industries.

“None of us want to work our identities alongside our jobs; we all want to bring our whole selves to work,” Kenji Yoshino, professor of law at New York University and the study's co-author, told Bloomberg BNA July 9.

The survey found that employees who cover include relatively high numbers of lesbian, gay and bi-sexual individuals; blacks; women; and Hispanics. More surprisingly, it also found that 45 percent of straight white men reported covering at work.

“The survey is an attempt, through its anonymity and various other safeguards, to close the gap between information that employees cover and the information that organizations need [in order] to do something about it,” Yoshino said.

Christie Smith, national managing principal for the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion and co-author of the report, told Bloomberg BNA July 15 that the research draws a line directly to the issues of inclusion, corporate accountability, leadership accountability and values accountability.

She said company leaders play a big role in helping employees reveal more about themselves.

“Individuals want leaders to come to work and share who they are, not what they are,” Smith said. “They want their leaders to talk about how they were brought up and what issues they may have encountered. They want to hear the human side of leadership, and they want that demonstrated in their organization because that allows them to feel safe bringing their whole self to work.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Caryn Freeman in Washington at cfreeman@bna.com  

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bna.com

The Deloitte report is at http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/us_LLC_Deloitte_UncoveringTalent_121713.pdf.